Diner fans from around the country convened in southern New Jersey on September 17, for a dawn-to-dusk bus tour of nearly 20 diners and other roadside attractions in the region.
The tour started with a hearty breakfast at the Elgin Diner in Camden, NJ, a pristine Kullman from 1958. Participants later threw back coffee at the Club Diner in Bellmawr, enjoyed a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches and BLTs at the postmodern retro-remodeled Geet’s Diner in Williamstown, and made snack stops at the 54 Diner in Buena Vista (pie) and the Olympia Dairy Bar in Carneys Point (milkshakes). Finally, the group feasted on fried clams, roast turkey, and meatloaf at the 1955 Salem Oak Diner, followed by cake at the nearby 1958 Deepwater Diner.
But the trip wasn’t only about eating all that delicious diner food—it was also about the opportunity to experience and celebrate America’s roadside history. The passion to explore fascinating old roads, delectable diner meals, and offbeat roadside attractions is at the heart of the SCA’s mission. SCA members come from a wide variety of backgrounds and include architects, historians, artists, collectors, teachers, archivists, writers, planners, motel owners, and diner operators.
The tour was led by geographer Kevin Patrick, professor of geography and regional planning at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and author of Diners of New Jersey. He is also the author of Diners of Pennsylvania (with Brian Butko and Kyle R. Weaver) and of Pennsylvania Caves and Other Rocky Roadside Wonders. Patrick spoke about Jersey diners at a reception for tour participants the night before the big excursion. Members of Preservation New Jersey also participated in the event.
“No place on earth has a greater concentration of diners than this part of the country, where the factory-made, prefabricated diners were manufactured” says Patrick. Although related to the ‘lunch wagons’ of 19th-century New England, the diner “really came into its own,” says Patrick, when a group of diner factories—with names like Kullman, Silk City, Swingle, Mountain View, and O’Mahony—opened in the vicinity of New York City in the early 20th century. Operating inNew Jersey over the course of a century, these companies scattered hundreds of diners throughout the northeastern United States and beyond.
Patrick notes, “The concept of a diner may be universal, but the genuine article itself, a restaurant with counter and booth service built in a plant and trucked to its site of operation, is a total Jersey thing.” Today, the Garden State is home to more than 400 diners, and South Jersey includes a representative sampling of diners of different ages, makes, and styles, which will be spotlighted on the tour. These include the classic stainless steel diners of the 1950s, such as the Elgin and Salem Oak, the stone-faced, Mediterranean-styled Collingswood and Brooklawn diners, and the giant Jersey retro-diners like Geets, which represent a contemporary reinterpretation of the classic mid-20th century diner.
Between diner stops, the tour visited other local roadside attractions, such as the Cookie Jar House of Glendora, the Miss Uniroyal fiberglass giant at Werbany’s Tire Town, and the half-built re-creation of Vineland’s Palace of Depression. Built by eccentric George Daynor in 1932 out of old car bodies, junk, and mortar, the original “Palace” fell victim to vandalism and neglect, and was razed by the city of Vineland in 1969. Today, the non-profit Palace of Depression Reconstruction Project is ambitiously rebuilding it.
Relive the experience by downloading the tour guide!