NEW JERSEY’S NICKNAME OF THE GARDEN STATE IS WELL EARNED, with its legendary tomatoes, sweet corn and abundance of farm stands. But if there was ever a need to change its state moniker, Jersey could go with the Diner State. New Jersey has more diners than any other state, and while the word “diner” brings to mind a place for breakfast, quick dinners or a late-night meal, that’s now changing.
“I think diners of the ’80s and ’90s were very much about serving simple favorites with a familiarity between the customer and the waitress,” says Constantine Katsifis, owner of the Americana Diner in East Windsor. “It was an unpretentious approach to dining with reasonably good food.”
Not that the neighborhood diner has gone formal, but things have changed. “The casual dining market that we had got split up between 50 different franchises,” Katsifis says. “So diners had to differentiate themselves, and some have done a great job by focusing on price points, and others have done it by offering meeting and events space and culinaryforward menus. It’s evolving.”
More and more diners are serving meals beyond the usual burger or omelet, and they’re cooking with fresh, local ingredients and offering trendy cocktails and extensive wine lists.
A Place to Meet
Diners also are hosting meetings and events. With their cost-friendliness and variety of food offerings, they make for ideal places for corporate meetings and social events. Katsifis describes the Americana as a “culinary-forward” restaurant.
“What we do is high-level cooking at the Americana,” he says. “We do things farm-to-table and we put a lot of thought into our food presentation and the ingredients that we buy. That’s how we run our restaurant and that philosophy follows through with our catering and banquets.”
The Americana also hosts a lot of meetings, which not only serves as a source of revenue, but Katsifis says also builds business by introducing new customers to the restaurant. While the Americana does not have a private space, there are semiprivate spaces for rent for up to 50.
“We do a lot of holiday parties in our cocktail lounge,” he says. “We do many breakfast meetings at the restaurant. We are the home of the local BNI group. Local real estate companies meet frequently with us. It’s because they want to have something better in terms of food quality with a full-service experience.”
The Americana also offers audio-visual equipment, Wi-Fi and public address equipment for meetings and presentations.
Renovating for Meetings
Mastoris in Bordentown is a legendary spot, known for its big portions and the cheese bread and sweet bread it serves guests as they take their seats. It’s also a place for meetings, with three private rooms of different sizes
“We have brand-new space that we just redid,” says owner Alex Mastoris. “We don’t have fancy audio-visual. Mine is mainly a meeting place for people who are having a small meeting and a luncheon or dinner. I’m not like a Marriott that has all of the fancy audio-visual equipment for meetings. But we do have the facility; it’s a beautiful facility.”
That remodeled space is a banquet room that can hold up to 180 people. Two other private rooms can accommodate 80 and 60 in the lounge. “We do a lot of organizations like McGraw-Hill, Public Service Electric and Gas and a lot of different corporate events,” Mastoris says. “And of course we do a lot of parties.” Mastoris says meetings and parties are an important part of his restaurant’s business. Mastoris also has an in-house bakery that can prepare cakes, cookies, pies and other treats.
In addition to its food and spaces, Mastoris says his diner’s location is a key to its success. “The location is phenomenal,” he says. “We’re the most central restaurant around; we’re right on 206 and 130, and right where the New Jersey Turnpike, 295 and 195 all join within a couple of miles, so we’re the easiest place to get to. And of course the food is phenomenal, great portions and that’s why we do a lot of business.”
A Classic Diner and More
Skylark Diner in Edison still prides itself as a classic family diner while also offering a little more. It has received rave reviews from The Star-Ledger and The New York Times. It’s also been featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
“We’re more of a hybrid diner, where we do serve breakfast, burgers and everything you would want from a diner, but we also have bistro-quality entrees,” says Jeff McNamara, managing partner. “Pretty much anything you want, we’d make it for you if we have it in-house. All of our ingredients are fresh, we don’t have frozen meats or seafood (or anything frozen) and everything is cooked to order.” Skylark also offers house-made desserts, freshly baked bread, a lounge with a full bar, cocktails and an extensive wine list.
Meetings and events are another growing area of Skylark’s business. Recently, the diner hosted a pharmaceutical networking group for an event where about 80 people were in the lounge area with a cashbar setup. This group arranged a sponsor that paid for the food, and Skylark worked with the sponsor to determine what food to prepare.
McNamara says Skylark has hosted many kinds of celebrations and holiday parties. For example, a Lexus dealership near the diner hosted its holiday party there, with about 93 people renting out a portion of the lounge area. Food can be served buffet style or by the wait staff. Private functions are also an option, and the entire diner can be rented out for 300.
Skylark can accommodate five to 50 people seated for meetings. On Tuesdays, a group of young business professionals holds a meeting there, with food offerings of coffee and juices, pastries and spreads such as flavored cream cheese and marmalades. This meeting starts at 6:45 a.m., 15 minutes before Skylark opens, and everything is set up in the lounge area upon the group’s arrival.
A local chapter of AARP also holds breakfast meetings there, again offering beverages and pastries. Skylark charges on a per-person basis for both of these meetings, and also offers free Wi-Fi.