2018 Wrap-Up

Now that we’ve finished our inaugural year (calendar year, that is—this blog began in May), what better time to look back, take account, and reminisce on the joys (State Line, Northvale), sorrows (Land and Sea, Empress), and oddities (Orange Top) that we’ve encountered along the way. Here are our favorites in each category, with links to each review and, in the food categories, each mouth-watering picture.



Main Dish

State Line Diner (Buffalo chicken sandwich)
Honorable mention: Candlewyck Diner (buttermilk-brined fried chicken sandwich), Tenafly Classic Diner (braised beef short rib sliders), Parkway Diner (firehouse panini), State Street Grill (State Street’s sloppy joe)

Every time I look back at that first, fateful picture of my entrée at the State Line Diner, I drool a little. Not as much as our dog (hi Douglas) drools when I so much as glance at his treat jar, but just a little. It’s the sauce, man. I don’t know why restaurants of all stripes—and particularly diners—struggle so much with Buffalo sauce, but so often it’s just red-colored vinegar. But no, not State Line. They have self-respect, as well as a head chef imported directly from the Buffalo Culinary Institute. (That’s probably not true, or even an actual place. If it is, what a dreary place it must be.) The chicken here was perfect, it was breaded perfectly, the roll was perfect, and the sauce was the best I’ve had in any context. Throw in the leaf lettuce (none of this grungy nonsense that’s cooked into the sandwich or wrap so that it’s hot and slimy when it arrives at the table) and some blue cheese on the side. We’ll return to State Line again, no doubt about it, and it will be a real test of will for me to order something different for a change.

Honorable mentions to some fine offerings at Candlewyck (chicken sandwich with an interesting crunchy slaw), Tenafly (simple, high-quality bar food), Parkway (a spicy sandwich that had no business being as delicious as it was), and State Street (where “sloppy joe” can mean whatever the hell they want it to mean, apparently—as long as it is tasty).

Main Dish

Northvale Classic Diner (NYC burger), Tenafly Classic Diner (Big Kahuna burger)

Northvale Classic Diner and Tenafly Classic Diner provided me with the two best main dishes of 2018. Neither of them deserve the title “runner-up” because they’re both incredible in their own way. It all depends on what you’re feeling that day.

Take a minute and have a look at this burger again. In my life, I have yet to experience the intense and immediate love of having a child, but I imagine it’s a less extreme version of the feelings that overcame me when I first saw this burger. I would die for this burger. I’d do anything for this beautiful sandwich. [*Editor’s note: Bud, we should have a baby].

This diner was only our second entry on the blog, so it was still very early on in our journey. Because it was so early, I had yet to experience the amazing combination of mozzarella on a burger at this point, so I kept the Swiss. The NYC burger was positively drenched in melted Swiss cheese and topped with a mountain of sautéed onions and mushrooms. Everything was seasoned perfectly. Everything was proportioned perfectly (read: much more than necessary). Between this burger and the spiced apple tart (more on that later) that came after, I feel like we set the bar too high too early in our journey with Northvale Classic Diner.

Now, Tenafly Classic Diner’s “Big Kahuna Burger” really was a game changer for me. I thought I’d known everything there is to know about Hawaiian cuisine because I’ve watched Moana twice, but I was wrong! This burger was sweet and savory. It had all the classics—patty, tomato, lettuce, but then popped in with the Shyamalan twist: General Tso sauce and big hunkin’ pineapple chunks. If you’re like Buddy and don’t believe in mixing fruits with your meats, then stay away—we don’t want your type around here. But if you’re not like Buddy and enjoy a delicious but unusual combination, you’ve got to try this NOW.


Candlewyck Diner (pic)
Honorable mention: Chit Chat Diner (pic), Gotham City Diner (pic)

My choices in this category largely came down to a scavenger hunt through our archives for the crispiest shoestrings I could find. At the end of the day, though, it was Candlewyck. In fact, these weren’t crunchy shoestrings at all. Candlewyck served a thin-ish, soft-ish fry that, despite my initial reluctance, was just out of this world. I made the comparison to Five Guys fries (I speak for Dan too when I say this is the gold standard), so it must’ve been great.

The runners-up at Chit Chat and Gotham City had the good stuff, though: crunchy, thin fries. If Five Guys is number 1, McDonald’s is 1-A (yeah I know I have very sophisticated culinary taste), and thin and crunchy is the way to go.


Candlewyck Diner (pic)

Candlewyck diner. No competition.

I am so shocked that Bud and I both came to this conclusion while having such different taste in fries. That must really speak to that quality of these potato delights.

These fries were so good that nothing even came close enough for me to humor another as a runner up. What did it for me was the rustic style in which they were prepared (with the skin still showing on some pieces). It was so delicious and UNIQUE. I have yet to find another diner serve fries in this style, which is a shame because everyone should try their best to be as Five Guys as possible.


Northvale Classic Diner (spiced apple tart)
Honorable mention: Arena Diner (brownie ice cream sundae), Eveready Diner (brownie cheesecake pie), State Street Grill (caramel apple cheesecake)

Dan and I often reminisce about this dessert, to the point that I remember it now more for the legend it created in our minds than for the actual experience, which I barely recall. I had to go back and read my previous review and look at the picture—and now I understand. After doing this for several months, a recurring theme has been stinginess with the critical dairy component of a dessert (i.e., ice cream and/or whipped cream), but Northvale wasn’t having any of that. Look at the size of that scoop of ice cream! On top of a perfect pastry, it’s still the reigning champion in my mind.

Arena gets a mention for the best brownie sundae we’ve yet experienced (and that’s a pretty crowded competition), combining a remarkably fudgey brownie with a comically overloaded spray of whipped cream. Eveready’s brownie cheesecake pie was a sublime combination of some of our favorite categories (cheesecake, brownie, interesting crust). Nutley nudges to the front of the line too, not only on the strength of its caramel apple cheesecake—glorious with its creamy vanilla ice cream and streaks of caramel sauce—but also its reputation for other fine desserts. Tell them about the brownie sundae you always talk about, Dan. Go ahead, do it.


Northvale Classic Diner (spiced apple tart)
Honorable mention: Eveready Diner (brownie cheesecake pie)

This was the hardest category for me to write. Not because I couldn’t choose the winner, but because I don’t know how to properly express the love I have for my top two desserts. I’ll try not to go overboard with my superlatives, but here it goes!

Hands down, no doubt undisputed winner for best dessert goes to spiced apple tart at Northvale Classic Diner. When I reminisce about some of the best moments in my life, this dessert is nestled below adopting our Chief Editor, Douglas, and above meeting Buddy and the few and fleeting cherished memories shared with my father before he was unceremoniously taken away from this earthly realm. It’s an incredible dessert. Blew the rest out of the water—well, almost, if not for our runner up!

Brownie cheesecake pie at Eveready was simultaneously the top cheesecake AND pie of 2018. This cheesecake’s crust was PIE CRUST! It was coated in a FONDANT topping! The cheesecake center was RIDICULOUSLY CREAMY. It’s something that truly needs to be experienced in person because no words can describe how delicious it is.


Arena Diner
Honorable mention: Pilgrim Diner, New Heritage Diner, Candlewyck Diner

Service has probably been the category that has divided me and Dan the most, considering her affection for banter and my desire for precision and efficiency. If I had to put a face to our respective Platonic ideals of a diner waiter, Dan wants a charismatic Italian playboy with a tiny espresso cup and I want a humorless German auto designer with tiny spectacles. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Where we might agree, though (I don’t yet know Dan’s choices) is that John at the Arena Diner was our guy. Just a real piece of humanity. The ideal match of humor and kindness with expertise at the waitering craft. (Incidentally, since we visited Arena back in August 2018, it shut down for good. I trust that John was recruited immediately by some other diner for big bucks, like a superstar quarterback who just finished his rookie contract.)

Tom at Pilgrim had a lot of the same traits, with some interesting stories to boot. Maryann at New Heritage was a classic friendly diner waitress. Waitress Whose Name I Missed at Candlewyck shares her honor with the host, both of them very friendly and competent.


Pilgrim Diner
Honorable mention: New Heritage Diner

Sorry Bud, but Tom at Pilgrim was no honorable mention for me, but the gold-star standard. I’ll be honest, when I first saw Tom I said to Bud, “this guy is going to shank us with a butter knife.” That’s a lie, I didn’t say that, but I sure did THINK it. Underneath that tough-guy demeanor was the sweetest, most attentive waiter I’ve had the pleasure of sharing my dining experience with. I had never met a waiter, or even a service employee of any other sort, who took as much pride as Tom did in his job and his place of work. He loved what he did and who he did it for. He spoke about Pilgrim Diner the way a squire would talk about the knight who took him under his wing. It was beautiful.

Runner up: New Heritage. Maryann was the epitome of sweet diner waitress. She dropped the terms “dear” and “honey” like they were hot potatoes and I loved it. What’s ever sweeter is that she remembered Buddy’s dad and spoke to him like an old friend, which is the sweetest thing.


Pilgrim Diner
Honorable mention: Arena Diner, State Street Grill

Maybe counterintuitively, value is tough to quantify: sure it’s just dollars and cents, but you need to find a fair scale where a bump in quality might justify a small premium. Luckily, I don’t have that problem here, because Pilgrim was an all-around superstar plus remarkably low prices—and not just low for the quality of food and service, but low in absolute terms. A chicken wrap with fries for under $10. Killer.

The same goes for Arena: though the price for my main dish was more than 50 percent higher than at Pilgrim ($15.95), that included fish, soup, salad, vegetable, potato, and dessert. I can see why you went out of business, Arena. Honorable mention also to State Street, with had much more middle-of-the-road prices but a noticeable advantage in quality, which is a good value in my book.


Pilgrim Diner
Honorable mention: State Line Diner

Pilgrim Diner comes out on top again. These prices were startlingly (almost suspiciously) low, but there was no dip in quality. You can tell they’re doing something right because this diner has been around for a WHILE and still manages to stay afloat serving excellent quality food at these prices. I got a crazy huge burger with all sorts of toppings there for $9.25! Free refills. The works! This diner proves that if you treat your customers right and serve good food at reasonable prices, they’ll keep coming, and so will the profits (sorry Arena Diner, too soon?).

Honorable mention goes to State Line Diner. This diner could easily raise their prices with not a peep from their clients (they’ve got that Ramsey money $$), but they keep it competitively inexpensive. Surprisingly inexpensive, even. I may be wrong, but State Line had the most inexpensive (and one of the most delicious) desserts we’ve had to date. *Edit: I just found out the cheesecake at Elmwood Park was $0.05 cheaper.


Eveready Diner
Honorable mention: Saddle Brook Diner, Candlewyck Diner

To choose my winner in this category, I posed myself the question, If you were a location scout for a movie production about a diner, where would you choose? I want something iconic that is just unmistakably a diner, not a nondescript “restaurant” with a counter up front.

Well, that’s Eveready. It can virtually be illustrated next to the word “diner” in a dictionary (nice cliché Bud), but at the same time, it’s so much more than that. Such perfect details, so clean and neat, the right lighting and noise level and colors and typefaces. Truly the most Magical Place on Earth (Disney World later stole that trademark).

Saddle Brook is another example of the “geez, ok, I get it, you’re a diner” style, with a hot rod on the front cover of the menu. Candlewyck is something different and modern—but whatever it is, I liked it.


Saddle Brook Diner, Eveready Diner

Though I appreciate Bud’s criteria for making this selection, my selection process was a little different. “Dan,” I said to myself, “if Guy Fieri were a place, what would he look like?” The answer came down to two diners, Saddle Brook Diner and Eveready Diner. No winner and no runner up for this category; for me, it’s a hard tie. Both of these diners strategically utilized their neon light fixtures perfectly. Whether they had a mural of a Cadillac busting through a brick wall, or some statue of a giant cartoonish man holding a cup of coffee, these places really pulled out all the stops.

If one of my cousins came from Italy and said “take me to the most American place you’ve got,” I’d say “GO BACK HOME I HATE YOU.” But if anyone else asked the same question, it’d be one of these two places, no question.


Eveready Diner
Honorable mention: State Line Diner, State Street Grill

I want to say this was a hard choice and that this post is somewhat delayed from the New Year because I’ve spent the last week trying to make my final decision, but that would just be a lie. I hate so much to say it, but a non-Jersey diner takes first marks of 2018 in my book. Eveready has no deficiencies at all, other than perhaps marginal (but still acceptable) service—and that could easily have been a one-off thing. Maybe it’s part nostalgia, considering that Eveready was my local college diner, but I had such a joyous time here when we visited, and I really want to find an excuse to get back.

State Line was our very first blog post, and it’s distinguished itself nicely even after we tested some two-dozen challengers. For basic, no-frills diner food, it’s still near the top. State Street is the opposite in a lot of ways—it’s the last one we visited, in fact, and its style and flavor are much more…insistent. But for a less-traditional option, it’s spectacular.


State Street Grill
Honorable mention: State Line Diner, Saddle Brook Diner

Overall, I’d say the winner is YOU, OUR READERS! We’d be nowhere without you loyal fans and would have no choice but to sit in our dark living room, rating fries to one another.

Real talk though, I have to say my hands-down favorite diner of 2018 is State Street Grill. They may not have won any of the above categories, but they don’t do just one thing worthy of five burgers. The whole Diner is a five-burger experience. From the great food and service, spectacular desserts, and lively and fun ambiance, this is my go-to place.

There were several diners that came close, like State Line and Saddle Brook Diner. I’d say they were runners up, but I feel like State Street is unparalleled to any diners we have visited in the Year of our Lord 2018.


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