And of course, no trip to New Jersey would be complete without a trip to a diner. But since my parents had moved to a new neighborhood, we had to find someplace new. At about 5 or 6 blocks away, the Arena Diner in Hackensack is the closest. Fortunately, it’s also pretty good. We ended up eating there three times in as many days.
The first time we went to the Arena Diner was on accident. After flying into EWR, my wife and I accidentally had an hour to kill before we met up with my parents, so we happened to stumble upon this 24 hour place. When you get inside, you are greeted by an old Galaga/Pac Man arcade cabinet, a harbinger of the decor to come.
Arena Diner is the restaurant that time forgot. The owner, who I think lives in my parents’ building, has a long, blonde and grey pony tail. And if it weren’t statutorily prohibited, I’m pretty sure the entire staff would be smoking where they stood, waiting for customers from behind a waist-high dessert case full of cakes and Greek desserts.
There’s two huge sections at Arena Diner. The main section looks like like any other diner that was last redecorated in the 70s. Lot’s of weird neon earth tones. Vinyl and linoleum everything. For dinner on our first night in New Jersey, we were seated in one of these booths.
We were offered coffee by a particularly large woman who was breathing heavy after the short walk to over to our table. Even though it was late, getting offered coffee is rather normal and comforting at a New Jersey diner, although this time, I think I opted for water. Travelling always makes me thirsty.
My wife ordered a burger, but that is likely because she is from the midwest. In the midwest, diner = greasy spoon = good burgers. In New Jersey, diner = breakfast/Jewish food = mediocre burgers. I ordered a reuben. And it was good.
The next morning, we came back with my parents for breakfast. This time, we were seated in the side room at Arena Diner. It was particularly hot that morning, and I think the side room gets better AC. The room was covered in mirrors and chrome, like a kitchen-of-tomorrow exhibit from the 60s.
For breakfast, I had a broccoli and cheese omelet, which is what I always get. This time, I also had coffee, which is a whole different kind of coffee than the kind I usually drink in Chicago.
For the third meal, my parents’, my wife, and I went to Arena Diner for breakfast again. This time, I ordered two eggs with turkey sausage. My wife had ordered it the day before and hated it because it tasted like kielbasa. It was a dense piece of meat that was tightly overpacked into a casing. It was for these reasons precisely that I thought it was so good.
And when they cooked it, they gave it three or four deep slices so it curled up in a gnarly and appetizing way.
Arena Diner, like all good New Jersey diners, is serviceable. None of them are particularly excellent. None of them are going to ever get featured on Food Network. But that is part of their charm. It is simple food done in a simple way. These are restaurants that time forgets. And it is that steadfastness in the face of change that makes them so wonderful, even if you’ve never been there before this last weekend.
It is no wonder that tourists who try and dip their toe into the New Jersey diner experience find the whole thing underwhelming. It is by going to the same diners over and over again with the same people for the same food that makes the experience. I am glad that my parents have a decent diner near their new home. I look forward to going to Arena Diner frequently with them.