Sunday, October 8, 2017

I saw the harbor lights

Here's a fun fact: When the Food Network conceived the show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and offered hosting duties to Guy Fieri, they had to explain what exactly a diner was to the boorish, peroxide-blonde celebrity chef. He just could not grasp the concept, despite being a "restaurateur"* for over twenty years.

However, anyone who grew up on the East Coast — specifically in close proximity to New Jersey — is very familiar with diners and all they have to offer. Poor, derided New Jersey is home to the largest collection of diners in the world — a claim that is completely understandable. A drive through any small town (Jersey has a lot of them) will reveal scenery regularly dotted with gleaming chrome eateries. Diner menus are renowned for their encyclopedic proportions, offering page after laminated page of every possible configuration of meal from hearty breakfasts to full-course dinners (with soup or salad, choice of two vegetables and Jell-o or rice pudding for dessert) to late-night snacks. Even those watching their weight need not worry, as diners notoriously offer "lo-cal" versions of popular dishes. Diner owners seem to think that a hamburger served with peaches and cottage cheese constitutes suitable diet fare. Every diner offers pretty much the same, abundant selection and the same quality food. Not great, but somehow, comforting. After all, it's kind of difficult to screw up eggs or a tuna melt.

I have always loved eating in diners. They are a fascinating time capsule, a place where eras from the past remain a part of the present. What is really fascinating  is that, no matter where they are located, they are all pretty much the same. Same set up. Same decor, Same wait staff. You know what i mean. That teased-haired woman with the doily on her head and too much rouge on her cheeks, her voice roughened by years of cigarette smoke, her vocabulary peppered with lots of "hon"s and "sweetie"s and "not a problem"s. My dad's favorite diner was The Heritage, a place just a few blocks from our house. Our family ate there often. My dad ate breakfast there every weekday morning for decades, and after my mom died, he ate every meal there. The Heritage had a waitress that fit that description. As a matter of fact, all of their waitresses fit that description.

This past summer, Mrs. Pincus and I took regular drives to and from Atlantic City. Sometimes, we went to spend a day on the beach. Sometimes, we went to take care of other obligations. One evening, we were driving back home to Philadelphia. As we drove, we discussed our options for dinner. Growing weary of pizza and sandwiches from Wawa (we love 'em, but...), we decided to stop at one of the many diners that we usually pass on our routine transversing of Route 30. The narrow, mostly two-lane, highway that is Route 30 snakes through many small towns — Pomona, Absecon, Egg Harbor City, Chesilhurst, Elwood, Hammonton — in Southern New Jersey. For a lot of these tiny burgs, the only place to eat is a diner. Just ahead of us, between a church and an Auto Zone, we spotted the soft glowing neon of the Harbor Diner. But this time, we stopped.

There's a light....
The Harbor Diner is pretty unspectacular. It's chrome-clad exterior is similar to a thousand other diners on Route 30 and throughout South Jersey. Inside, the faux leather booths, silver-flecked Formica counter and other characteristics were, again, as nondescript as any other establishment in its category. A young lady grabbed two hefty menus and directed us to a booth along the front of the narrow building. We scanned the numerous offerings for something that did not include meat. On most diner menus, the vegetarian-friendly options are plentiful. I decided on an entree from the typewritten dinner menu that was attached with a clip to the pre-printed menu, expanding the selections by at least 30. The waitress — another young lady who bore all the signs of evolving into the waitress I described earlier — deposited glasses of water on our table and asked if we were ready to order. My wife ordered a lettuce and tomato club sandwich, an assemblage that sometimes requires a bit of explanation and garners strange looks when it is made clear that no bacon is to be included. However, our waitress scribbled the order on a pad without so much as a blink. I ordered grilled salmon and was promptly informed that salmon was not available. I settled, instead, for fried flounder, a diner staple and a point of misty reference from my youth. I ordered fried flounder at The Heritage Diner more times that I can remember. A short time later, our food arrived. It was typical diner food and it was good. Really good. Afterwards, Mrs. P got rice pudding to take home.

A week or so later, we stopped at the Harbor Diner. This time we were with our son and his girlfriend, returning from a relaxing day on the Atlantic City beach. Our family was greeted by the staff of the Harbor Diner as though we  were regulars. We ordered and we all enjoyed our choices. It was a good meal, nothing spectacular or exotic. Just good food at ridiculously cheap prices.

Cluck and Z with Murphy on the side
A few weeks went by and, once again, Mrs. P and I found ourselves at the Harbor Diner. This time it was late, nearly 11 PM. We looked over the menu and decided to have breakfast nine hours early. Mrs. Pincus ordered sunny-side up eggs, toast and home fried potatoes. Strangely, the preparation of the eggs required a bit of additional explanation. The waitress asked if my wife if she wanted her sunny-side up eggs "over easy." My wife smiled and clarified, "No, sunny-side up." The waitress nodded without further expression and jotted something down on her little pad. I ordered a mushroom-cheese omelette and its standard accompaniments. When our food was brought out, I promptly took a picture of my classic-looking platter and posted the result on Instagram. Google Maps, into which I am automatically logged on, asked If I wished to post my photo to the gallery created for the Harbor Diner. I happily accepted, uploaded my photo and then dug into my late dinner/early breakfast.

A few days later, I got an alert from Google. Someone had a question for me about the Harbor Diner, based on the photo I posted, no doubt. I clicked the notice and this eloquent, astute dissertation popped up:

I read it. And reread it. And reread it again. Technically, it wan't a question. Obviously, this fellow was disappointed with his visit to our newly discovered. eatery. Even after several run-throughs, I was still confused by this poor customer's sentiment. His anger seemed to have totally obliterated his ability to use punctuation, save for a set of misplaced ellipses. That aside, I sort of surmised that he saw a young lady (presumably a waitress, although he does not make that clear) smoking in the "ketchen," which I understand to be the area where the food is prepared and not the late creator of the popular.Dennis the Menace comic strip. His food was "diff" and "cold," which, unless it was ice cream or gazpacho (which I do not believe they offer), is unacceptable. Actually, I'm not sure was is acceptable, as far as "diff" is concerned. He concludes by saying that he is paying for this kind of service and he would go there "agian" (sic).

I was saddened by Mr Google "M"s convoluted rant cum complaint about the Harbor Diner. I cannot speak for Mr. "M," (actually he can barely speak for himself), but I know that I will happily return to the Harbor Diner, if given the opportunity. 

Perhaps next summer. Perhaps next week.


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