Monday, February 1, 2016

The Skylark Diner: A New Spin on an Old Favorite

by Shari Randall

When I say “the Jersey Turnpike,” what do you think of? Traffic? Traffic jams? Jokes about what exit you’re from?

I think of diners.

Some of my all-time favorite meals have been eaten at diners. Yes, I love fine dining, white tablecloths and all, but some of my favorite food memories are from diners. Midnight pancakes at Norm’s by the bridge in Groton, CT. Guida’s crunchy, mustardy hot dogs on the road into Meriden, CT.  The pastrami at the Club Diner in Bellmawr, NJ (exit 3)(though I still haven’t forgiven them for the gluey cherry pie). The golden waffles at the Americana in East Windsor, NJ (exit 8).

The Skylark Diner in Edison, NJ
Last weekend we tried a new place, the Skylark Diner in Edison, New Jersey (exit 9). Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive Ins and Dives called it a diner with bling.

Guy was right! The Skylark sparkled. The style of the facade can only be described as disco spaceship. Inside the diner, the walls were tiled in the pink of grandma's bathtub, the blue of cars with fins, and 70's harvest gold. The retro-cool Moebius strip light fixtures added a modern touch. The bar was huge. I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember classic diners coming with a bar attached.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a diner as “a small, informal, and inexpensive restaurant that looks like a railroad car.” That’s a pretty basic definition, Merriam-Webster, sort of like a serving me a plain hamburger on Wonder bread with no fixins. That definition excludes the Skylark, which is large, doesn’t look like a railroad car, and offers not only fish tacos, but also a salad with quinoa and kale.

Other definitions get to the heart of what I consider diner-ness. Wikipedia (how I love to hate you) had a definition that included the attributes that, to me, embody the spirit of a diner. “A prefabricated fast food restaurant building characteristic of American life…offering a wide range of foods, a distinct exterior structure, casual atmosphere, a counter, and late hours.” By this definition, the Skylark is definitely a diner. It checks the boxes on casual, a big menu, a counter (with clocks showing the time in Paris, London, Chicago, and Edison), a bar that rocks until 1 a.m. and boy, is that exterior structure unique.

Could I get my traditional diner fix at a place that serves a quinoa and kale salad?

Lunch got off to a rocky start with a complimentary loaf of artisanal wheat raisin bread. Actually, I'm not complaining. It was delicious, but not diner-y.

The menu was extensive, but with ingredients like “frizzled onions,” “aged sherry vinegar,” and “shallot-maple vinegar glaze,” the Skylark was treading in dangerous, non diner territory. Could this new age diner satisfy the diner (me) who wanted great food and a traditional diner experience?

The fish tacos sounded good, but when I go to a new diner I like to order a classic to see how they handle it. So I ordered the Skylark’s spin on a Waldorf chicken salad.

Skylark delivered. The sandwich was a treat. Traditional walnuts and apples made an appearance, but lighter dressing and golden raisins made it modern but still delish. Perfectly toasted nine-grain bread elevated without distracting. Best of all, it satisfied like a diner sandwich.

My husband and fellow diner-appreciator ordered the Skylark’s Sky Blue Burger. Yes, it had chipotle mayo and crumbled blue cheese, but that burger didn’t last long. I have a formula for gauging my hubby’s liking for a dish: how long it takes the food to disappear divided/multiplied/guesstimated by time of last meal, appetizer intake, physical activity, and boredom levels. That burger disappeared so fast that I didn’t have time for a taste. He gave the burger 5 stars.

The chick pea salad that accompanied the chicken salad sandwich was solid but not stellar, and decidedly not diner-y. Good thing the accompanying pickle was good. Good pickles are essential for a diner. The hubby’s coleslaw was terrific. I managed to snag a bite before that disappeared.

The iced tea was excellent: Fresh brewed. This is not something that always happens at a diner and this adoptive Southerner appreciates good iced tea.

I am happy to report that the Skylark qualified as a diner, delivering the traditional diner experience with an updated twist that makes me want to go back.

Are you a fan of diners? Do you have a favorite?


  1. Of course you thought the fish tacos sounded good. :)

    I love diners too. How could I not, having grown up on Long Island? Our go-to was the Sherwood Diner.As a backup, we had the Earthquake Diner, which wasn't its name (I can't recall its actual name), but we called it that because it was adjacent to train tracks and thus was often very loud. Good memories, Shari! Next time you're in NoVa, we'll have to go to Amphora, my favorite local diner (though it's no Sherwood).

  2. The first time I lived in New Jersey was 1972-77, I bopped around Bergen County. I seem to recall going with some frequency to a diner in Moonachie? maybe. It was a classic sytle and cuisine: working class all the way with a juke box with a lot more 50s than 60s music for selections.

    ~ Jim

  3. I am so hungry!Jersey has great diners (at least they did--Jim, what the heck were you doing in Moonachie! We frequented the Bloomfield Diner in Bloomfield, and the Anthony Wayne in Wayne, NJ (rumor had it that Michael J. Pollard's family owned it - fact or fantasy? Don't know), then again, we often went to Holsten's which, judging by the final Soprano's show, is still around. They made their own candy at one time. It was an Easter tradition. For me, the mark of a diner is the hamburger -- sounds like the Skylark has that covered.

  4. Dang, now I'm hungry - and I've barely finished breakfast! The Skylark sounds wonderfully quirky.

  5. Iced tea is THE ticket for me. If the tea isn't fresh, or if--heaven forbid--they offer lemon juice PACKETS-- i will not return.
    Carla, the Tea Snob

  6. My new city, Portland, has wonderful restaurants hidden in different neighborhoods that only local residents know about. I haven't found a diner yet. In Kansas City I recommend Chubby's and Mama's.

  7. Cincinnati has breakfast places with counters that I consider upscale diners, serving a local specialty, goetta.

    Jersey has the best diners, with burgers and juke boxes.

    The Camellia Grill in New Orleans has a long, curved counter so you can watch the action while eating waffles, eggs, and grits. And sweet tea. It's a special place.

  8. Barb, I am ready for the Amphora! I can't believe I lived in northern Virginia all this time and didn't go there once. Now I am hoping for someone to open an Earthquake Diner - maybe in San Francisco.

    Jim, I do love those classic diners - the jukebox is another important marker! How could I forget that? The Skylark had oldies playing but no jukeboxes.

    Kait, sounds like you know your way around diners! I am taking notes.

    Julie, sorry! That happens to me, too. Now I want a burger….

    Carla - *fist bump* from a fellow Tea Snob. I've gotten to the point that I can tell if the restaurant has boiled the water properly for tea. Lemon juice packets are The Devil.

    Warren, when I was in the pacific northwest I ate so well. The fruits and veggies there are sublime and the food scene is pretty exciting. You and your tummy are going to have a great time. I do hope to get to KC some day for some great food. Are Chubby's and Mama's BBQ places?

    Margaret, what is goetta? I love trying local specialties. And the Camellia Grille sounds so cool! Isn't Bouchercon going to be in New Orleans? If I go, I am going to hit up the Camellia. Thank you for the recommendation!

  9. goetta= meat scraps ground up and combined with pin head oats and spices, patted into a log, sliced and fried or served as mush.

    Camellia Grill is at the end of the St Charles streetcar line which takes you through the Garden District and past Tulane and Audubon Park. Or, you can visit the new Camellia Grill in the Quarter. Don't miss it.

  10. Hi Margaret - Thank you! Goetta almost seems like haggis?

    I will be checking out the Camellia! Thank you so much!

  11. I should not have read this before supper when I'm already wondering what I can fix for supper. I love diners and any small restaurant that is not part of a chain restaurant. When I'm traveling with my sisters or daughter, we always look for diners or small restaurants that are both inexpensive and look interesting. I can't begin to remember all I've eaten in over the years. There's one in North Hampton in New Hampshire near Mount Graylock. Their breakfasts are so large that two people could be fed from one. Delicious, too, but I've never been able to finish one. There are ones closer to where we live, too, of course.

  12. I agree New Jersey is the place to go for diners. My husband is from New Jersey, and every time we go back, we visit a diner or two. The Silver Diner (I think it's in Cherry Hill) it the one that comes to mind. And the Point Diner, near where his grandparents used to live in Somer's Point.

    We have two near us now--the Lincoln Diner, in Gettysburg, and Cross Keys New Oxford (both PA)

    The original diners were literally dining cars that had been removed from service--hence the references to resemblance to a railroad car.

  13. NJ is the diner capital of the world. Or it should be.
    My parents frequent the Manalapan diner. My husband and I like the Jefferson Diner.

  14. Gloria, I'm with you. It's always more fun to try a restaurant that is not a chain. I hope you made something diner inspired - like a big stack of pancakes!

    KM, I will add these to my list - I hope I get out to PA to try them. And I didn't know that diners were the dining cars from trains! Now their look makes sense!

    Kimberly, I will add these to my list. We live in New England but have tons of friends in VA, so we are always driving through New Jersey. Having new diners to look forward to makes the drive more fun.