New Jersey

Spring Lake

Spring Lake is only about 5 miles down the shore from Asbury Park (see above), but it might as well be on another planet. It has a beach, but it’s a quiet, peaceful, litter-free beach, with room to spread out and laze. It’s got a boardwalk too, but it’s glitz-free, with nary a fast-food vendor or neon sign to be seen. Most folks are just out for a stroll or pedaling along on bicycles built for two, and maybe heading to Susan Murphy’s or Hoffman’s for an ice cream cone.

Founded in the late 19th century as a summer destination for New Yorkers and Philadelphians fleeing city humidity, Spring Lake developed into an upscale, quiet, mostly residential community. In town, the large, spring-fed namesake lake is stocked with ducks and surrounded by floral displays and walking paths, while nearby Third Avenue offers a shopping district full of boutiques and interesting gift shops. On tree-lined streets, well-kept homes boast wraparound porches, big windows, and turreted roofs so emblematic of late 19th-century resort style. Though it’s primarily a residential town, Spring Lake offers several wonderful inns and restaurants. Located right across the street from the boardwalk, the Breakers on the Ocean is a classic Victorian beachfront resort, with its boxy five-story architecture and long covered porch. Inside, 75 rooms have kept up with the 21st century, the most outfitted offering whirlpool baths and fireplaces.

A few blocks south and a few doors inland, the Spring Lake Inn is an 1888 former carriage house that’s now a B&B with a classic Victorian porch. Some of its 16 guest rooms offer fireplaces, Jacuzzis, and ocean views. Back near the Breakers, the Grand Victorian hotel’s restaurant, the Black Trumpet, is acclaimed for the cooking of chef co-owner Mark Mikolajczyk. Menus favor seafood and the freshest ingredients, prepared in an exacting style that shows off the chef’s training as an intern for New York City’s celebrated David Bouley .

Classic North Joisey Diners

The diner is an archetypal New Jersey icon, keeping alive the tradition of greasy burgers, any-hour breakfasts, and home-baked pies. First appearing as horse-drawn lunch wagons that made the rounds of factories in the 1870s, diners eventually grew roots in working-class neighborhoods nationwide. In the early 20th century, companies started manufacturing them in prefabricated kits, and by the ’30s, you could pick your diner out of a catalog, send a check, and get the whole thing delivered to you—stools, stoves, dishes, and all—in about three months .

Of the ten major diner manufacturers, six were based in New Jersey, making the state the unofficial classic diner capital of America. Ideally, a classic diner should be prefab; it should be long and narrow like a railroad dining car (after which they were originally patterned); it should have a counter with stools (with leatherette booths optional); it should serve comfort food, preferably 24 hours a day; and it should be old, with as much of its original decor intact as possible. The industrial areas of northern New Jersey, beginning just west of lower Manhattan and Staten Island and spreading inland for about ten miles, are a diner lover’s mecca. Start at the White Mana in Jersey City, which began life at the 1939 World’s Fair and claims to be the original fast-food restaurant. It’s round, with a circular counter and tile floor, and serves legendarily tasty mini-burgers. (A second White Manna— squarishly shaped and retaining the chain’s original spelling—survives in Hackensack.) Not far from Mana and flanked by highways on all sides, the Bendix Diner dates from 1947 and is a regular stop for Jerseyites returning from Manhattan after a night out. A steel rectangle with a can’t-miss neon sign, it’s essentially unchanged since the day it opened.

The same can’t be said for the nearby Tick Tock Diner, which is a 24-hour Northern Jersey classic— some years ago its original 1949 exterior was covered over with an ugly chrome. The huge menu remains, as does the clock on the roof, surrounded by the diner’s insightful motto: “Eat Heavy.”

To the south, in East Orange, the double-size Harris Diner represents the move into the 1950s. It wins plaudits for its original steel-and-chrome exterior, its food, its booths with their individual jukeboxes, and its old-school waitresses. Back in Jersey City, the Miss America Diner is another ’50s-era chrome-and-steel classic with a block-lettered neon sign on top and good, solid food within. For a last treat on your tour, head inland to the Summit Diner, built in 1938. It’s got a railroad-car exterior, deco lettering, and a wood-paneled interior with booths on one side and a long counter on the other. It’s easy to imagine some down-on-his-luck character straight out of a Frank Capra movie slouched here during the Depression, having donuts and coffee.

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