N.J. diners: Coffee, chow and camaraderie

Staff Writer

 The owners of diners across central New Jersey say success in the trade is about more than serving good food at reasonable prices. It’s also about the family-like relationships that form among generations of employees and customers.  JESSICA D’AMICO/STAFF The owners of diners across central New Jersey say success in the trade is about more than serving good food at reasonable prices. It’s also about the family-like relationships that form among generations of employees and customers. JESSICA D’AMICO/STAFF Standing like so many silver or otherwise brightly colored beacons, they are an intrinsic part of New Jersey life. Much like the Statue of Liberty, they beckon.

In paraphrase: Give me your tired, your hungry, your poor, your huddled masses yearning for coffee; the wretched refuse of your teeming Shore; send these, the bar crowds, tempest-tossed to me; I lift my lamp beside the neon-lit door! As synonymous with the state as the Garden State Parkway, with probably one off every exit, diners play an integral role in locals’ lives. Their pink “pleather” booths embrace patrons morning, noon and night, through every decade and mile marker of life.

 Ellen Gamble Ellen Gamble They are an institution, and their allure hasn’t waned for those seeking a place to hunker down for some comfort food on the cheap — or for those seeking a place to belong.

Just ask Ellen Gamble, who has worked as general manager of Red Bank’s Broadway Diner for nearly 14 of the diner’s 17 years of operation. The former Queens, N.Y., native presides over the classic, stainless steel structure as if it were her own, proudly showing off the Wall of Fame that bears photos of the diner’s regulars, including shots of Santa during his annual visit.

The loyal customers keep coming back for heaping portions of quality food, she said.

“The other reason I think people come back is that they’re comfortable here,” Gamble said. “It’s almost like they’re part of a big family here.”

Like any good family, the Broadway Diner takes care of its own. Each year, the restaurant sponsors a breast cancer awareness event, along with other charity efforts.

Red Bank’s 1.4 square miles are home to about 60 eateries. Many of the town’s restaurants come and go, but the Broadway Diner remains, open 24/7.

“They only close Christmas Day,” Gamble said. “There’s no holidays in this business.”

One might think the never-ending hours would make for a high level of burnout, but those like Gamble thrive on such an operation.

“This is like a step back in time,” she said of the ’50s-style décor, complete with nonfunctioning jukeboxes at every booth. “I feel like I never get any older when I come here.”

Still, she does see evidence of time passing. Customers who Gamble watched grow up now bring their children in to eat, which is a pleasure to see, she said.

Cliff Seay, manager of the Americana Diner in Shrewsbury, knows how that goes. Before he came to work at the diner 17 years ago, he was a customer there. Then, it was the Shrewsbury Diner, before owners Jimmy and Manny Dimitroulakos and their brother-inlaw George Louzakos brought in the current glitzy, mirrored building in 13 sections.

Since then, all four men have held to a credo of providing friendly service that goes beyond what one might find elsewhere, according to Seay.

“We know most of [the customers’] names,” he said, adding that the Americana greets many regulars each day.

Employees are loyal, too. In addition to Seay, the Americana has held on to one waitress for 27 years, and the cooks are also longtimers, he said.

Although the diner took a hit from the closing of nearby Fort Monmouth in 2011, it has forged on.

“We haven’t totally replaced that loss, but we’re getting good clientele,” Seay said.

Unlike the Broadway Diner, the Americana does close its doors each day — at 1 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and at 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

“It really doesn’t pay to stay open,” Seay said, adding that the bar crowds are nothing like they were in years past.

Despite dips in business here and there, the reliable crowds come through the doors each day, something Seay attributes to good food at fair prices.

“We get fresh seafood deliveries every day,” he said, noting that some other area restaurants serve half the portions at twice the price.

It can’t hurt that the Americana lends its logo to high school functions and Monmouth University teams through sponsorships, and donates to churches and schools.

“We’re very plugged into the community at large,” Seay said.

The same goes for Sayreville’s Peterpank Diner. First opened in 1957 along a two-lane Route 9, the family business is home to three generations of employees and multiple generations of customers’ families, all becoming a tightknit group over the years, according to coowner Alex Panko.

“It’s like family,” he said. “That’s the best part of this business.”

Panko said the diner hosts customers who literally come in for three meals a day. If they don’t show up, someone from the Peterpank will reach out to ensure that they’re OK.

“When you’re here this many years, you meet so many people,” he said. “You come in as a customer the first couple of times, but after that, you know, you’re a friend.”

Friendship comes with special treatment at the Peterpank. Hardcore regulars are sent home with meals to get them through the diner’s only two days of closure — Thanksgiving and Christmas.

And the love extends both ways.

“When my father passed away, so many customers came,” Panko said.

The late, elder Panko, also named Alex, bought the diner mid-century with his brother-in-law, whose last name was Petermann. Thus, the curiosity-inspiring name of the diner was born.

“He worked right up until the end, because he loved it,” Panko said of his dad.

His mother, Alice Panko, is still going strong at 81, working in the restaurant alongside her son and daughter, Patty Colaprico, and their kids.

The familiar faces, peppered with special events like Friday night car shows in the summer and a scratch-off lottery party on the first Monday of each month, help to keep customers coming back.

Panko said the only negative of the diner trade is the long hours. Thankfully for him, the Peterpank switched from 24 hours to opening at 6 a.m. and closing at 12:30 a.m. during the week. On weekends, the all-night hours remain.

Nick Zavolas of the All Seasons Diner, located in Eatontown and Freehold, is happy that his family’s establishments don’t stay open all night, and it’s not just because he works 70 hours a week.

“You don’t know what could happen at 3 or 4 in the morning,” he said. “It’s just safer.”

Both diners open at 6 a.m. In Eatontown, where Zavolas works as general manager, closing time is 1 a.m. during the week and 2 a.m. on weekends. The Freehold location is open until 3 a.m. on weekends.

“Over the years, there used to be a big bar crowd,” he said. “[Over time], the bar crowd started getting smaller and smaller.”

Zavolas attributes this to the no-smoking law that was enacted in 2006. Others point to crackdowns on drunken driving or the economy.

But no matter for Zavolas and his family. They’ve got a good thing going.

“Business in Eatontown has been very stable over the years,” he said of the 25-year-old restaurant.

The family purchased the Freehold location four years ago.

“Business was terrible,” he said of the early days. “But we built it up slowly.”

A complete remodel and bringing in the family’s high standard for food caused business to double, according to Zavolas.

Although the equation for success may sound simple coming from a veteran to the business, a number of variables come into play. Buying at the right price and in the right location is key, Zavolas said.

“Not all diners are successful,” he said. “There are a lot of diners that are in trouble.”

Zavolas and his family certainly paid their dues for success. He began working for his father, owner Michael Zavolas, when he was 15. His uncle, Alex Bras, is a co-owner, along with Michael Hatziminas.

Nick Zavolas grew up in the business alongside his brother and cousins — fellow sons of the owners — Louis Zavolas, head chef in Freehold; Nick Halkias, head chef in Eatontown; Nick Hatziminas, manager in Eatontown; Louis Hatziminas, general manager in Freehold; and Manny Vergias, general manager in Freehold.

“Basically, we started off as busboys,” he said.

Over the years, as they started their own families, they watched customers do the same.

“I’ve seen kids grow up,” Zavolas said. “I’ve seen families lose their husbands or wives.”

He calls his diner’s regulars “the best,” and he spends no lack of time with them. He recently took his first vacation in seven years.

“You get tired once in a while,” he said. “I am tired, but I can’t think like that, because then I’ll go into work with the wrong attitude. I’ve got to think positive.”

Gus Anastasiou and his brothers, Mike and Pete, own the Metuchen Diner, along with the Bridgewater, Washington and Flemington diners. When they bought the Metuchen eatery and renovated it about a year ago, it took time and effort to get locals on board. Now, they keep coming back for more. It boils down to big portions of good food at a reasonable price in a clean, friendly environment, Anastasiou said.

Acknowledging that diners are a demanding business, he said it’s preferable to sitting in an office day after day.

“It’s like an adventure,” he said. “It’s a very colorful life.”