Jersey at its best: 5 Great Diners in Central Jersey

Besides the Shore, Springsteen, and Porkroll, New Jersey is known for one other industry in which they’ve basically cornered the market – Diners! As a child growing up in Middlesex County, I’ve had many-a-meals at such establishments across all of Central Jersey. So, for this post, I decided I’d dish out my opinions on my top-five diners in the area. Keep in mind, these are my opinions, not any formal ranking by any professional food critic.

1. Park Ave Diner – South Plainfield, NJ

Park Ave Diner front view. Taken from diner’s website.

The good old Park Ave Diner is, well, really not that old. I remember coming here as a kid with my father back when it was called Cafe Everest and had a WAY different look to it, outside and inside. A few years ago, the diner was bought and the new owner renovated and revamped the place to make it what it is today. While The Park Ave Diner is a newer contender in the diner industry, but it still serves all those classic diner staples as well as some really cool specials. Every time I come in here, I always take a look at the specials they’re offering that day, and I can always find one that fits my liking. They also do an excellent job on pancakes and their cheddar and broccoli bites have become a favorite of mine. You can even buy beer here, which is something you normally can’t do at too many diners in the area.

2. Scotchwood Diner – Scotch Plains, NJ

Scotchwood Diner seen from Route 22. Image taken from panoramio.com.

Scotchwood Diner is a place I’ve gone to many times throughout my life. I’ve always looked forward to trips here because this diner has a really cool old-time look to it without looking decrepit or run-down. The menu item I remember most vividly sticking out in my mind is the seafood bisque soup they serve on some days. I really hope that soup is still around! Either way, their food doesn’t deviate too far off classic diner foods, but the quality is always good. The coolest part of this place might be the personal jukeboxes at every table. You’ll be sure to find some great classic rock tunes in their song selections.

3. All Seasons Diner – Eatontown, NJ

All Seasons Diner interior. Image taken from Asbury Park Press.

All Seasons Diner is located right across Route 36 from the Monmouth Mall and is about a five-to-ten minute drive from the beach. This diner is seriously cool, due in part to its interior. Just look at the lit-up glass dividers everywhere, and the layered ceiling lights going down the center of the room. It creates a very modern atmosphere to complement its classic diner food. I’ve enjoyed many different menu items here and the specials are always intriguing. For those of you taking a trip down to the shore this summer, this place provides a great meal option for anyone. The only complaint I have about this place is that it’s one of the few diners I’ve been to that isn’t 24-hour.

4. Fountainbleau Diner – South Plainfield/Piscataway, NJ

Fountainbleau Diner exterior seen from Stelton Road. Image taken from diner’s website.

Fountainbleau is another great diner in the Middlesex County area on Stelton Road right by Rt 287. It’s in one of those neighborhoods where you can’t tell whether you’re in South Plainfield or Piscataway, which is a common occurrence in that area. It’s also not too far outside the Rutgers New Brunswick neighborhood either. The one thing I like the most about this place is their coffee. While most diner coffees all taste the same for the most part, this place has an especially tasty coffee if you take yours light and sweet.

5. Menlo Park Diner – Edison, NJ

Menlo Park Diner exterior seen from Route 1. Image taken from nj.com.

Ah, Menlo Park Diner. It’s situated on the Route 1 roadside right next to the Menlo Park Mall. On on side of the lot, there’s a giant commercial complex, on the other side, there’s a park. It’s a diner situated between two different environments, but for me, it was always a cool place to go when I was a high school mallrat. If you want to know what a real classic, chromed-out diner looks like, look no further! This place is as classic as a diner gets.

Advertisements

Five Great Musical Artists from New Jersey that Aren’t on a Major Label

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how New Jersey is currently home to a bustling indie music scene. There are many venues for independent artists to play throughout the entire state. Now, when most people think of great music from New Jersey, they often think Springsteen or Bon Jovi. What many fail to realize is that there are a handful of other great artists to have come from the Garden State. This post explores musicians that are either still currently based in New Jersey or have originated from here and have gained notoriety in the scene they are a part of.

5. The Ugly Club – Union County

The Ugly Club has existed in various incarnations over the past few years, and each time they redirect their musical identity, they only get better. Though they’ve since hopped on the train to Brooklyn, I’ll always first remember them as a local New Jersey band that captured the hearts and ears of listeners in venues throughout the Union County area. What’s the best way to describe their sound, you might ask? Think of their sound as smooth indie rock that takes cues from a plethora of psychadelic influences – and the best part: they deliver a great live performance. This is a band that is not afraid to be different, and each time they’ve released new material, no two songs of theirs end up sounding the same (in a good way!). To get a taste of their newer material, check out their singles “Passengers” and “The Lonely”. 

4. The Gray Company – Union Township, NJ

Union Township-based quartet, The Gray Company, are a recent favorite of mine in the local scene. A couple of years ago, I was involved in a band with drummer Josh Howard and guitarist Jason Fandino. At the time, Jason was our keyboardist, and I am now positively blown away by the incredible songs he’s written for the Gray Company on guitar. Josh has always been an excellent drummer, and he’s gotten even better. Vocalist Zebeeb Awalom and bassist Adrian Kabigting are also great musicians as well. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing my old bandmates play with their new bandmates in The Gray Company a few times over the past few months, and I knew that The Gray Company was the perfect band for them. The music is best described as a highly-dynamic indie rock that boldly experiments and never falls flat. When Josh told me they were planning a tour, I only got more excited to see where that adventure will take them.

3. Steve Kelly – Cranford, NJ

Steve Kelly is another old bandmate of mine who played in the same group I played in with Josh and Jason from the Gray Company. Steve is just one of those special musicians with a natural talent that can’t be taught in a music lesson. With just his voice and an acoustic guitar, he’s able to fill out the room without the aid of a backing band. His music teeters on a fine line between old school emo and modern indie rock, but in a way that doesn’t sound played-out one bit. His live performances often feature a mix of creative covers and superb originals with a bunch of great deadpan jokes in between. Since he’s a very active performer in the Union County scene, you’re bound to find him playing at a venue on any given night.

2. The Front Bottoms – Woodcliff Lake, NJ

Over the past couple of years, The Front Bottoms have exploded in the touring scene, perhaps thanks in part to Say Anything’s Max Bemis taking a liking to them. Their danceable, catchy indie rock coupled with singer/guitarist Brian Sella’s witty and humorous lyrics have catapulted the band into international popularity (many of their lyrics refer to their home in the Garden State, too). The most impressive part? They’ve done all of this without any help from major labels. This band is as DIY as DIY gets in music.

1. Into it. Over it. – Cherry Hill, NJ

Though Into it. Over it. – a.k.a. Evan Weiss, has based most of his musical career out of Chicago, he has mentioned his South Jersey roots many times during live performances and media appearances over the years. While growing up in Cherry Hill, he formed his first touring outfit, the Progress, and the rest has been history for him. Since moving to Chicago, Weiss has led the charge in the current re-emergence of real emo music and has successfully played a large part in ridding peoples’ conception of emo music being played by kids in Hot Topic skinny jeans and Warped Tour t-shirts singing about how sad they are all the time. Instead, Weiss delivers a very sophisticated and intriguing sound layered with very intricate guitar and drum work coupled with honest lyrics that explore a large catalog of thoughts and tell a library of personal stories. While I imagine it is a special treat to see Weiss and his live band perform in his adopted hometown of Chicago, it’s always been a great experience seeing him play in the Garden State.

Product Spotlight: Shear Revival, Round 2 – Elm Street Lightweight Pomade

elmstreet1Back again after trying a different Shear Revival pomade, and I must say, I am once again thoroughly impressed. It’s awesome that 1) Shear Revival’s products are consistent in premium quality and 2) They’re American made and are based in the Garden State.

As I mentioned before in my post on the company’s Crystal Lake Water-based Pomade, I am not a big fan of oil-based pomades. This is because many oil based pomades you’ll find in most stores are just chemical labs in a can with ingredients you can barely pronounce. If I can’t pronounce the ingredients’ names, I don’t want them sitting in my hair; as oil-based hair products tend to stay in the hair much longer than water-based.

However, today I decided I would try an oil-based pomade, as I always have my hair styled and I would like something that stays put for a longer period of time. Of course, knowing Crystal Lake was a great product made with natural ingredients, I had no hesitation to try a Shear Revival oil-based pomade for my first foray into this type of product.

elmstreet2

As with Crystal Lake, the packaging on Elm Street is seriously cool. The minimalist fedora icon, an obvious reference to the Nightmare on Elm Street film series, looks sleek and strong. The blue plastic canister with the metal lid also adds a lot of understated depth to the packaging which makes it a stylish statement piece in itself. The pomade itself smells exactly as the company’s website describes: “a clean oak & citrus scent” and it is a scent I am more than okay with carrying on my person.

After a few hours with a moderate amount of the product in my hair, the hold stays true to form. What’s great about both Shear Revival pomades that I’ve tried is that they hold the form you desire for your hair, but they do not leave your hair dry and sticky. You can comb and re-comb all day without any resistance from the product.

However, the best part about Shear Revival’s products is that they are made with natural ingredients. With ingredients like organic castor oil, pure jojoba oil, organic beeswax, shea butter, and coconut oil, you know that what you’re putting in your hair is not a toxic batch of artificial chemicals. Rather, Shear Revival’s products are committed to giving your hair an excellent look and a healthy lifespan with natural ingredients.

You can grab your own canister of this quality product on the Shear Revival Website or pay a visit to one of the places that carry it like Calabrese’s Barber Shop.

(All images taken from Shear Revival’s website)

Evaporate: A Great Place to Vape

Evaporate store exterior

Evaporate store exterior

Asbury Park has recently seen some brighter days. The community is slowly revitalizing near the boardwalk area with fashionable independent businesses sprouting all over the Cookman/Bangs Avenue area. Young people are beginning to move into the area thanks to its low cost near the ocean. While I could write a thousand blog posts on just how nicely this community is beginning to turn itself around, I’ll stay focused to what I know. Now, I’ve covered Asbury Park-based places like Asbury Lanes and businesses like Shear Revival, but this time I’m covering a different business in a different industry.

Evaporate is an electronic cigarette retailer on Bangs Avenue. E-cigarettes, or vapes if you’d prefer, are a new trend we’ve seen rising lately. They provide one of the more viable ways to help many quit smoking, and many flavors also just taste great. I’ve seen people vape nicotine-free e-juice before without ever having touched a cigarette in their lives. Vaping can be anything from purely a quit-smoking aid to a social hobby. Many people are into customizing the e-cigarettes they use, and oftentimes people collect different mods to tinker with in their spare time.

Now, I don’t ever want to be too personal on this blog, but I was once a two pack-per-day smoker. From around 19 years to 21 years old, I would smoke at least one full pack each day. Cigarettes consumed my wallet, my health, and just generally made me a more unappealing individual in many ways. I tried quitting cold turkey, but it didn’t work for me. I tried replacing smoking with things like drinking coffee, but I couldn’t sleep because the ten cups of coffee I would drink in a day would keep me up all night. I needed a viable option to stop smoking.

I eventually started vaping, after trying out an e-cigarette that my friend had. After that, the rest was history. I found the one thing that helped me stop smoking. I quickly began collecting and trying various flavors of e-juice and fell in love with many good ones. Most of these good flavors I’ve tried have come from purchasing them at Evaporate.

Many e-cigarette retailers have their own house-made e-juices. While some may be good, most are rather poor quality and will go brown within a couple of days. Evaporate doesn’t do that. They don’t bother wasting their time on house-made juices since the e-juice market is now a craft market all its own. Rather than carry any house-juices, they have dedicated their business to providing supreme quality e-juices from notable companies around the globe. Their menu of different flavors also changes constantly, which makes each visit to their location an opportunity to try an interesting new flavor.

I should also mention that the store’s interior has some serious design points to it too. Walking in, you’ll find a lounge area with leather seating to your left right up against their big front windows. To the right, you’ll find an L-shaped counter with higher, bar-style chairs around it and samples of the various e-juice flavors they are carrying at that point in time. The coolest part? Well, that would have to be the counter itself. They have mini glass display cases embedded in the counter top. It’s seriously cool way to show off featured e-juice flavors they are selling.

Store interior from right before the shop's grand opening. The coolest part is how the store makes use of natural light in the front, and then uses warmer lighting in the back. It sets a great atmosphere with their dark walls and floors.

Store interior from right before the shop’s grand opening. The coolest part is how the store makes use of natural light in the front, and then uses warmer lighting in the back. It sets a great atmosphere with their dark walls and floors.

Evaporate also hosts various events at their location. I’ve seen many posts about them hosting live music at their shop before, which adds a unique angle to their business that no other e-cigarette retailer does. Not only are they an e-cigarette shop, but their location can also double as a venue, which is great considering the large amount of artistic talent spread out amongst the members of the revitalized Asbury Park community.

Finally, I can’t mention this place without mentioning how friendly their staff is. Every time I’ve gone in there, every staff member that has been working has always been friendly, talkative, and helpful. They are people that love their job and love helping people quit smoking and enjoy vaping. Their products range from beginner starter kits to elitist mods, and they know the ins and outs of every product they carry, which is reassuring to customers. As long as Evaporate has a staff like this, they’ll be a business that’s in good shape for a very long time.

Evaporate is located at 611 Bangs Avenue, Asbury Park, NJ. To find out what products they are featuring or currently carrying, visit their Facebook page.

(All images taken from Evaporate Facebook page.)

Eagle Specialty Coffee: Monmouth County’s Best Kept Coffee Secret

eagle3

If you’re driving down New Jersey Route 35 South, heading toward the Monmouth Mall, you’ll pass a three-storefront building on your right. In the storefront on the right, you’ll see a Rita’s, a Philly Pretzel Factory at the center, and the storefront on the left? Well, that space is occupied by a fantastic independent coffee shop called Eagle Specialty Coffee.

Walking in, you’ll see a coffee shop with a very streamlined, modern look that doesn’t feel cold or uninviting. Rather, you’ll find a place with very friendly baristas who make good cups of coffee without taking a long time to do so.

eagle1

The area surrounding Eagle is saturated with corporate coffee places like Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, and QuikCheck. Sure, they have successful business models. It’s not like those places have terrible coffee, but all those places definitely do not have coffee as high quality as Eagle. Eagle’s coffee tastes like a true premium brew without having to pay any outlandish price for a cup of it.

The first few times I ventured to Eagle, I applied a test I normally do every time I go to an independent coffee shop. Every time I visit a new independent coffee shop, I order a vanilla latte. I’ll then come back two more times, and if another barista is working, I’ll order another vanilla latte from the other barista. To me, just as any bartender should be able to make a decent whiskey sour, any barista should be able to make something simple like a vanilla latte. I tried three vanilla lattes from Eagle, each prepared by a different barista, and I can safely say each time the beverage was delicious, no matter who made it. That’s a good thing to know, from a customer’s standpoint – that the staff are consistent with making quality beverages.

eagle2

Since then, I’ve tried a few other different menu items at Eagle, and each time, they set a new standard for what I expect in beverage quality from coffee shops. Never once have I been disappointed from taking a chance on different menu items there. I know this for sure, if I lived any closer to Eagle, I would be there every day to get my daily caffeine fix.

Eagle Specialty Coffee is open seven days a week, with varying hours. To find out more about the company, visit their website here.

(All pictures courtesy of Eagle Specialty Coffee’s website)

Top 5 Bruce Springsteen Songs that Weren’t Singles

Everyone who has heard of Bruce Springsteen knows that the Boss is famous for one thing besides writing great music: he’s a Jersey boy and not afraid to say it. Growing up in Monmouth County, the man grew from a youth of modest means to a superstar with albums like Born to Run. Over the decades, his albums have spawned many singles and have inspired “Greatest Hits” collections, but amongst every album, there were bound to be a few great songs that didn’t quite make the cut and become hits. Of these less-popular tunes, here are what I consider to be the five greatest songs he’s released that have not tacked a place on the charts:

1. The E Street Shuffle (1973)

This track, the first off his second studio album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle has had its fair share of success with fans. Bruce is known to play it every now and then at live performances, but the song never managed to become a single or enjoy any time on the charts. It could be perhaps because the song could be considered very experimental for its time. It begins with a dissonant horn section battling furiously before coming together for a final seven notes and starting off the song. Then, the main guitar riff kicks in followed by a bouncy R&B rhythm that makes this song one of the Boss’s more danceable tunes. If you enjoy classic R&B, soul, or funk music, this might be the closest you’ll get to hearing it on a Bruce album.

2. Backstreets (1975)

Believe it or not, only two singles emerged from Born to Run, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “Born to Run”. However, you’ll find plenty of professionally-shot performances of Springsteen playing this tune in concert. The reason “Backstreets” most likely failed to chart was due to its length at six minutes and thirty seconds. If you can listen to this lengthy track all the way through, you’ll find a song driven by beautiful piano and organ arrangements with Bruce recounting a fond memory of an ambiguous relationship in his youth with a person named “Terry”. It is unclear in the song whether Terry was an old male buddy of his or a former female love interest, but the song has a particular feel in both lyric and music that can trigger a sense of nostalgia in anyone.

3. Atlantic City – Live (1993)

“Atlantic City” itself was a single on Nebraska, but this live version featured on his album In Concert/MTV Plugged is a completely different animal. The Nebraska version is a somber acoustic number that tells the tale of a man who’s fallen on hard times and turns to the mob to make ends meet. This live version is a full-band number accompanied with some great piano riffing that turns the song into something bigger, more aggressive, and completely different. Though the versions share the same guitar chords, lyrics, and melodies, they sound like two separate songs if listened to back-to-back. This live version would fit anywhere on a Springsteen playlist featuring some of his louder tracks.

4. Gypsy Biker (2008)

Bruce’s often-overlooked 2008 album Magic is a collection that differs a bit from his classic sound, but still retains enough familiar elements that it can fit in a playlist with his older material. The album’s sound is a culmination of everything Bruce has tried out thus far musically, with some extra surprises added in. “Gypsy Biker” is a song driven by guitar and harmonica that rocks in a way that differs from many of his other harder, faster tunes. It’s a song that shows, even in his older years, the Boss still has the chops to compete with the younger generation of bands emerging today. It’s an entrancing song featuring romanticized lyrics about a rebellious biker. It would have been the perfect theme song for Sons of Anarchy.

5. Outlaw Pete (2009)

Bruce has played “Outlaw Pete” a number of times during live performances, but there is one reason why it has never charted as a single: the song is eight minutes long. The song is one of the more popular non-singles in recent years, as it even has a graphic novel version that tells the story from the song. The song tells the story of the title character and how he came to prominence as an outlaw and how he survives being hunted down in his adult years. The eight minutes takes listeners on a journey, both musically and lyrically that changes in dynamic with every passing minute. It is certainly one of the more entertaining songs in the Boss’s catalog to listen to.

(all images taken from WikiMedia Commons)

The Inkwell Coffeehouse: A Haven for the Night Owl in all of Us

Inkwell sign, image taken from Inkwell Facebook Page

Inkwell sign, image taken from Inkwell Facebook Page

Ever get a craving for a cup of coffee late at night? Do those cravings also come coupled with the desire to go out somewhere for a little while and enjoy said coffee? The problem is, as the night goes on, more places close up shop until the next morning and the only places that are open that serve coffee are diners. Now, I love diners, but I am usually not a fan of the plain coffee that diners serve.

If you take a late night journey down Second Avenue in Long Branch, New Jersey, you’ll find a place lit up well past midnight with a sign reading “The Inkwell Coffee House”. Their business model? Be a real late night coffee shop for the night owls. From 7pm til 3am, their doors are open for the late-nighters to congregate and enjoy a quality cup of coffee, snacks, or even a meal if they so desire.

The first thing I will say about their coffee is that it is fantastic. They have everything from plain, regular coffee to flavored coffees, espresso beverages, specialty coffees, and more. I highly recommend any first-timer there to try the Dutch Coffee. It is perhaps the greatest coffee I have ever had in my entire life.

Side of the building as seen from their parking lot. The street to the right of the photo is Second Avenue. Photo taken from Inkwell Facebook Page

Side of the building as seen from their parking lot. The street to the right of the photo is Second Avenue. Photo taken from Inkwell Facebook Page

The Inkwell’s owners have a very smart strategy in marketing solely to the late night crowd. With Monmouth University located less than a mile away and more than five bars near their establishment, they are in the presence of a lot of people who are out late and would want a meal and cup of coffee. Sure, there is a McDonald’s open 24 hours by the school and a few places that deliver food late at night, but none of them offer that intimate, sit-down type environment that makes going to get food and coffee into a social outing.

As for the food, I have never had a complaint with any of the meals or snacks I’ve eaten there. Their food is comparable to basic diner-style foods with some of their own unique creations thrown in the mix. Their large menu guarantees a diverse crowd will find something they will enjoy.

Why is Inkwell a place worth mentioning, you may ask? Well, to me, it’s the only place I’ve ever found in this state (so far) that I would call a true coffee shop. Coffee shops are about the social aspect, where one can sit down in a place that has a warm environment that both encourages social interaction and provides a hideaway for someone in search of solitude. I’ve been to so many coffee places in this state and very few have that atmosphere. Most places, people just walk in, order their drink, and take off. With Inkwell, you’ll find very few people ordering coffee or food to go. Mostly everyone that ventures inside Inkwell are planning to sit down and stay a while.

Again, I highly recommend you try that dutch coffee!