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.

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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.

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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)

Vintage Vinyl: Where You Meet the Music You Buy

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(Image courtesy of Paddyrock.com)

Situated in the midst of a modest strip mall off of Route 1 in Woodbridge, NJ lies a storefront bearing a sign simply reading “Records” in all-capital red letters. Many cars pass by the establishment each day, not knowing that they are passing perhaps the greatest record store in the state. This store is called Vintage Vinyl, and those cars might just be passing by a well-known national touring act making an in-store appearance that day.

The store features racks and racks of CD’s at its center with rare/out-of-print vinyl records to the left, new and used vinyl to the right, and a small stage against the back wall. Not only is the vinyl selection superb and expansive, but they have promotional in-store events where patrons can attend an intimate performance and meet and greet with their favorite artists. Their website features dates various artists are appearing in-store to promote their newest releases. If you want to attend one of these events, simply pre-order the album at the store, get a wristband granting entry to the event, and that’s it. Sometimes, you can get a copy of the artists’ albums early and the artists will almost always sign it for you when they’re done performing.

In my middle school years, I used to visit the store to acquire my favorite artists’ CD’s and did not venture out to the store for a number of years until I went to college and developed an interest in collecting vinyl my freshman year. I then began visiting Vintage Vinyl at least once a week and quickly built a record collection I am still adding onto. Their selection of new and out-of-print vinyl allows collectors to both revisit their favorite classics and discover new artists to add to their collections. Sometimes, they’ll even have rare finds hiding amongst the racks. The last rare record I happened upon was a pressing of The Movielife’s This Time Next Year, and you better believe I bought that.

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(Into it. Over it. Performing at Vintage Vinyl, photo courtesy of store website)

The last in-store I attended was for Into it. Over it.’s event promoting his newest album Intersections. Into it. Over it. is the one-man musical project created by Cherry Hill, NJ native Evan Weiss. Not only is Evan a fantastic musician, but he is also one of the most genuine, down-to-earth people in the current touring circuit. Meeting him and watching him play in such an intimate setting was one of the greatest shows I have ever experienced.

Vintage Vinyl has also hosted a number of other reputable names before, including Fall Out Boy, Circa Survive, Coheed & Cambria, Ozzy Osbourne, and many more.

With Vintage Vinyl, not only do you get an incredible selection to explore, but you also have the chance to meet the people that make the music you love. Certainly, it is one of the most unique places to experience in the Garden State.

Crossroads: New Jersey’s Indie Music Mecca

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(Image courtesy of Crossroads Website)

Crossroads sits just outside Westfield’s popular downtown neighborhood in a smaller suburb called Garwood. While it may appear as just a small bar on the outside, it is one of New Jersey’s longest-running music venues and is a central fixture in the thriving Union County indie music scene.

I remember playing there many times in high school and early in my college career. Some of my friends and ex-bandmates still perform there with their current acts, and I’ve found myself in the crowd more recently these days. Not much has changed there since I’ve last played, except for now the casual crowd has grown larger with more people coming to see local musicians play.

The bar begins right next to the front entrance (pictured above) and wraps around to face the window looking out towards the main road. In the far left corner sits a small stage where thousands of musical acts have played their instruments to those seated at the tables before them.

The stylish wraparound bar is the building’s main fixture when there’s no musical performances. Patrons can enjoy a wide variety of beer from classic staples to obscure craft brews. While I must admit I’ve never tried their food, the menu certainly looks like it’s been improved since I used to play there. The grilled alligator tail and crawfish bourbon bisque sound like dishes I really would like to try.

The new menu appears to draw heavily from New Orleans-style influences. With this menu, Crossroads has begun to build a more concrete identity for itself. Their primary logo features a cartoon figure holding a saxophone and their interior decor has some jazz music-inspired aspects. A New Orleans bar in Central New Jersey might sound a bit outlandish, but with an oversaturated nightlife market in the area, it helps the bar stand out.

So the question that stands is: Why visit this place? Well, the answer is not one that can be said plainly or simply, so here’s a few reasons why this place deserves your patronage:

  1. As stated before, the current menu looks fantastic. New Orleans-style food is a rarity in the area, and it allows visitors a taste of the city without having to travel all the way to Louisiana. The bold, daring menu beckons patrons to try something unfamiliar to most peoples’ palettes in the area.
  2. The Union County music scene is excellent, and Crossroads is at the heart of it all. Van Gogh’s Ear Cafe and 10th Street Live are two other big music venue contenders in the area. While both those venues are also excellent, neither have the same longevity and reputation as Crossroads. Crossroads is just that venue that every New Jersey act plays at. With the thriving indie scene, standards for local artists’ songwriting and performance have skyrocketed, so patrons will be in for a treat with some great original music.
  3. The bar is close to Westfield’s downtown area, but does not share the downtown bars’ posh atmosphere and outrageous prices. An person who makes an honest living can buy a drink and a quality meal there without feeling like they’ve just burned a hole through their wallet. It is a great place to both see an excellent live show and to grab an affordable beer and meal with friends.

Crossroads is located at 78 North Ave. in Garwood, NJ. For information regarding specials and live performances, check out their website. 

Quickstop Groceries: America’s Most Famous Convenience Store

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(Image courtesy of Typophile.com)

Now why would something like “America’s Most Famous Convenience Store” be something to brag about? What makes it so famous? Well, it just so happens that Leonardo, New Jersey’s QuickStop Groceries is the Convenience Store that served as the primary setting location for one of the independent film industry’s most successful movies of all time, Clerks.

The QuickStop is located at 58 Leonard Ave. in Leonardo, just off NJ 36 North right above Atlantic Highlands. In the early 1990s, now-famous film director Kevin Smith put together his masterpiece, Clerks, shot in black and white with a budget of roughly only $27,000. Smith also worked for the QuickStop at the time, and was granted permission to film scenes at night.

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Production photo of actor Brian O’Halloran as Dante at the QuickStop front counter. Currently, the front counter no longer features an ice cream cooler at the front and the overhead clock and Marlboro banner are both gone as well. (Photo courtesy of ViewAskew.com)

The film focuses primarily on an average day-in-the-life gone wrong for two convenience store clerks, Dante (played by Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (played by Jeff Anderson). Both characters are QuickStop employees, with Randall also occupy the RST Video register next door. While Dante is an overly-serious employee, Randall often makes comments and remarks in reaction to Dante that can sometimes be overly crude or offensive but are still completely hilarious. The film had originally received an NC-17 rating due to the content of the dialogue. Dante deals with a myriad of different issues in the film including relationship troubles, difficult/odd customers, and even a dead customer! While Dante and Randall have very little interaction with Jay & Silent Bob in the film, they do express a certain dislike for the duo.

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Employee bathroom where one of the film’s most shocking and hilarious situations takes place. (Photo courtesy of Yelp User “Michael G”)

Smith released Clerks in 1994, and has since become a major director in the film industry. The film also is the first to feature Smith’s most iconic creations, Jay & Silent Bob. Silent Bob was also portrayed by Smith in the film and every subsequent appearance afterwards. While Jay is a loudmouth who often says whatever is on his mind, Silent Bob mostly expresses himself nonverbally but will speak when he feels he has something important to say.

The QuickStop made a few more appearances in some of Smith’s later films. It was mentioned in his film Chasing Amy, featured in parts of Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, and at the beginning and end of Clerks II. Since then, the place has become an underground mecca of sorts for both fans of independent films and Smith’s creative works. As both a New Jersey resident and a huge Kevin Smith fan, I have made multiple visits to this place.

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Above is a picture of how QuickStop appears from the outside. There is a long strip of two or three more abandoned store fronts not visible in this photo, and the RST video storefront no longer sports the sign above its window. This is where Jay & Silent Bob often loiter in their films and sell weed to neighborhood kids. (Photo courtesy of Yelp user “Y.W.”)

Pulling up to the place always gives me a giddy excitement that I am visiting the place where one of my favorite films was shot. You can literally park outside, lean up against the same wall Jay & Silent Bob did for most of the film, and just take it all in right from the start. Then, you remember you can actually go inside and view the place for yourself. Though RST Video is no longer a business, you can still peek inside and see shelves still full of video cassettes amongst various storage items. Perhaps Smith has some sort of ownership of that storefront to retain it for filming purposes?

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How the abandoned RST Video appears from inside. (Photo courtesy of Yelp User “Tiffany W”)

Though a few cosmetic changes to the store have been made, the store still mostly resembles how it looked back in the early 1990s. It is, for the most part, a normal convenience store featuring items you would expect to find in one: some grocery items, candy, coffee, beverages, magazines, etc. The one cool item available there is a Clerks Zippo lighter that I am almost positive is exclusive to the store, as I have not found a website or other store that carries it. I still want to go back and buy one just because!

The store also features a few nods to its history as an iconic film location. There is an old Clerks II promo poster in the front window and a few press items hanging on the wall behind the register, but still is able to retain its primary identity as a common everyday business. There have been some times that I’ve went in where I was the only customer. However, just buying something and going up to that counter gives me the same giddy excitement that I get when I pull up to the place. So many great movie moments have happened on, in front of, and behind that counter that it just feels surreal to be in there.

I’ve never asked any employees any questions related to the movies, as I’m sure they get enough of those inquiries and are probably pretty done with hearing them by now. However, there is a special feeling of satisfaction when you buy something there. You could buy the same blue gatorade there that you’d buy at 7-11, but buying it from America’s most famous convenience store makes drinking that gatorade all the more refreshing.

Link to Clerks Trailer

Link to YouTube user YuichiTara’s video tour of the building in its current condition

Link to Clerks WikiPedia article 

FIRST POST: Wilson Hall/Shadow Lawn Estate at Monmouth University

wilson2 (Photo Courtesy of ronsaari.com)

Monmouth University, a small institute of higher education just a mile from Long Branch’s share of the New Jersey shoreline, is home to one of the most beautiful antique mansions in the country. The Shadow Lawn estate, now named Wilson Hall, is one of my favorite pieces of New Jersey Architecture. It now primarily serves as both the University’s administration building and their most premier venue for events.

What makes Shadow Lawn an important location in New Jersey? The answer is simple. Shadow Lawn represents the iconic architecture of pre-depression bourgeoisie (think The Great Gatsby) where every piece of decoration was hand-fashioned and wealth was shown off in more lavish ways than even modern times. Visiting the building will make you feel like you should be in a fine-pressed suit with a wine glass in one hand and a lit cigar in the other.

According to the Shadow Lawn WikiPedia article, the estate was built in 1927 on the site of the original Shadow Lawn estate. The original had burned down some time before. The new version of Shadow Lawn was built for Hubert Parsons, the F.W. Woolworth Company’s president at the time. The new Shadow Lawn sported 130 rooms and 19 bathrooms. Eventually, Parsons fell on hard economic times and had to sell the building. It became part of the University in 1956, and has since become one of the institution’s most recognizable and distinguishing assets.

Both incarnations of the estate have major claims to fame. The original served as the summer White House for President Wilson (which is why the building is currently named Wilson Hall). The current Shadow Lawn had been used as the primary film location for the 1982 classic Annie, where it was used as the setting for Daddy Warbucks’ mansion.

When I first visited the estate, I was blown away by the intricately-detailed art in every corner of every room. According to University personnel, the building was modeled after the Palace of Versailles in France. There were definitely some artistic connections. Each room’s walls made heavy use of pastel paint and the hand-carved trims all sported gold paint.

Upon exploring the available rooms, I noticed the foyer sported a central grand staircase with hand-carved marble bannisters. On the second floor, an antique organ sat quietly un-played for years with blockades preventing public access. The pipe organ was once connected to many pipes on the side of the main concourse, hidden by intricate gold lattices.

The building truly gave me a feeling of stepping back in time more so than any museum possibly could. Most of the building’s detail remains original and many university personnel have great knowledge of its history. For a true historical experience, visiting this estate should be a primary item on your checklist.

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Above is a photo of the building’s front entrance that is also the primary entrance for both students and faculty. (Photo courtesy of thekourtneyrosefoundation.org)

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Photo detailing the estate’s three-story main concourse/foyer at night. The ceiling is made of hand-fashioned stained glass, and the support beams all sport hand-carved marble.

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Photo from the third story showing the main interior staircase. The marble bannisters cannot be seen too well from this perspective.

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Photo from the third floor showing the antique pipe organ, still with original keys and casing.

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Photo of one of the lattice works that covered the organ’s pipes. Again, as many works of art in this building, it is hand-made.

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Hand-sculpted and painted ceiling detail at the top of the main staircase. It is a true artistic marvel of a bygone period in history.

Link to Shadow Lawn WikiPedia article.

Link to Annie trailer.