During my early years in West Orange, New Jersey, our family often ate at some of the area's various beaneries. They weren't all that good or bad, they were simply all I knew. Most of the old places have long since closed or disappeared altogether. It was most saddening, for instance, to discover the Claremont Diner and the White Castle in Verona had made way for an automotive dealership. There is, however, an extant relic from my childhood at Tory Corner, just a few blocks up Main Street from Thomas Edison National Historical Park. The West Orange Pancake House and Diner, mirabile dictu, continues to serve decent victuals, and now does so round-the-clock, seven days a week.
I knew this 1950s-era stainless steel edifice as the Tory Corner Diner, the initials of which remain inlaid on the floor of its vestibule. Aside from the name and a few cosmetic updates, little else appears to have changed over the years. Looking at this place evokes childhood memories of black-and-white television sets, named telephone exchanges (ours was REdwood), drugstores with soda fountains, and life before the Essex Freeway (I-280). After a warm, enthusiastic welcome from owner Paul Mihalitsianos and his son, Gerry, what could be finer than eating in this diner again after so many years?
While it seems that diners typically offer extensive menus, this one's is so vast as to make it difficult to make a selection. Its 15 pages offer everything from appetizers to "fantastic finishes." Though several items entreated, I felt as though I'd discover something even more appealing the moment I placed my order.
Listed under Sandwiches Paul's Way, my West Orange Special ($11.95)—sliced London broil on garlic bread with lettuce and tomato—was a standout. The broiled meat was seasoned with a heavy hand, which, under most circumstances could have ruined it. But the cook understood the fat content and age of the cut with masterly precision. As a result, the spices were on target for maximizing this steak’s succulence and flavor. I’ve been served beef in very fine restaurants that was analyzed and prepared with far less skill than it was here. The accompanying thickly cut onion rings were quite all right, but the reconstituted french fried potatoes failed to measure up to the taste and quality of their plate partners.
Harold's New York-style corned beef sandwich ($12.95), my Comestaccomplice's selection, was advertised as the best available. (Namesake Harold Jaffe once operated the aforementioned Claremont Diner as well as New York's Carnegie Deli.) Extremely lean and flavorful, the corned beef was piled high between two slices of rye bread and served on a platter that was as almost as big as the menu itself. While it was very tasty indeed, the corned beef was also somewhat dry—perhaps owing to its leanness. Fortunately, the accompanying coleslaw and half-sours, both excellent, added welcome moisture between meaty mouthfuls. The garlic bread was yet another very tasty side.
Comfort food somehow seems even more comforting when consumed in a familiar environment. Though I don't return to West Orange often, it's reassuring to know I can still revisit a "living" childhood memory here.
West Orange Pancake House and Diner
270 Main Street (between Prospect Pl & Kling St)
West Orange, N.J. 07052-5617 (map)
By bus: 21 (Main Street) to Kling St
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Special thanks to Michelle Colombaris Berger for sharing the following memories from the days her family owned the Tory Corner Diner: (Please click on any image to enlarge it.)
"My dad used to tell a story about a family trip we made to Canada in the 60's. When we got there and checked into the motel there was a book of matches from our diner sitting in the ashtray in the motel room!!!!"
"The two men are my dad, Nicholas Colombaris and an unknown. The pic is dated May 1962, the year that West Orange celebrated its centennial. There was a parade and many men grew beards and marched as the Brothers of the Bush (or Brush)."