Will had gone to the Menlo Park Diner for something like six years. For me, only the last year and a half. During this time we both befriended a waitress named Beverly. She was a kind and wonderful human being—a saint if anyone ever deserved to be called such. I think we can agree that if not for meeting friends there or having her as a waitress, there would be absolutely no reason to go to this place at all. Now that she has left the establishment, we have ceased to return. The food was never great—barely passable actually—but edible enough that with the great service, it was worth going. But to quote Beverly, “Them days are over”.
But what days are not over is the time this diner seems to be stuck in, and not in the charming, retro way. The sleek, almost beautifully vintage chrome exterior gives way to a slightly less appealing interior. The diner itself is massive, but as you make your way to the back, the floor becomes carpet. It has not been cleaned in forever. That much is apparent.
The menu had not changed in over 10 years we were told. Not the items or the prices, which were extremely high (and would have been ludicrous back then). Most appetizers were around the $10 mark. Everything from breakfast items to sandwiches and even steaks and seafood were so bizarrely priced that you had to scratch your head and wonder if the owner was guzzling some who-hit-John when pricing them out. A side of French fries was $3. Want to add brown gravy and cheese to “Disco” them up? Add another $4. Yet if you wanted a side of marinara instead, that was free. It’s little concepts like these which would drive someone like Robert Irvine bat-shit insane. But at least the fries come in massive portions and are as good as you will get anywhere else.
As for the food, well, it could have been worse. You had to know what to order. Our friend would instruct me when I asked for something: “Oh, you don’t want that today”. While portions were usually decent and worth the extortion-like prices, the quality left a lot to be desired. Everything was frozen. The steaks, seafood, chicken, everything. The veggie burgers which were actually pretty good? Costco. The beautiful cakes in the front display case? Bought at a discount from a local bakery because they were nearly stale and about to be thrown out.
Supposedly years ago, they had a great chef in the back. On a dark and stormy night, an argument with the owner (who occasionally seats customers and looks like Count Orlok from Nosferatu) led to his departure. Corned beef hash? Salty and out of a can. Grilled chicken sandwich? On most occasions cooked to the point where you could use it as a hockey puck. When it was actually cooked right, you had yourself a decent sandwich. Soups? All canned (but the split-pea was pretty good). Anything and everything came from a can or freezer. They didn’t need a master chef in the back as much as they needed a master defroster. That’s not to say I never had a decent meal there, because I did, but during each bite you could taste the salt. You could feel your brain throbbing and asking, “Why? Why? Why?”
I commend Costco on the job they did with those veggie burgers. Sandwiches containing minimal ingredients were also a safe bet, such as a BLT or ham, egg, and cheese on a roll. Hash browns generally were flavorless and small-portioned, yet fries were crispy and in such a large amount that they hung off the plate. There was no rhyme or reason to why anything was the way it was. I asked how the Yankee Pot Roast was. I was told it was aimed at senior citizens with dentures. It looked like something you would (or wouldn’t) want to feed your dog. As for the lobster? Well, she laughed, grinned, and said, “You’re joking, right?” There was a seafood combo which would probably put you in the bathroom all night and a meatloaf that could have been used as a stand-in for Fancy Feast cat food.
Such an exhaustive appraisal of dishes is the result of one too many visits. In a way, I miss the Menlo Park Diner in all of its crappy glory. They were open 24 hours, which made it a great hangout for us when working crazy shifts. Beverly alone made this place tolerable. I looked forward to each meeting where she would chat to us with grace and humor. We could discuss anything. She was well-read with a remarkable diction, certainly deserving of better than to call this hell-hole home. But alas, she has moved on and I miss her. I think of how she is doing quite regularly. She had a unique sense of style that I am reminded of every so often in antique stores or specialty shops. If you’re reading this, please drop me a line and say hello. 3 out of 5 stars.
The Menlo Park Diner is located at 1475 US Route 1 in Edison, New Jersey.