New Jersey’s diner history unfolds at new museum exhibit
A new museum exhibit in Middlesex County will have visitors craving disco fries and open-faced sandwiches on the way out.
"Icons of American Culture: History of New Jersey Diners" opened to the public this week at the historic Cornelius Low House in Piscataway. The two-floor exhibit explores the rich history of diners in the Garden State over the past 100-plus years.
The classic eateries began as transportable wagons but eventually evolved into permanent locations where people of any age and any class could find the right meal, any time of day.
"It's the quintessential New Jersey story, and it's great that it's being told in an exhibit format like this," said Mark Nonestied, division head of the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission.
At one point, New Jersey was considered the manufacturing capital of diners in the U.S.
It took more than a year's worth of work to get the exhibit up and running, according to Nonestied. Beyond the initial research into New Jersey's diner timeline, the museum worked with collectors and other institutions to bring in real-life artifacts from Jersey diners of the past.
The exhibit includes diner booths, stools, menus and neon signs. The food on display isn't edible, but visitors would want to take a bite anyway.
There's also a working jukebox that includes several diner classics such as "Rock Around the Clock, "16 Candles" and "At the Hop."
Lining the walls are photographs of current New Jersey diners and ones that are no longer standing. Visitors are first greeted with a massive, vintage photo of the Baltimore Diner, which once sat on Route 1 in New Brunswick.
"There are so many diners in this exhibit," said Katie Zavoski, curator for exhibits and collections. "I can't even count how many."
The diner theme even reaches the educational literature that's handed to patrons. It comes in the form of an 11x17 spiral-bound, laminated menu.
The free exhibit runs through June 26 of 2016. It's open to the public from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, as well as Sunday. The museum is used to handling group trips.
Museum educator Ken Helsby said the exhibit is perfect for classroom outings because it "crosses so many different aspects" of learning.
"It can be diner math. It can be immigration. It can be food or architecture or New Jersey history," he said.
Trips can be arranged by calling 732-745-3030.