21 Things That Happened On My First Overwhelming NJ Restaurant Visit
“Have you ever been to a restaurant?”
Since I moved to New Jersey three months ago, my newly adopted brothers from New Jersey have asked me this question time and time again. Back in Alabama, where I’ve spent the past 33 years, there were lunches and the like, but very few establishments here would consider dinner. And where I grew up in Syria, such a place – offering just about every food item known to man – was a very foreign concept.
So last week, on the “recommendations” (see: polite requests) of my new friends, I visited the Tick Tock Diner in Clifton, which I learned (see: repeated many times) that it This is a New Jersey institution, serving hungry generations. North Jerseys. And man-oh-man was that something else.
Here’s my play-by-play of how it went: 21 things that happened during my last Garden State rite of passage.
1. As I pull off Route 3, park my car, and face the restaurant, I’m overwhelmed by a feeling that I can’t identify yet. More on that later. I also wonder “why is it called Tick Tock?” I will soon learn that I am a dope.
2. I walk in, staring at the bright red seats and vintage decor, torn from time and movie sets. I notice that some people are smiling at me. I’m comforted, because I miss those casual smiles since I left the south. Does the southern smile really exist here?
3. I’m sitting at the bar, and a waiter asks me, “what will you have, honey?” Another taste of the south! In addition, there is a lot of cross talk between customers. Do they all know each other?
4. I don’t know yet what I will have (hun), so the waiter gives me the menu, which is a small directory. I am impressed by some unexpected dishes: bolognese with lobster? It’s a tough choice between that and the burger. I settle on the burger with sweet potato fries and after the waiter leaves I realize I forgot to order a milkshake. Isn’t it a dinner thing? Oops. The back of the waiter’s shirt says, “Eat Heavy.” Who am I to argue?
5. At a table behind me, a young man orders cheese eggs. Good name, but not as good as something called a happy waitress, which I’m told is grilled cheese with bacon and tomato. This might be the southernmost thing I’ve heard since moving here.
6. The manager, Maria Portalakis, asks me, “Do you want your takeout box with the food?” When I look puzzled, she explains that the portions are so large that many customers receive the box with their order. Eating heavy, indeed!
7. Portalakis says the Tick Tock Diner has been around since 1948. Wow. What does it take for a place to survive so long, especially in a sea of other diners? There must be something other than food. Maybe I can be the first to find out his secret. A mission is born!
8. I talk to regulars. Craig and Kara Aves have been coming to Tick Tock for over 10 years. The food, according to Craig, is “deliciously diner”. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
9. Craig orders a pork roll with hash browns, and Kara laughs, correcting that it’s Taylor’s ham, but her husband is from that part of Jersey where they “say bad.” I dare not intervene, I have already learned this lesson. His order is French toast with over easy eggs. They brag that the breakfast meat is delicious, the toast is fluffy and the service is awesome as usual. They don’t even order drinks anymore, the waiters already know that.
10. Kara says “this is the place where everyone knows your name”. A solid “Cheers” reference; I’ve always had a soft spot for Norm and his jokes. The one I remember was when the bartender asked him, “How does a beer sound, Norm?” He replies, “I don’t know. I usually finish them before they have a word. Craig adds that he and Kara participate in a football pool with the staff. It sounds like “Cheers”!
11. Portalakis tells me she’s worked at Tick Tock since she was 15. She says the restaurant feels like her second home. Then she laughs, adding, “Actually, this is my first house.” For a moment I pity her, but then I see all the happy hubbub around me and I can only think of one thing: When can I move in?
12. She says of New Jersey diners, “You can get any kind of food anytime, breakfast in the evening, dinner in the morning, lunch at…anytime.” Pure culinary freedom, awesome!
13. Portalakis adds that Tick Tock’s most popular order is disco fries. Disco what? “Fries with mozzarella cheese and gravy,” she laughs. I wrinkle my nose. Brown sauce on fries? “Would you like some?” she asks me.
14. I smile and say “I already ordered.” (Not a big fan of sauce. Maybe the fries and cheese highlight it?) Why are they called disco fries? And why am I hearing the theme music for “Saturday Night Fever”?
15. My food arrives and I take a bite of the burger. Hell of a hole in a donut, Batman! The burger is tasty, juicy and well seasoned. The sweet potato fries are crispy. Maria then brings me hummus. I taste it.
16. Damn cauldron full of spirit, Batman! I look around to make sure I haven’t been teleported to Damascus. Maria then offers me to dip one of the fries in my hummus.
17. Incredible combo, Batman!
18. I take a few pictures, say goodbye, and walk to my car, still wondering, “Why is her name Tick Tock?” When I pull out of the parking lot, I look back and finally see the oversized clock on top of the building. How did I miss this? I need to get my eyes checked.
19. I think a little more about my mission, to figure out exactly how a restaurant stays open for over 70 years. What is this intangible thing?
20. On the Turnpike 20 minutes later, I have it. Drum roll please.
21. It’s simplicity. Nostalgia, sure, but when so many dining experiences are a problem – especially in New Jersey, where every place seems so incredibly crowded! — there is relief in New Jersey restaurant visits. Sit down. You greet everyone around you. You order the same tasty food that you, your parents and probably your grandparents grew up eating. You talk to friends. You leave smiling because they called you “hun”. Then you return to your usual life where the ticking of time seems much faster.
It might seem obvious, or even taken for granted, to longtime New Jerseyans, but believe it from a newcomer: this is a special place. It provides a brief transport back to the slower pace of yesteryear. It’s a trip I know I’ll take often. And next time I’ll try disco fries.