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A Place for Great Food and Bad Jokes

A Place for Great Food and Bad Jokes

Authentic Vibes Keep Customers Coming Back to Jersey’s Oldest Diner

When the Crystal Diner first opened in 1925, Calvin Coolidge was in the White House and the Ford Model T was one of the most popular cars on US roads. Almost a century later, it has the distinction of being the oldest diner in New Jersey. 

A recent visit to this venerable establishment yielded an enjoyable lunch mixed with a generous dose of nostalgia. Setting the tone is a sign over the counter that reads: “No WiFi; Act Like It’s the 1970s; Talk to Each Other.” 

And here people were doing just that while they ate, having conversations and joking around with the owner and cook, Lutfi “Louie” Saleh. “Here, we have good food and bad jokes,” he said. 

Saleh has owned the diner since 2015. He succeeded Momir Saronovic (who owned the place for 39 years before that), and has kept the vibe nostalgic, nodding to the restaurant’s long history. 

Photographs decorating the diner’s walls feature pop and sports icons like Mohammad Ali, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, and Marilyn Monroe, to name just a few. Snapshots of vintage police cars, old buses, and the diner itself over the years hang alongside them.  

A personal favorite of Saleh’s is a picture of the diner taken in 1950. “In this photo, the sign above the diner says, ‘Diner, ladies invited,’” he said. 

As I arrived for lunch, Saleh was handing samples of sliced roast beef to customers. After taking a few bites from my overstuffed sandwich (I ordered the roast beef), a piece of tomato fell to my plate, prompting Saleh to ask me, “What’s the matter, you don’t like the tomatoes? I have good tomatoes.” 

There are indeed many good things on this menu. The top sellers, Saleh said, are the “Dumont Police,” a hero filled with hot roast beef, brown gravy, sauteed mushrooms, onions, and mozzarella, and the “Amazing Omelet,” which is filled with fresh ground beef, peppers, cheese, onions, and tomatoes. 

The popular “Dumont Police” hero

Now 97 years old, Crystal Diner was built in 1925. Over the years, it has occasionally popped up in movies and television.  

One such film was the 2012 biographical crime drama The Iceman, about a professional hitman who, it turns out, lived in Dumont. When I first walked in, I overheard some of the customers talking about the so-called Iceman, Richard Kuklinski. He was said to have murdered more than 100 men — and was also a frequent patron. The film starred Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, and Ray Liotta. 

Although Saleh was working alone the day of my visit, he said that he also employs members of his family. “My kids work here, and their friends work here, too.”  

And at times, even Saleh’s favorite customers assist by helping themselves to coffee refills. “It’s like ‘help yourself’ sometimes,” he said.  

Jacob, who eats at the diner almost every day, said the place, “feels like home,” adding, “it is authentic, and the owner is funny and pleasant.” 

For his part, Saleh said he loves his customers as well. And he may have won a new one. After my meal and conversations, I departed having enjoyed a very good lunch and a most pleasing visit. 

Photos by Samantha Finch

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