This story first appeared on the BBC Travel website, in September 2018, with photography and video by Myles Pritchard. You can see the package here.
In June, photographer Myles and I headed up and down the New Jersey coast, checking out the state’s famous diners. There are still more than 500 of them dotted across New Jersey, which was also the centre of the diner manufacturing industry from 1917 until the mid-1950s, when the market for prefab diners tailed off (partly due to Mcdonald’s, and a change in fast food culture).
It was fascinating to hear why the state took off as a diner hub, led by Jerry O’Mahony, of Bayonne, New Jersey, who built America’s first stationary lunch wagon around 1913. As many as 20 New Jersey diner manufacturers sprung up in the wake of the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company, from the Paterson Vehicle Company to Swingle, Paramount and the Kullman Diner Car Company. The diner boom was helped by New Jersey’s extensive road network, its dense working-class population and a growing number of Greek immigrants who opened diners in the state.
As is usually the case with these jaunts, the highlight was meeting great characters: like Jim Greberis, the gentlemanly longtime owner of the train carriage-inspired Summit Diner, which opened in 1938; and the more taciturn ‘Mustache’ Bill Smith, whose Mustache Bill’s Diner in Barnegat Light was the first in America to win a James Beard Classics award. Bill has owned the diner in this sleepy oceanfront borough since 1972, and says its success is down to one word: Standards. “We have a clause in the menu that says if anyone isn’t happy with any aspect of the food or the service, they don’t pay,” he says.
But perhaps the most memorable character we met was Mario Costa, the owner of the White Mana Diner, on a busy intersection in Jersey City, in what feels like pure Sopranos territory. The diner is fascinating in itself—the UFO-like circular building was first unveiled at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where it was billed as “the future of fast food”, because the server could cook and serve customers without taking more than a few steps.
But then we met Costa himself, with his pomaded hair and unlit cigar, looking like Silvio in the Sopranos (one of his regulars was a dead ringer for Uncle Junior, too). Costa, who moved from Portugal as a kid, is also a boxing obsessive, who owns a rough-and-ready boxing gym across the road, and a bar next door called the Ringside. Over the years, he’s mentored and given free gym time to famous boxers like the Canadian Hilton brothers and their cousin, the lightweight champion Arturo Gatti.
But his best-known allegiance has been with Mike Tyson, whom he has known since Tyson was a lonely, bullied kid growing up in Brooklyn. Tyson used to have a secret apartment above the Ringside bar, and Mario’s gym was his favourite place to train, especially because—according to Mario—the paparazzi didn’t know about it. While Tyson now lives mostly in Las Vegas, Mario still looks after his collection of homing pigeons, held in a couple of rooftop coops above the Ringside bar.
Tyson used to have a secret apartment above the Ringside bar, and Mario’s gym was his favourite place to train, especially because—according to Mario—the paparazzi didn’t know about it.
Certainly, Mario has seen some stuff. Since buying the diner in 1979, regulars have included Tony DiGilio, brother of the feared New Jersey mob boss John DiGilio, who would eat either a cheese slider or a cheesesteak with Wonder bread every day. He spent years giving free burgers and emotional support to the then-struggling rapper Akon. In 2004 he heard Akon’s manager, Robert “Screw” Montanez, being gunned down right outside the Ringside bar.
But his prevailing passion, other than the diner, is boxing. Every day, he gets coaches in to teach boxing to disadvantaged kids. He doesn’t charge them a dime, just as he never charged Tyson, Gatti or any of the other boxers who have been in his orbit. “Money would have messed it all up,” he says. “I have always done this for the love of it.”
Despite the cigar, the slick hair and the odd shady affiliation, Costa struck me as a fundamentally decent human being. Just like Jim Greberis, who treats his regulars like family, and Bill Smith, who insists on paying his staff well above the required wages, he came across as a gentleman.