Profile: The Greeks 461 Elm St Kearny, NJ 07032
Specialty: “Food with Attitude”
Text: Kaitlin Astrella
Photos: Erin Beth Donnelly
“Taylor ham, egg, and cheese:” that’s my usual at The Greeks. Everyone has a usual at The Greeks, and most likely Heather, the lead waitress, knows it before you can even perch at the counter or slide into one of their newly upholstered booths. She’ll ask anyway, just to make sure it is definitely what you want on that particular day. By the time I strolled in at half past two, it was pretty quiet.
“You just missed it. Right before you got here, we were rocking and rolling. Good thing we got off tomorrow,” said John, the owner. They rock and roll everyday at the Greeks, open from 7-4 everyday except on holidays, like Thanksgiving tomorrow. And they’ve been rocking and rolling since 1968, when John’s father bought the space after it had already been a restaurant since the thirties. Since his father opened it, the place is known for its diner working class fare—quick, hearty food. There was a Du Pont factory on Elm and word got out about the place down the street. Since then, teachers from the Kearny school systems, trade workers, small business owners, and their families frequent the Greeks. John, the current owner, took over business from his father after receiving his bachelor’s in finance from Rutgers.
The place looked different than it did when I last saw it. There used to be red booths and dark wood paneling. I had a hard time picturing the old place when I first walked in, instantly impressed by the shiny subway tile and the sleek black leather and the sophisticated grey paint. This was the work of American Diner Revival, a show on the Food Network with Ty Pennington and Amanda Freitag that save failing mom and pop restaurants. But I couldn’t help feeling like the Greeks, rocking and rolling every single day at lunch, didn’t need saving.
“De-greasing the Greeks,” slotted to air December 5th, is the episode title on the Food Network Website. The accompanying description would suggest that the popular lunch spot is on the decline: “The Greeks diner has been feeding the hardworking men and women of Kearny, N.J. for almost 50 years, but now this mom and pop diner is in danger of closing its doors because of its overindulgent greasy spoon fare.” I sat down at the counter to find out.
“Do you mind if I walk around while we do this?” John asked. “If I’m walking around, I’m still listening.” I told him the place looked great, but I was surprised to hear about him being on the show. According to John, scouts from Food Network look all around for places that would be eligible for the show, and they found the Greeks and asked John if he would be interested. When he told them that his was a successful business, the people said not to worry, basically they needed a “bullshit story for TV.”
“Sure, I’m in for a bullshit story,” John said. “But I didn’t know the upside. I’m thinking what are they going to come in and redo the kitchen and drop some real money into the joint, and you come to realize that they don’t really drop that much money. But just the advertisement alone makes it well, well, well worth doing. You know, you can’t buy that.” The concept for the show was that he did so much for the community that they wanted to put it back into his place. Between sponsoring the little league team and music and soccer if he took back three or four grand that he spent, they were there to help with volunteers. “And it’s great. But it’s all bullshit,” John laughed. The contractor “the diner insider” who he knows gave him the behind the scenes perspective. When the guys were doing tile work, for example, and Ty comes in and puts a tile on, they say “cut” so that the real tile workers can take the tile off and replace it.
First day on the show is renovations with Ty, in this case: tile, paint, and upholstered booths. John put in a new stove himself because they had moved the counter for tiling and also took the opportunity to install a new fridge which he also bought himself. “They were actually anti-stove.” John explained, because Amanda Freitag was going to do her menu bit that same day, and if the stove wasn’t ready by that time, then her entire bit couldn’t happen. He helped to install the new stove on a day he wasn’t supposed to be at the restaurant before the unveiling. “I met my buddy down the block with the pick up truck and I had my plumber come and do it and it was fine but it was all on me.” Despite the difficulties, John was glad he took the opportunity to install the new equipment.
A customer came and sat down with his daughter and son. Heather knew their orders and their drinks—coke and chocolate milk, respectively. “That cat right there, Fred, was here everyday,” said John.
Fred waved from down the counter. “Thank you for the oven.”
“Why it was tough?”
Fred nodded gravely. They had some trouble running the gas line.
John clarified, “What happens is this is a real old building, built 125 years ago. The old stuff you kind of know from just being around here forever like where the fuse box is and that it has old time screw in parts for some of the plugs.”
On the second day, Amanda comes in to correct the menu. They dressed up John’s brisket and suggested Greek style meatballs but John hasn’t incorporated the new items yet although he might want to in the future. Amanda also instructed an apple pie (“which nobody liked”), delicious blueberry peach tart, and Greek style donuts with a honey glaze. But really, with one fryer devoted to fries and chicken fingers, the deserts were unrealistic unless he hired an extra staff member and got another fryer.
“I’m not gunna make a pie. I’ll be honest with you. At the end of the day if you can go to Costco or ShopRite and spend 8, 9, 10 bucks on a pie. And I’m gunna make it from scratch? It just doesn’t jive.” At a cost of 6 or 7 dollars for the product and an hour of Johhn’s time, he would rather be putting money into his homemade soups. A customer ordered a lobster bisque over my shoulder, and I saw a full cup go by. I said, “That looks legit.” And before I knew it, John had slipped me a dish of it on the sly. Creamy, spicy pepper undertones, and a chunk of succulent lobster meat.
But The Greeks occasionally did put some desserts on the menu. Heather makes a pumpkin cheesecake at home “and a guy in the back makes a kickass brownie.” And homemade desserts, even if they are only on occasion, seems better, more true to the character of the place than offering a Greek zeppoli that a more high-end restaurant might put on their menu as casual gourmet. Instead, when Heather’s cheesecake goes on the menu, it feels like she made it as a surprise for her company.
I asked John, then, about the type of response he anticipates after the episode airs at his already well-greased diner machine. He figures there will initial wave and then maybe some foodies that hear about that place. It helps that he is on Yelp with really good reviews (a four and half star rating but scrolling through, I only saw five stars): “Five stars because I don’t know a better place for breakfast!”; “Portions are big, low prices, tasty food, casual atmosphere, friendly staff. I will be coming back!”; “what can I say, I walked out of there ‘FAT N HAPPY!’” Just as we were talking about Yelp, my photographer, Erin, walked in after teaching half a day at Kearny High School. She said, “I want something fattening and delicious.” So she ordered herself a Taylor ham, egg, and cheese, too.
John prepared homemade croutons in the fryer as he closed up while Erin snapped some pictures. She had just dropped her kids off at her sister in law’s next door and was feeling excited about her food but also very creative. She stood on a chair to get some shots. We ate leisurely and talked about the high school. John said goodbye to his customers but didn’t rush the ones still bent over plates of hot comfort.
He reminded a regular, “December Fourth I’ll be on the Food Network.
“No really. ’Member I told ya? Ty Pennington and shit. It airs December Fourth. 9pm. Check it out, baby. I’ll sign you an autograph after that.”