Everyone knows that New Jersey is the mecca of diners- duh. But have you ever heard of one that won a prestigious culinary award? Oh, sure, Guy Fieri had a little visit there recently, and the New York Times has given it a few brief mentions…but I’m talking here of the “Oscars” of the food industry, the awards bestowed on the big boys of restaurant nirvana (as in the likes of Daniel Boulud, Joel Robuchon, and Thomas Keller)…I’m talking James Beard, baby.
Bill Smith, owner and “head chef” of the unassuming Mustache Bill’s Diner on Long Beach Island, won the the famous bronze medallion: the James Beard award for “America’s Classics” in 2009. Is it breaking any ground, with new twists on comfort-fusion? Certainly not. If you go, understand that the big sign you see in the picture above is the most stylized thing about the place- it’s a simply a classic diner sitting nonchalantly across from the Barnegat Light, and doesn’t proclaim itself to be anything more.
We decided to take the kids and meet some friends for breakfast one morning, a trip that’s been long overdue. Inside, Bill’s is just what you would expect a 1950’s diner to look like: a counter near the entrance and a few small booths , with a “greenhouse” addition for extra space in the back. No neon piping or Marilyn Monroe/ James Dean/Elvis in a takeoff on Hopper’s “Night Hawks” on the walls. It’s not kitsch, it is just pure, unadulterated essence of diner. And while the famous Award is framed and displayed on the wall, it is almost lost amongst the many local newspaper mentions, nondescript photos and memorabilia.
We can assure you after eating there, however, that the award is well-deserved. A few of our friends had the “Cyclops” breakfast- two pancakes with a hollow center, filled with a fried egg. Another friend had the Dutch Country Breakfast, which consisted of cinnamon raisin French toast with two eggs and home fries. John decided to go with the Fisherman’s Special (eggs, pancakes and breakfast meat – he chose the corned beef hash), while I ordered the blueberry pancakes with some scrambled eggs and sausage to share with Lizzie. Julian took his friend Alek’s advice and ordered a T-Rex pancake; Alek is a Guy Fieri fan and he saw how Bill makes pancakes into different shapes: dinosaurs, people, anything-all by hand (no molds or guides).
Now, everything at Mustache Bill’s is made from scratch-everything. From the burgers (NOT frozen), to the creamed, chipped beef on rye toast (dried beef in a cream sauce made to order), to the batter-dipped french toast, to the pancakes. And we immediately tasted that freshness. The pancakes were fluffy, rich, tender (NOT rubbery), and sweet (but not too sweet); according to Bill he has a “secret ingredient” that involves some “special kind of rye flour”-but I’d never be able to guess, they were simply fabulous. My blueberry pancakes had plump, whole berries mixed in the batter (not gloppy, canned compote-hooray!), and Lizzie and I downed them all between the two of us. The scrambled eggs were fluffy, yet had a creamy taste to them-perfect. And the sausage: oh, my, the sausage.
What you see below is John’s Fisherman Special, and the corned beef hash was a satisfying mix of potatoes and meat with a nice grilled crust on the outside. If you don’t care for hash, remember this is a Jersey diner, and you’ve got choices: from bacon, to scrapple, to our beloved state meat, the pork roll. I sampled our friend’s French Toast, and it tasted more of custard and cinnamon than just a plain batter-dipped toast; it was rich and so very, very good. The home fries were the final clincher: golden-crispy on the outside, with tender potatoes that were perfectly done inside. My guess is that they were freshly-grated that morning, and cooked in butter. And if I’m wrong, I don’t care how they are done- they are beyond delicious.
If I had to find any fault, it would be the fake maple syrup on the tables. Of course, when the pancakes can be happily eaten without syrup, it’s hard to make this a sticking point (sorry, couldn’t resist that remark…).
Now that I’ve got you drooling, you may be wondering about dinner there. If so, make it early-say, before 3PM. Bill’s is only open for breakfast and lunch. The good news is that the diner will close for Christmas and reopen again in January, unlike most typical LBI businesses, which close for the winter. Oh, yeah- and it’s cash only-don’t bring any of yer fancy-pants cards, thankyouverymuch.
We were lucky enough to be dining with someone who knows Bill personally, and he came out for a moment to say hi. But before I could ask a single question, he was immediately back in the kitchen once again, because- get this – he does all the cooking. That’s right- it’s just him. And he’s been at this for a long, long time. He began working at this very diner as a teenager, and bought the place in 1972. So what is it that makes this place special-award material? A far as I can tell, it’s nothing more than this: love, care, and attention to detail. As Bill himself said in an interview with Pete Genovese (of Muchmobile fame) for NJ.Com last year, “It’s just a diner…it’s basic stuff, being done the best that can be done.”