By Sally Deering
New Jerseyans know diners like they know Turnpike exits. They even know the best diners at Turnpike exits. There’s something about a diner’s home-cooked fare and no frills atmosphere that conjures up images of Edward Hopper paintings and memories of 3 am conversations over coffee and pie.
The diner mystique even has a TV following with viewers tuning in to the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” where host Guy Fieri travels the U.S. eating blue plate specials from the menus of greasy spoons. A while back, one of the stops on Fieri’s show was the Brownstone Diner & Pancake Factory on Jersey Avenue in Jersey City across from the Jersey City Medical Center. But unlike many of the diners featured on the show, the Brownstone is more upscale and the menu features entrees you’d likely find in New York and at higher prices.
The Brownstone offers diner fare, the eggs, burgers and sandwiches are always on the menu, but it’s definitely more than a diner. It’s a nice, easy-going restaurant that serves great food from traditional recipes that go back to when owners Zoe and Bobby Bournias were kids learning the restaurant business from their parents Irene and Peter who owned M&A diner back in the 1960s and ’70s. They converted it to the Newport Pancake House in the 1980s and when their father Pete was going to sell the business in 2004, Zoe and Bobby decided to leave their careers and run the business with their dad. They renovated and expanded and in 2005 re-named the eatery the Brownstone Diner & Pancake Factory, transforming it from a plain-and-simple diner to a family restaurant with a menu that goes far beyond blue plate specials.
“My parents always believed that in this business you have to be present,” Bobby Bournias says. “There’s never a minute when this restaurant is open that one of us, either Zoe, me or my father isn’t here. It’s not about making sure everything comes out right. It’s our appreciation for the clientele. We make it our business to say ‘hello’ and greet every customer and thank them for coming. Yes, it’s business, but at the same time it’s more than that. It’s something you enjoy doing.”
Zoe and Bobby added Pancake Factory to the diner’s name and included an extraordinary selection of pancakes to their menu. Choices include Buttermilk, Cran’Apple, Pecan, Peach, Strawberry and Banana Walnut Pancakes ($4.95-$7.95) and Blueberry, Cherry, Apple, Nut ‘n’ Honey, PB&J and Chocolate Chip Pancakes ($6.75 to $8.75.) There are Potato Pancakes (with apple sauce and sour cream) Coconut Pancakes, Honky Tonk Pancakes (peanut butter chunks and fresh bananas) and Black Forest Pancakes (chocolate chips and cherry compote) ($6.95-$7.95.) These flapjacks are so yummy New Jersey Monthly named them “Best of New Jersey” in its March 2009 issue.
Belgian Waffle lovers will go crazy trying to decide which waffle to choose, like the Original Belgian Waffle, Fresh Fruit, Raisin, Banana Walnut, Peach Walnut, Blueberry, Cherry, Apple Walnut, Ice Cream, Strawberries & Cream, Chocolate Chip, Dutch Apple and Praline Waffle ($5.25-$8.95.)
Along with the pasta dishes and the meat and poultry entrees, the Brownstone serves what they call Basket Stuffers: Country Fried Chicken in a Basket, Fried Shrimp Basket, Fried Clams in the Basket, Fried Sole, New England Fish & Chips, Fried Scallops, a Hodgepodge Basket (chicken fingers, beer-battered onion rings, mozzarella sticks and French fries) and the Colossal Fried Fisherman Basket (shrimp, scallops, filet of sole and French fries ($8.95 -$14.95.)
For the hearty diner, the steaks and chops fit the bill. The Brownstone special is the Rib-Eye Gorgonzola (20 ounce boneless cut charbroiled and smothered with aged gorgonzola) T-bone steak (24 ounces; charbroiled) NY Sirloin (20 ounce; charbroiled) London Broil (tender strips of flank topped with homemade mushroom sauce) Roast Sirloin and Beef Brisket ($11.95-$23.95.)
For dessert-lovers, there’s Cheesecake, Triple Top Cheesecake (topped with chocolate, caramel and raspberry sauce) Lemon Meringue Pie, Triple Chocolate Fudge Cake, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cake($3.25-$3.95) and really special desserts like the Waffle Tower (waffle wedges, fresh bananas, vanilla ice cream, walnuts, caramel sauce, chocolate syrup and whipped cream) Caramel Almond Parfait and Bobby’s Treat (vanilla ice cream topped off with a shot of espresso) ($4.95-$7.95.)
Zoe and Bobby are looking to expand the Brownstone to a new location in either Hudson or Bergen County and they’re also planning a renovation and expansion to the Jersey Avenue restaurant where they will add an outdoor patio, indoor-outdoor bar and enough space for private parties and events. But that won’t happen until 2012 and the Brownstone will remain open during the renovation.
“This is something Zoe and I both truly enjoy,” Bobby says. “When it was the Newport Pancake House back in 2004, I was practicing law in New York and Zoe was working in healthcare. My father was considering retiring and when we got wind of that we realized we didn’t want that to happen. We grew up in this place. There’s definitely a feeling here that we love.”
And if you have any trouble finding the Brownstone Diner & Pancake Factory, it’s on the corner of Jersey and Grand blocks away from the Turnpike Extension in Jersey City. And if you’re a New Jerseyan, you probably know that.
The Brownstone Diner & Pancake Factory
426 Jersey Avenue
Jersey City, NJ