Gus' Diner, Rt 33, Manalapan - Pleasant Surprise
It’s been fifteen years since I was last in Gus’ Diner on Rt 33 in Manalapan. Back then it was about 6 counter seats and 8 tables and, as I remember, only served breakfast and lunch, closing in the mid-afternoon. The burgers were pretty good; the breakfast fare was pretty good; the service was pretty good… you get the idea. Everything was incredibly inexpensive.
There was a major renovation (about a year or two ago?) and Gus’ now looks like a mini-diner of the “Granite and Mirrors” variety rather than a hole-in-the-wall. Frankly, it looks like the typical new place that serves twenty wraps and fifteen panini and thirty salads, all priced at $18, and all tasting the same…
Yesterday, I had time to stop by, around 5 PM (they’re now open until 11 PM,) and found the place a pleasant surprise. The place is bright and airy and scrupulously clean. The utensils are old but absolutely spotless. The staff is friendly and helpful and EXTREMELY professional (the litmus test for that is “Does the staff check up on you enough to service you WITHOUT being annoying?”) The interior is bigger than it was and holds many more tables, without seeming cramped. The left side of the menu is what I expected: Wraps, Panini, Salads, Club Sandwiches, Burgers, and your normal mix of NJ Diner hot entrees, plus a good breakfast menu and a case of “baked on premises” desserts. The right side of the menu was a surprise: Wraps and Panini were $9 with fries; burgers started at $3.75 (fries are extra) and most of the dinner staples were under $10. There was also a page of Dinner Specials (including soup or salad, beverage and dessert) for under $20.
I didn’t have a lot of time, and had plans that precluded a large meal, so I tried my “go-to” test of a pizza burger, medium well. I’ve said here before that the first time in a new place I’ll order “medium well” to gauge how the place judges done-ness. First good note: my server asked if I wanted milk or half-and-half with my iced coffee. No little plastic containers – an old-fashioned stainless mini-pitcher came out. Second good note: they know how to make a pizza burger – many recent places can’t figure out where the sauce and cheese go, and make a gooey mess. Third good note: the burger was consistently cooked (see some of my other posts for diners that serve raw spots in their meat because the grill guy doesn’t know his grill.) Fourth good note: the burger was EXACTLY medium well (slightly pink interior) and was absolutely juicy.
For anyone who grew up in Essex county in the 60’s and 70’s, this was the closest I’ve had to a “Gary’s” pizza burger (Springfield Ave in Maplewood.) It wasn’t huge (probably 5-6 ounces) but it was just big enough. It wasn’t in the same class as a “Don’s Drive In” burger, but I’ve been searching for that for 20 years and haven’t found one yet. The coleslaw was merely okay; the pickle was extremely good.
I’ll be going back to sample the full menu; if they can do this with a burger (at $4.55) then I’m curious to see what else they can do. In short, a wonderful surprise.
Went back with a group and ordered a sandwich, a panini, and a wrap. All were excellent. A chocolate milkshake was also excellent. The exception to each of the meals were the fries. These are shoe-string fries, and those are very difficult to cook - you can "McDonalds" them and have them crispy but one-dimensional, or you can stop short of gold and crispy and have some potato taste in the center but there's no crunch at all. With larger cuts, of course, you can twice-fry, and end up with a creamy interior and crisp exterior. These were fried in oil that was probably a bit too cool. What we got were pale off-white fries; not limp, but certainly without any crunch. The interior was creamy but the crust was non-existent.
Next time I'll try to time it so that I can try some of the dinner entrees. This place (fries notwithstanding) is a bargain, and a real find for simple, well-prepared meals.