Iconic Hometown Restaurant, Obsolete Dining Concept?

Musings on food and generational differences

When I visited my family in Flemington, New Jersey back in July—which also inspired this post—I found out that one of the town’s oldest and most well-liked restaurants, a bar and grill called Jake’s, had closed after 29 years in business. (It actually closed a year ago, but I had not learned until this recent visit.) Open since 1991 and a familiar fixture of the area as long as I can remember, Jake’s was one of the only Flemington establishments to serve alcohol (due to New Jersey’s restrictive liquor license laws), and possibly the only non-chain to do so.

Half of the spacious, functionally windowless restaurant—if the parking lot was sparsely filled, it kind of looked closed down—was a dimly lit bar with some casual seating in front, and the other half was a white-tablecloth dining room. The entrees were anywhere from $10-$15 for a sandwich or salad to up to $30 for a steak or crab cake or surf and turf. My parents went there with me many times throughout my childhood, and as a kid with expensive tastes, I always loved the “Jake’s Steak,” a blackened Cajun-seasoned ribeye. Rare, please! Sometimes we went with friends, too. It was slightly upscale but still casual, slightly stuffy, very American, a little old-fashioned and a little timeworn.

The menu changed over the years, but not that much. Some of the original 1991 items remained to the end. There were some modern or trendy additions like honey sriracha chicken, a Beyond Burger, and guacamole served inside the empty avocado halves. There were craft beers available and $1 oyster specials. But the overall mood of the place remained the same. As far as I can tell, any attempts at modernizing the concept were kind of perfunctory, and didn’t really stick, or grow the restaurant’s customer base.

The last time I was in the Jake’s building was summer of 2017, where I met my parents and a few of their friends in the bar side, after dinner, on our way into New Jersey one evening. It was getting late, and nobody was ordering new drinks, so we didn’t either. The last time I actually had lunch or dinner there must have been when I was in high school, or even earlier.

The Great Recession probably took a bite out of Jake’s dining room business, and as noted they did not revamp the décor or menu the way a lot of stodgy establishments did following the crash. But the takeout-only coronavirus restriction in early 2020 seems to have done the place in. Jake’s was poorly adapted for takeout, both in terms of logistics and in terms of the kinds of food people typically think of when they order takeout (i.e., it’s very much not what Jake’s served.) And at that point, I suspect that the bar had been carrying the establishment a little bit.

I was sad to hear of the closure of this local landmark, but I realized, with some curiosity: despite enjoying my meals there as a kid, it never occurred to me to go there once I had my own car and income, or take my then-girlfriend (now-wife) there when I brought her home to Flemington the first couple of times. I’d never even really thought about the place, despite passing it every time I visited town, and having fond childhood memories of it. For whatever reason, this particular dining concept just doesn’t resonate with me as an adult, and, seemingly with a large percentage of my generation. I can’t recall the last time I went to any place like it.

I’ve been thinking about why, exactly, that might be: why Jake’s never got my grown-up business, and what that might say about dining preferences and generational attitudes. I like thinking about restaurants and food, this interesting intersection of commerce and culture. These are my educated guesses, as to my personal adult preferences.

One interesting thing is that Jake’s, like a lot of diners or family restaurants, had a kids’ menu. Virtually none of the places my wife and I frequent offers a kids’ menu. Now that doesn’t mean that kids and families don’t go to those places. They do; we often see young families in our favorite restaurants. Maybe even kids today are a little more adventurous than when I was growing up; maybe they don’t want five frozen ravioli in canned tomato sauce, or a hot dog, or two chicken tenders and fries. Maybe they get an appetizer. Maybe two kids split an entrée. Maybe the kids have entrées and the parents pocket the leftovers. But I get the feeling that the kids’ menu, like the white-tablecloth restaurant, is a fading concept.

My wife and I gravitate towards livelier, more casual but also more modern concepts. All you can eat sushi, Vietnamese or Thai, fusion, Indian, Ethiopian, Korean BBQ, stuff that we can’t easily make at home or isn’t that familiar to us; food that’s affordable but feels kind of upscale, in a way that a kind of upscale American restaurant somehow doesn’t. There’s probably $2 worth of ingredients in a plate of pad thai or pho, a little more in an Indian curry or Ethiopian spread, for example. But it’s more obvious that work has gone into the cooking and presentation, work that I can’t really do at home. A $12 pad thai somehow feels like a much better value than a $30 steak. $25 all-you-can-eat sushi blows a $25 salmon fillet out of the water.

A white tablecloth place, on the other hand, often feels like upcharged ordinary food I can make at home. Maybe that’s a generational thing. Decades ago, maybe, steak or fillet of sole or scallops or crab cakes were really special treats. It’s not like I eat things like that every day, but they’re not really special to me. Modern supermarkets have probably given these restaurants a run for their money. I can go to Wegmans, or even Giant, and buy pretty nice steaks or scallops or refrigerated canned crab. I can also walk into the wine section of the Wegmans, or a specialty wine shop, and avail myself of pretty much anything that might be on an ordinary restaurant’s wine list at a fraction of the price. It’s probably easier right now than it’s ever been to eat really well at home for much, much less than the equivalent meal in a restaurant.

And gadgets like sous vide immersion circulators, multi-function cookers, convection ovens, along with higher-quality grocery offerings, have also made it much easier to cook at a restaurant level than it once was. The value proposition just isn’t there for me the way it may have been for my busy parents, or for their parents—on the rare occasions they went out to eat, to restaurants that would mostly strike me as boring and ordinary. I wouldn’t say we’re less materialistic, but I do think there’s truth to the notion that we seek experiences more. We want to stamp a passport of restaurants and cuisines. Dining out is certainly a social event, but the cuisine and the menu really are the centerpiece of it for us. My generation is almost certainly more cosmopolitan and adventurous than that of my parents.

Part of it is presentation too. Many of the Yelp photos of Jake’s show a piece of meat or fillet of fish on a plate surrounded by small dishes of rice pilaf and steamed veggies. It’s old-fashioned and lackluster. The Yelp photos also show clams and oysters sort of thrown onto plates, not exactly a presentation that inspires confidence when you’re dealing with something expensive and raw.

Yet, I like diners and improbably good roadside places where you get an unbelievable spread of home-cooked goodness heaped on chipped china or paper plates. Or where you get...a piece of meat or fish on a plate surrounded by small dishes of rice pilaf and steamed veggies. Maybe it even has a certain aw-shucks “aesthetic,” an “authenticity” to it. I’ve never used Instagram in my life, but maybe I’ve absorbed the notion that food should be photogenic. When I think about it, I think it’s silly.

So, I wondered as I thought through all of this: what type of restaurant from my childhood would I bring my wife to? Not my favorite Chinese buffet, because she doesn’t share my love for them (and because it’s out of business.) Maybe a Jersey diner. A roadside ice cream stand, like Cream King on the way to Princeton. Jack’s Pizza, the pizza and Italian ice joint on Flemington’s main street, although I don’t think they serve Italian ice anymore. Those, in a way, are all experiences, or memories. Jake’s, for whatever reason, didn’t create such memories.

Maybe this change in generational preference is a little like how my parents bought sets of silverware and china and glasses and updated them from time to time. That kind of thing simply isn’t on my radar. I saw them do it many times, and I enjoyed accompanying them to the stores and looking around—sometimes they’d even ask me which pattern or style I liked best. But when I really think about it, it’s almost bizarre to me that people would spend money on sets of these things, with service for 8 or 12 people. It must have seemed completely natural to them, yet somehow that habit and whatever attitudes and assumptions underlaid it very much did not get passed on.

I’m perfectly happy with a tub of utensils from grad school that once belonged to me, or my wife, or our roommates. I’m happy with her little set of small bowls from the Korean supermarket’s housewares aisle, and my set of Ikea plates from the trash room during move-out one year. Some older folks might see this combination—hip restaurants, cobbled together domestic implements—as emblematic of a lazy, materialistic, flighty attitude towards life, work, money, and responsibility. I see it as the opposite: I safeguard my money by holding onto things that work well enough, and prefer to use what disposable income I have on fun times rather than stuff.

Yes, a part of me wishes I had shared this little piece of my childhood and my hometown with my wife, that I had given the old-fashioned joint my business maybe just once. But I guess Katy Perry described my feelings on the matter when she sang, “I miss you more than I loved you.”

Related Reading:

Locked Down, Growing Up?

Vornado’s Long Life

If you like what you’re seeing, please consider a paid subscription to help support this work. You’ll get a Saturday subscribers-only post every week, plus full access to the archive. And you’ll help ensure more material like this!