The Weequahic Diner: A Newark Landmark & Tradition

by Nat Bodian

In the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's, Newark had a substantial Jewish population that after World War II edged up to about 58,000, and at one time represented 12 percent of the city's population and 1.1% of American Jewry.

In those decades, a vital landmark that had become the heart and soul of Newark's bustling and upwardly-mobile Jewish community was the Weequahic Diner.

It occupied a triangular strip of land at 306-308 Elizabeth Avenue bounded by Hawthorne Avenue on the south and E. Peddie Street on the north. The Denburg Bakery was directly behind the diner.

Diner's Origin

The Diner had been erected at that site in 1938 by the Leo Bauman. Earlier in the 1930s, Leo Bauman had operated a modest eating establishment on Broadway in North Newark called "The Colonial Grill."

Leo Bauman had realized that as Clinton Hill was now heavily populated as a Jewish residential area, and was rapidly spilling over into the more prosperous Weequahic section that an eating establishment straddling those two neighborhoods and appealing to first-generation Jews who lived there would fill a need.

He commissioned the Kullman Dining Car Company of Harrison, one of the leading diner builders1, to build and install what was quickly destined to become a Newark landmark, and a gathering place where two generations of Jewish Newarkers subsequently met, ate, and socialized.

A Diner Untypical of the 1930s

The Weequahic Diner, when it opened for business in 1938, was untypical of neighborhood diners of the 1930s. It was much larger2, more nicely decorated in its interior, and served a vast variety of high-quality food -- both in its American menu, and with a wide selection of Jewish food favorites, as might be found in a traditional Jewish home.

Its flaky-crusted cream pies, baked goods and tasty little hot rolls were without equal, and a popular discussion argument of the era was whether the Weequahic Diner pies were better than those of the classier and pricier Tavern Restaurant at 444 Elizabeth Avenue, just two blocks up on the corner of Meeker and Elizabeth which opened nine years earlier.

Morris Joins Leo in 1941

Leo Bauman's brother, Morris, had fled from Nazi Germany to England in 1940, and, after living through the Blitz, Leo arranged for Morris and his wife to join him in Newark in late 1941. Morris immediately went to work in the Diner and Leo later made Morris a full partner in his dining enterprises.

My Diner Recollections

I fondly recall my visits to the Weequahic Diner in the post-World War II years, usually after Saturday night dates and later as a young newlywed. Whenever we went to a show, concert, or any social event, we'd often wind up the night with a stop at the Weequahic Diner for "coffee and." (I had a passion for the diner's nesselrode pie).

During the wait to get in--and there was always a wait--we would meet friends, neighbors, former schoolmates, perhaps our doctor or dentist--people we knew and with whom we could chat. It seemed to me at that time that the warm friendly atmosphere around the diner made it as much of an attraction as its good food3.

Several Newark old-timers from whom I invited Weequahic Diner recollections for this "Newark Memory" summarized their diner recollections words similar to these; "It was the place you went to be seen."

Diner Location Spells Success

At the time Leo Bauman opened the Weequahic Diner in 1938, Newark's large Jewish population concentration had largely shifted out of the old Third Ward and into the Clinton Hill/Weequahic neighborhoods, and with its location at the foot of Hawthorne Avenue, the diner more or less straddled both neighborhoods and quickly became a landmark.

Its location at 306-308 Elizabeth Avenue gave it yet another advantage. While a virtual Jewish-peopled gathering place during the dinnertime and into the early morning hours, for its breakfast and luncheon business, it was also the best and most conveniently located quality food eatery in the area, and catered to the nearby industrial plants between Elizabeth and Frelinghuysen Avenues, and to the offices and storefront Elizabeth Avenue business establishments that took advantage of its expansive American menu for both eating in and take-out food orders.

A Sunday Breakfast Recollection

One former diner habitué, with whom I spoke, recalled that in her growing-up years through World War II, her father would take her to the Weequahic Diner every Sunday morning for breakfast -- a custom that lasted through many postwar years up to the week of her marriage.

Her father's favorite breakfast order was matzo brie (matzo soaked in pieces, mixed with eggs, and fried). She said "I was crazy about their bread, hot rolls, and Danish."

The waitresses, she recalled, were courteous and friendly. They were mostly blondes and wore their hair in an upsweep. In the 1940s when salaries were modest, she added, she'd heard that the waitresses made over $200 a week in tips.

Some Other Recollections

When I recalled the Weequahic Diner to an octogenarian friend recently, he recalled 1940s and 1950s experiences at the diner as similar to my own.

"When I got through with a date," he told me, "I'd go to the diner to meet my friends. There was always someone there that I knew, even at 12 - 1 in the morning. The Weequahic Diner was my hangout."

Bill Newman, who had lived on Hawthorne Avenue near the diner in those years and is now retired to Florida, recalled the diner as an end-of-the-evening date spot. "You usually had a long wait," he recalled, "at mealtimes and even late at night there were usually lines waiting to get in."

Another friend, who frequented the diner in the 1940s and 1950s also recalled the Weequahic Diner with great warmth. He said he ate there frequently and was especially fond of their cream pies, especially the chocolate cream and the nesselrode pie. He also recalled that they had great creamy rice pudding4.

He sentimentalized "When you sat down, you got a basket of little hot rolls that were as delicious as any Danish pastry, and a bowl of mixed salad. I think they called it "diner salad" (which would later be known as Claremont salad)5. If you emptied your bowl, they would refill it...and they would also bring extra rolls...and the diner food was great."

A late 1940s luncheon frequenter at the Weequahic Diner, who was the son of a then Mob-connected Frelinghuysen Avenue business-owner, offers this Diner recollection:
"The Weequahic Diner was the meeting place of the entire city of Newark. The Italians from the First Ward on the other side of the city came to eat at the Weequahic Diner ... It was the meeting place ... I used to see Longy Zwillman and his people there at lunch, sitting at a special table reserved for them."

Jewish Specialties

Some of the diner's Jewish specialties were longtime favorites and included kishka, chopped chicken liver, stuffed cabbage, and fried kreplach. Some were listed as "with Chicken Fat."

They also served a variety of smoked fishes, and their generously-stacked cream cheese and lox platter (with bagels) had an aerated cream cheese as light as whipped cream.

Menu categories ranged from "Sizzling Hot from the Grill"6 ... Triple-Decker Club Sandwiches...Weequahic Famous Open Sandwiches...Salads and Fish Delicacies...Assorted Cold Buffet...Dairy Dishes...Griddle Specialties...and "Weequahic Famous Desserts" that includes the fabulous Weequahic Diner cheesecake7, a dozen varieties of pies, fruit tarts, and cookies.

Diner Population Shifts

While the Weequahic Diner was thriving and bustling around the clock during the 1940s and 1950s, the Jewish population in the Clinton Hill/Weequahic area was moving out of Newark to Hillside, Union, and the West Essex suburbs. And as Newark's Jewish population diminished, so did business at the Weequahic Diner.

The 1967 riots in Newark marked the end of virtually all Jewish life in Newark with the departure of nearly all of Newark's Jewish population, synagogues and institutions by the end of that decade. The riots also signaled the death knell for the Weequahic Diner, which the Baumans sold to others, and was eventually closed down.

How Baumans Prepared for End

The Bauman brothers, earlier on, sensitive to the shrinking of Newark's Jewish population, and, with an eye to the future, had shifted their food operations to the Claremont Diner on Bloomfield Avenue in Verona.

Its new location attracted many of its former patrons, especially those who had relocated to the West Essex area, and also an entire new population who quickly went for their food preparation, service, and warm atmosphere. The Claremont became what the Weequahic Diner had once been.

A Look Back at What Used to Be

It is more than a generation since the landmark Weequahic Diner has been gone from its Newark location, but if you meet any former Newarker from the neighborhood where the diner reigned supreme, they are quick to recall and to reminisce about the old diner's warm and friendly atmosphere, and Leo Bauman running around and shouting "Hurry Up! -- People are waiting" -- or Leo trading good natured insults with his devoted clientele, who considered his off-the-wall utterances and shouts as much a part of the diner's ambiance as the palatable menu.

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