An ode to the vanishing char-broiler



My love of burgers started in the womb. My mother used to send my father for grilled hot dogs, burgers, and fried clams at the Three Acre Grill in Lyndhurst, a grease pit lost to urban development. /The photo is from the ’40s, when dining and dancing were offered; by the late ’60s it was less fancy. Beef patties broiled crisp, frankfurters seared with grill marks, that blend of tantalizing char and rich fat melted under flame. Science has proven it is more addictive than cocaine, but at least it won’t make you look like these guys.
Growing up, we’d stop for a summer treat at one of Route 3’s many char-broil grills. The long-gone Red Chimney was my favorite, with its ridiculous ’50s-era smokestack and counter-top dining. When it was gone, the historically named Anthony Wayne, after Revolutionary War Brigadier General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, took its place. They seared their thin patties on what fry cooks would call a “salamander,” a brutally hot grill that finished burgers in minutes, then they slapped them on gummy white hamburger buns. You could get American or cheddar, but the hot burger relish was what made them memorable to me. They served orange whips and the usual deep-fryer fare, but the burgers with their crisp, carcinogenic broiled crust were the star.
The Anthony was in a horrible location in the armpit of where three major highways merged, and required dodging multiple lanes of traffic full of mall-seeking moms and teenagers headed for their driving tests at the Wayne DMV. You truly risked death to get one of their burgers, and it made them taste even better. You’d want one for the road, wrapped in wax paper. The little cozy restaurant was decorated log cabin style with pictures of the Mad General and his exploits. I bet in the old days they had fake flintlocks and Daniel Boone accessories festooning the rafters with the odd ratty stuffed raccoon. It too, has been relegated to Jersey grease stain history.
So when I was driving to High Point State Park for a hike with Firecracker and saw the garish brown and orange cabin decor of The Elias Cole, I knew I had to stop there for a bite. I’d seen the place years ago when I hiked there with Milky, but we were broke and they take CASH ONLY. Wow, they really take this retro thing seriously, don’t they? Inside, we grabbed a booth and were served by friendly waitresses wearing bunny ears, for the Easter holiday. It was like stepping back in time to my char-broil days of youth- I prefer that term to “salad days.” The menu was simple: burgers, franks, shrimp in a basket; the char-broil staples. This being Saturday, they had dinner specials of hot roast beef, chicken or pork with mashed potatoes and gravy, and several older couples were there to partake of the plates piled high with meat-stuffs. We of course, went for the cheeseburgers.
They come on a freshly baked French sandwich roll, and they make the burger shaped to fit it. It’s capsule shaped, and seared with a fine grill crust that brings memories of summer when you bite into it. Just juicy enough and full of classic beef flavor, topped with two slices of American cheese melted to the roll and optional lettuce, tomato, and pickle, this is a classic roadstand burger with great taste. The roll really helps, crisp on the outside and still soft enough to absorb juices and squish down to make the burger easily edible. They also make great fries, standard and sweet potato. In fact, the sweets are some of the best I’ve had, better than the Cloverleaf Tavern, my previous fave.
You owe it to yourself to visit the highest point in the state of New Jersey- 1800 feet above sea level, and home to the Veteran’s obelisk monument- and then drive on down to the Elias Cole on Route 23 for a burger. Who’s Elias Cole? I don’t know. It’s not the name of the current owners. But it’s a fitting name for a classic char-broiler joint like this. It rings of the ’50s era frontier revival that these roadside restaurants thrived in. Some googling suggests he lead an Ohio regiment of volunteers in the Civil War. Next time I’ll ask.
Some other char-broils I recall are St.Paul’s excellent St. Clare Broiler, where I used to get liver and onions with Deneen “The Neener” Gannon in my Twin Cities days; she loved a good diner and the St. Clare reminded me of Jersey. One I have yet to try is the Montclair Char-Coal Broil on Valley Road, which is newer but has the right style. They’re a dying breed, killed off by fast food chains that barely serve things that can be called meat anymore. Do your mouth a favor and visit one of these anachronisms while they remain, and remember what a burger was supposed to taste like.
But most importantly, if you visit High Point State Park, be on the watch for zombies and vampires, which infest the place:

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© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

The Salem Oak … and Diner

500+ year old oak.

Today we wax historic, for travels had me pass through the small town of Salem, NJ en route to Baltimore this week. It’s just off exit 1 on the NJ Turnpike, the last exit before the Delaware Memorial Bridge. You could make a day trip and visit nearby Fort Mott and Finn’s Point, which date to the Civil War. I visited them the last time I passed this way, and only heard about the 400 year old oak tree afterward.

This gives you some scale, with the tiny cyclist.

Now there are older trees; there’s a 3,000 year old bristlecone pine in Yellowstone, whose location is kept secret, to keep idiots from trying to pick souvenirs of its bark. You can’t even take fallen pieces of wood from that part of the park, because of souvenir hunters. This one just happens to be the oldest known tree in the state, because it was standing when the Quakers made this patch of land a graveyard in 1675.

South Jersey, especially the side along the Delaware, has a long history and colonial settlement predates Philadelphia. There are towns with storied histories, like the Othello side of Greenwich, supposedly named because a Moorish princess married a man there, and their progeny settled in that half of town. That’s from William Least Heat-Moon’s excellent road book, Blue Highways: A Journey into America, so if it’s complete bullshit, blame him. I haven’t managed to get down there yet. There are Weird NJ favorites like Shellpile and Bivalve not too far from here, and a muffler man statue in camouflage is between here and Cape May on Route 40, if you’re coming that way.

The Oak Tree is thought to be more than 500 years old; according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Salem “was established in 1675 by John Fenwick, an English Quaker. The Friends (Quakers) Burial Ground in Salem has the Salem Oak— a tree 80 feet (25 metres) high that is said to be more than 500 years old— under which Fenwick signed a treaty with the Delaware Indians.” It’s quite a sight, being 88 feet tall and covering a quarter acre with shade. At least according to the plaque.

Across the street is the aptly named Salem Oak Diner, established much later in the 50’s. It’s a classic dining car that was expanded in back. They have a decent menu- we were there for breakfast and Boss Man had a bacon & egg on a bagel with home fries. I’d eaten so I didn’t sample their expansive diner menu except for some fruit, but it’s a nice clean place and worth skipping the nearby Cracker Barrel for, if you want to see the tree.

The classic New Jersey diner.