While a recent episode of South Park focused on a possible Jersey (Shore) takeover of the U.S., Charlotte got a piece of Jersey when owners Matt King and Steve Estes opened Mattie's Diner in the NC Music Factory area last summer.
Charlotte has had eateries open 24/7 and has also had places with the "diner" concept (Landmark, Big View). What we've lacked, though, is the prefabricated stainless steel Art Deco-styled building adorned with neon lights. Having lived in the epicenter of these prefab diners (northern Jersey), I long ago began evaluating these business not only for the food, but for the building. My favorite diners are those built by O'Mahony, which built the renowned, still operating, Summit Diner in Summit, N.J. (where I lived). I go to diners for the ambiance — and tuna melts.
Mattie's is a Fodero-built diner that stood its ground in Bound Brook (also in northern Jersey) for 40 years until it was flooded by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. King, a native of Lyndhurst, and Estes brought the diner to Charlotte in 2005. After years of renovation, Mattie's Diner opened again in August.
Prefab diners were the economical way to get into the restaurant business back in the 1920s and again after World War II. The equivalent today would be buying into a fast-food or fast-casual franchise. Everyone knew from the exterior of a diner what the interior would offer: counter service, breakfast all day, comfort food and fun.
Mattie's has these elements and more. If you've been to a Jersey diner, you will recognize it. The jukeboxes at the side tables don't play, but do prompt discussions about the eclectic assortment of title strips. (Spoiler: King confirmed that the last entries are from 1996.)
Mattie's menu is cobbled together stretching from Jersey to the Carolinas: meatballs and spaghetti to barbecue, Taylor ham to livermush. Taylor ham, also known as a pork roll (aka Jersey spam, Bon Jovi bologna), is one of those definitive regional foods. This processed meat is similar, oddly enough, to the kind found in locally made Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches. Grilled Taylor ham is a perquisite to a Jersey breakfast: quarter inch of Taylor ham and a fried egg on a bun. Mattie's serves this with home fries ($3.99) and it is good.
Also on the roster are 18 shakes ranging in flavors from creamsicle and PB&J to vanilla and malted. My disappointment here was being served a shake in a Styrofoam cup and not in a footed, clear, panel-cut sided glass — one in which the shake is easy to admire and share.
When it comes to standard fare like burgers (beef and turkey), Mattie's does well. The burger is uniformly satisfying while hot dogs come with regional dressings: sauerkraut, chili, or cole slaw. The meatloaf, a family recipe, is comforted with an interior of mozzarella. The tuna melt, however, was not open face; served on white, not rye; with chunk tuna, not white; and with alfalfa sprouts — a way too healthy choice for a Jersey diner dish. Other elements at Mattie's need some polishing as well. Service could be faster, sugar canisters shinier.
But people go to diners for fun and modest prices, and from what I saw, everyone was having a good time and most didn't even have to take out the plastic.