Jersey's Vincentown Diner sources locally: Grass-fed, hon?

The Vincentown Diner is situated in South Jersey farm country, which last week was flat and silent, the fields snow-patched and stubbled, still months away from planting season.

It is at the confluence of Routes 206 and 38, about 13 miles east of the Ben Franklin Bridge, and it is the only diner you'll encounter in this stretch that has a splashy yellow roadside sign that says "Now using Organic Eggs" under the more typical tout for steaks, chops, and seafood.

Tuesdays and Wednesdays, customers may choose the chef's three-course dinner, $15.99, which typically showcases the diner's claim to modest fame; it sources as many local foods as it can find, which is a challenge, of course, this time of year, halfway between harvest and planting: Local and seasonal don't always line up neatly.

But yes, the waiter says at the counter, the meat loaf this particular Tuesday is grass-fed New Jersey beef, usually from Simply Grazin' Farm, in Skillman, although on occasion it's from a smaller supplier nearer to Medford.

And the mashed potatoes are from Roger Kumpel's farm about three miles down the road, potatoes the diner now goes through by the ton. But, no, the green beans aren't local, not now, because green beans don't grow in Jersey in the snow.

"When you deal with local," says co-owner Jimmy "Jersey Jimmy" Melissaratos, "they're more work. Customers will ask for peach pie. Well, you're not going to get that" in winter. "You'll get that in season, maybe for six weeks; that and blueberries. When that runs out you better like apples. . . . "

This would be unremarkable, if it were, say, a health-food cafe in Madison, Wis., or in Center City, or a diner on the order of Silk City Diner, the hip joint at Fifth and Spring Garden.

But in middle America, in the working-class precincts beyond the quaint boundaries of Vincentown itself - or anywhere else in Jersey diner country - frozen, canned, long-hauled, disconnected food is pretty much the norm. The irony of this in farm country was not lost long on Melissaratos, who shepherded the Vincentown Diner from its original stainless-steel dining car (bought by the family in 1969) to the 250-seat sprawl it is today: "I said, 'Wait a minute,' we're in a rural area. I'd get in my little Toyota Prius and go to the farms around here, building relationships. Then the next year they'd deliver to us directly. They're your neighbors, you know. Why should the [same] food be trucked 4,000 miles with $200-a-barrel oil?"

So it gradually came to pass that Melissaratos shelved an early plan to do Wines of the World, featuring Bulgarian wines and Israeli wines and such. Even California didn't make the cut. You want chardonnay? It'll be from Unionville Vineyards, in Jersey wine country - in Ringoes.

Next, relatively local craft beers showed up, including, this particular Tuesday, a sampler flight of Flying Fish ESB ale, Victory Lager, and Brooklyn Lager. The coffee is Small World, roasted in Princeton, and is the same house blend used in the company's coffee shop there.

Jersey cranberries infused the dollop of sweet butter at the three-course dinner. The country-style bread, with a hint of whole grain, was warm and tender, baked at the Olde World Bakery in Eastampton nearby. (It is a loaf the bakery once made only for its own family use.) The tasty bruschetta, a bit superfluous after the bread, was topped with a paste of caramelized onions and mushrooms drizzled with a balsamic reduction.

There's a regular menu, too - conventional fried chicken dipped in local honey, Angus burgers and ground local-lamb burgers, pot pies and lasagna. This is a diner unashamed to be a diner. As if to proclaim its bona fides, the meat loaf, for its pastured pedigree and eco-consciousness, is a fairly dense, overbaked affair.

But Melissaratos says Vincentown Diner has drawn a line in the loam - against "the same old stuff, opening the same cans, being a bottom feeder, serving Grade Z beef."

When a diner does local, he says, it's not shrouded in snobbishness, or just for the BMW crowd: "Grass-fed meat loaf is, well, it's like meat loaf. It's a good entry point; you're kind of hitting America, spreading this out to the masses."


Vincentown Diner

Routes 206 and 38

Vincentown, N.J.

609-267-3033

www.vincentowndiner.com



Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.