The sign on the door of the cozy restaurant at the intersection of Irvington Avenue and Ward Place says it all: Good Food You Want.
Be it a no-nonsense egg and cheese on a fresh roll from Serrani's Bakery, or the restaurant’s version of the Jersey Cheese Steak (distinct from the Philly Cheese Steak in that it includes real cheese - in this case, Pepper Jack), or something a little more daring, like the roasted tomato-basil soup that can be eaten hot or cold or the goat cheese and pear sandwich on toasted raisin bread, the food at the six-month-old corner diner, the Blue Plate Special, is plenty good.
And yet, the food is only part of the reason to make the trip. The Blue Plate Special – named in honor of the longtime term given to restaurants’ daily specials; this cafe has a changing menu and a daily special -- is awash in all kinds of thrift store finds, every single one of which is for sale. Where else might a diner sit down, look across the way, and be instantly entranced by a book entitled, “Who Cut the Cheese, a Cultural History of the Fart” or a pristine copy of a Moosewood Restaurant cookbook? Look up, and find a quaint framed cross stitch still life of bananas, pears, grapes and a milk jug, or a painting or photograph. There are loads of children’s books, children’s toys, purses, tablecloths, crochet-covered hangers, aprons. Heck, even the tables and the coffee cups are for sale.
The owners of this delightful, completely singular place are Laura Nichols and Dan Pupke, a couple who lives nearby and who came to occupy the space in a rather serendipitous fashion. They were looking for a kitchen for their burgeoning catering business, A Gracious Event. And a guy at the gas station – according to Pupke, Nichols is “very plugged in” – recommended the spot. The restaurant was then known as the Corner Shop, an identity it had had for more than 30 years, through a string of owners. It did a morning breakfast business, largely to men who worked locally. The shop also sold lottery tickets.
Not too far into their use of the kitchen, it became clear that the current owners were looking to get out, and, voila, The Blue Plate Special was born. The couple had a shoestring budget and a lot of stuff Nichols had collected from once having run a second-hand store. So they went down in their basement, found leftover paint, and gave the interior a good scrubbing and waves of color on the walls. They packed in Nichols’ finds, seating for 12, curtains to separate the kitchen and the bathroom from the dining area, a popcorn maker and a few candy bars to satisfy the kids coming home after school, and a menu as eclectic as the rest of the place. Before you know it, they had a real, honest-to-goodness restaurant.
The lottery tickets are gone. The hours have expanded. And the clientele has tipped in favor of women, particularly young mothers who come for a cup of coffee and a chat in a friendly place where their kids are welcome to play. One morning recently, Nichols was getting ready to welcome 11 one-year-olds and their mothers. In other words, business is growing by leaps and bounds.
The couple splits the duties nicely. Pupke cooks in the morning: Nichols refers to him as “the breakfast Nazi”: the child of restaurant owners, he is the short-order cook, who also is adept at making gallons of his famous vegetarian
chili and rolling out dozens of homemade buttermilk biscuits. Nichols is a more
adventurous cook, and largely responsible for the dinner menu, which wanders
far from traditional diner staples: a recent menu (they change seasonally)
includes things like dill-encrusted salmon, crab cake with remoulade and beef
tenderloin with wild mushrooms, tarragon and gorganzola.
And if it were not enough overseeing a brand new business, Nichols has made her presence felt on the block. An avid gardener, she’s planted lots of planters with gorgeous flowers that run around the corner on Ward; she sells small container herb gardens inside the restaurant and is often found talking about sprucing up things outside – in deference to the last 30 years, the couple has kept “The Corner Shop” sign on the exterior temporarily, although it will soon come down for a Blue Plate Special one – but Nichols has big plans to paint her storefront and all the others that belong to her building.
She said she wants “fun, funky colors” in keeping with the spirit of the street; the neighborhood is only blocks from Seton Hall and attracts a great many students, as well as young parents and children. She is powwowing with other business owners and the powers that be downtown in hope of getting the area better marketing and more visibility. A bundle of energy and talk, she envisions a thriving business corner with the catchy title, Pirate Cove.
Inside, meanwhile, the couple is also hoping to be able to
redo the bathroom soon. At the moment, patrons have to walk into the kitchen to get to it. When the restaurant does get a handicap-accessible restroom, the
couple will be able to double the number of seats, and expand business once
In the meantime, though, takeout business continues to grow,
and customers can reserve the entire restaurant if they’ve a special evening
planned. The couple has hosted book groups, reunions and birthday parties.
Although the restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner, Nichols
advises calling ahead (973-763-9619).
The restaurant opens at 7:30 Tuesday through Friday for breakfast, lunch and dinner; from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. Sunday for a brunch service.