If you’ve ever visited the Coach House Diner, located in North Bergen near the Union City border, you can be assured of one thing: it wasn’t closed. That’s because the restaurant has been open consistently, serving diners 24/7 since the end of World War II.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment, which has been owned and run by the Pappas family since the doors first opened in April 1939. From the start, the doors stayed open all night, except during the war when they were forced to close between midnight and 6 a.m.
In the beginning the diner served about 200 customers a day.
“They did a big late-night business,” according to current co-owner Nick Pappas. “They used to call this area ‘Transfer Station.’ The buses used to stop here. It was the end of one zone and another zone started. There used to be like 20 nightclubs on Paterson Plank Road, toward Hoboken. It was like the Barbary Coast. It had a reputation during the war as being where all the GIs went. It was busy 24 hours; it was wild. I wasn’t around, but I know from stories I heard.”
They use 9,000 eggs per week and serve 900 to 1,000 burgers.
Diners can still avail themselves of a very large menu at the establishment, located at 921 Kennedy Blvd., along a popular bus route between Journal Square and Bergen County.
The early days
“My father came from Greece when he was around 13,” said Pappas. “He opened a diner in Newark I think in the early ’30s, it was the Wilson Diner, and then from there he opened here with two partners and then he eventually bought them out.”
The original Coach House, then known as Boulevard Diner, was a railroad car-style prefabricated structure brought in and planted on the site. It contained 10 booths and about 20 counter seats. (New Jersey is known for having a high number of prefab diners, partly because its location between New York and Philadelphia made it an easy shipping destination for that model.)
“That pretty much stayed the same till ’58,” said Pappas. “It went from art deco to more of a contemporary stainless steel kind of place.”
The next generation
“I worked here in the late ’60s,” said Pappas. “I was in dental school but my love was always the restaurant business. My brother John graduated West Point in ’66, served in the Army, was decorated in Vietnam, and then he went to Harvard Business School and came out in 1972. He first started working for Goldman Sachs but then we needed him and he gave that up and worked here. He was very instrumental in this place. He taught me a lot.”
Nick Pappas and his brother, who has since passed away, spearheaded a major renovation in 1973, when the current restaurant was built on the same lot as the original structure, and the name was changed to the Coach House.
“The dining car was under the sign,” he said. “We were still operating that as this was being built over here. So there was no downtime.”
Once the new building was completed, the original dining car was towed away.
Over the years the restaurant has continued to expand periodically in various directions, with new rooms added on, additional office space created in the basement, and a full bar built in 2008 to accommodate drinking customers.
“The renovation in 2008 was massive,” said Pappas. “But we stayed open. Logistically it was unbelievable. We had to build a temporary kitchen.”
Looking forward, looking back
Nick Pappas co-owns the restaurant with his brother’s wife Stella and her family. Constantinos “Gus” Tountas manages the food ordering and preparation and a staff of 50 servers.
“I’ve been in the United States 35 years,” said Tountas. “I worked for Nick and his brother almost 25 years on and off. Eight years ago I decided to take on Nick’s headaches. Now he doesn’t have the headaches. I have the headaches.”
Among his headaches is ordering the massive quantities of food the restaurant prepares. Like the 9,000 eggs and 450 pounds of bacon they go through weekly.
“We sell approximately 900 to 1,000 burgers a week,” said Tountas. With 7,500 square feet of dining space, the Coach House serves about 2,000 diners a day.
“There’s so much history over the years, 1939 to today,” said Pappas. “People met here, had their first date here, they got married and come back with their children. I remember customers told me how good my father was to them in the late ’30s, early ’40s when things were bad. So that was nice to hear.”
“I had somebody come in here, this is going back a few years, he said he was sitting in the diner on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, and word got out that Pearl Harbor was bombed, but my father just kept cooking. And I asked my father about that before he passed away and he said, ‘Well the grill was full and who was going to do it?’ ”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.