TOPS Diner, East Newark, NJ: Behind The Kitchen Design8 min read
As with so many second-generation restaurateurs, the Golemis Brothers have always wanted to put their stamp on the family eatery. With that mission in focus, ‘The Diner Capital of the World’ has welcomed a new gem: the new Tops Diner in East Newark, NJ. The novel structure’s goal is to establish a gold standard and move the Garden State’s diner concept to the next level.
Brothers Jim, John and Van Golemis built a team led by Next Step Design and Sam Tell and Co’s Warren Polansky with a goal of creating a new vision for a landmark diner. Tops is situated in its same location, at the intersection of Passaic and Central Avenues in East Newark, adjacent to the Clay Street Bridge and a stone’s throw from the Passaic River. The hours of operation are 8 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. The newly designed restaurant has been created to handle the Pandemic driven growth of takeout orders, representing a significant slice of the diner’s daily business (about 20%), This includes a special pickup area for UberEats, DoorDash and GrubHub’s drivers.
“Logistically, when considering how we wanted our new building to look, we knew the company’s aspired growth needed a new flagship location. Our previous restaurant, having been built in the 1940s, lacked the necessary infrastructure,” Golemis commented. “We built the place from the kitchen out, centralizing the kitchen. With the combined efforts of Next Step and Warren Polansky, we evaluated how we could elevate our efforts without compromising what we have done for so many years.”
Tops has been equipped to meet takeout and delivery demands long before the pandemic. “Roughly 18% of our clientele before Covid was in takeout and this meant we had to invest in our customers who chose to order our food and eat it in their own homes. We had a kitchen space dedicated entirely to takeout, with 1,000 square feet of space, windows and ventilation, and necessary technology equipment. Since we excelled in our takeout services prior to the pandemic, we were able to successfully operate throughout the pandemic’s challenges. We were built to do takeout and we didn’t miss a beat,” Golemis noted.
The first thing guests see when they approach the diner is the dark, majestic Tops tower, which crowns the roof, and there’s a rigid, dazzling stainless-steel awning, which wraps around the diner’s façade. The exterior features large windows, stainless steel panels and accents and neon lights. Space along the perimeter allows for outdoor patio-style dining, and parking in the front and back of the diner has room for 165 cars. The old diner is being torn down and has been replaced with a parking lot.
The interior design is highlighted by an eye-catching 18-stool counter adorned with black marble, serving a full selection of cocktails, beer, wine and spirits. The spacious, 15,900-square-foot interior with a high ceiling can accommodate a variety of tables and booths, with a 300-customer capacity, and the most artistic feature of the interior can be seen when you look down: an authentic, four-tone terrazzo floor, created by Sicilian artisans. Early on in the project’s planning, Golemis determined the installation of a terrazzo floor was a priority and a nod to Garden State diner tradition. Many vintage, factory-built diners from the 20th century had elegant terrazzo floors—a source of pride for family owned enterprises. Unfortunately, most modern, site-built diners refrain from including terrazzo floors, mainly due to cost considerations.
The diner’s most impressive interior appointments will be, for the most part, unseen by customers: a glistening world-class stainless-steel kitchen; a full bakery with multiple ovens for baking artisan bread, pastries, pies, and cheesecake; and separate stations for gourmet coffee and espresso; filtered water; and ice cream. Tops is hardwired with a network of leading-edge information technology resources to manage the business.
The Golemis brothers worked closely with Warren Polansky and the Sam Tell team to create an equipment spec that could support an 8,000 square foot kitchen. “One of the keys to this design was the use of shelving in the walk-ins.” noted Golemis. “We worked closely with John Merkel from CLV who reps the Cambro line to get that right. With a thousand plus items on our menu, we needed to build out a package that featured the fire power to support the large volume that we do both in the restaurant and for takeout and delivery. To accomplish that we specified RATIONAL’s combis to provide our culinary team with the cooking firepower needed to ensure consistency across a very diverse menu”, Golemis continued. “Cleveland’s food steamers continue to be the workhorses of the Tops culinary spec,” Polansky added. “And Hobart’s Centerline products are a perfect fit for a high-volume kitchen like Tops.” With a focus on very busy bar operation, Golemis noted, “Adding MicroMatic to the bar design will give us the flexibility needed to manage an extensive bar menu.”
Polansky, as he has for so many of his Metro New York restaurant clients through the years, was entrusted with building a fresh tabletop look for the new Tops facility. “We worked closely with Kurt Newman and Kristine Martin at Steelite to create multiple looks that reflect the restaurant’s extensive menu. This also included a fresh look for their bar menu with a full line of Steelite’s Bormioli glassware.”
Having taken pride in their cocktails over the years, Tops wanted to update their previous four-seater bar at the new location. “We decided to create an old school-looking diner counter with a bar that had 18 stools, the same the old diner in the 70s had. The combined counter and bar has a 3 station bar and is definitely the most successful thing we’ve done, with customers naturally gravitating towards it when they walk in the doors.” One of the most popular drinks the bar offers is the “Venus Williams”, consisting of Hennessy Cognac, raspberry liquor, passion fruit liqueur, fresh lemon juice, and a house simple syrup. The allure of the bar and the presentation of the drinks has most customers ordering mimosas or breakfast margaritas on a random Tuesday morning.
“Working with Parts and Labor Designs allowed us to bring our interior design ideas on paper to life at our new location,” Golemis said. “We gave them the green light to do everything as far as interior design goes and this allowed us to focus our attention on the kitchen. We wanted to create an establishment that looked as if it had been here for 100 years. Parts and Labor cared so much about meeting our expectations and it was a shared passion and energy for bringing our vision to light that made it all possible.”
The new Tops location was looking for a modern look without losing a comforting atmosphere. “We worked on creating a symbiotic relationship between current designs with timeless classic atmosphere,” shared Jeremy Levitt, President, Parts and Labor Design. “A diner has a certain personality that helped with the aesthetic component: certain shiny surfaces, a consistent color palette, as well as the functionality of the space with booths and stationary stools that aided in designing a floor plan that made sense. There’s something about a diner that is about creating a community; people are recognized by staff and customers alike so we wanted to blend this welcoming environment into our design focus. The larger bar accommodates the large number of people walking through the doors and nowadays more people want to sit and eat at a bar and converse with those around them. We designed everything custom and carefully selected people who could fabricate it. All of the furniture are custom pieces, mainly from a company called Artco based out of Toronto. In terms of the color palette, we went for creams, pale burgundy, various shades of blue, with stainless steel, gold aesthetic. The white and clear glass combination works together to create intimate ambient moments.”
The Hudson County diner is renowned for its professional, courteous waitstaff, while customers, food critics and restaurant reviewers rave about the diner’s daily specials, breakfasts, salads, fresh seafood, steaks, meatloaf, egg platters, sandwiches, wraps, milk shakes and splendid desserts. Each year Tops is lauded by national and regional magazine “best diner” surveys, “favorite diner” polls by foodie websites, statewide news coverage, and a consensus of diner fans.
The Golemis Brothers have always sought out the latest in embraced technology to support their growth. “As someone who is extremely analytically driven, we take advantage of our POS systems,” Golemis said. “I come in early every morning and print out every system sold on a daily basis to observe errors, feedback, and trends.” Tops has just started a loyalty program for its customers, partnering with Loyal Patron, as a way to give back to its customers. Birthday coupons, discounts, and a point system are a part of the program.
For generations, the Tops parking lot has been full of license plates from out of state and locals that have made the diner a landmark. The Golemis family has used this well-earned popularity as a foundation to create something spectacular, even as the diner remains true to New Jersey’s diner culture and spirit. “A diner is a place for people to relax, meet friends, enjoy good food, and feel comfortable,” Jimmy Golemis declared. “That was the atmosphere at the old diner, and it is the atmosphere at the new Tops. We’ll continue to be a beacon for this neighborhood.”
The Golemis Family refused to let the Pandemic deter their vision for the creation of the new facility. In November of 2019 they announced their plans to replace the familiar silver and blue edifice that evolved as a landmark for diner lovers throughout New Jersey, and beyond. The Golemis family purchased Tops in 1972 and has overseen several major expansions and remodeling projects, building a reputation as a premier eatery. The new Tops Diner is the crowning achievement to that tradition.
To learn more about the Tops Diner, visit their website