New Jersey is known for many things, chief among them is the diner. Hoboken’s mainstay, the Spa Diner has announced via Instagram that it will be temporarily closing due to COVID-19. While we wait for its return, learn all about the history of the diner and why residents have chosen to have their breakfast at the iconic countertop and stumbled in after late-night drinks for 80 years. We recently spoke with Sean McGarr, the current owner of the diner about why it’s so special.
About The Owner
Sean McGarr, 50 worked for an advertising agency dealing mainly in bars and nightclubs in the 1990s. While there, he developed a non-competitive advertising co-op for bars and clubs to get equal time. Following that, McGarr founded Out Q, the club and concert calendar, and became the biggest advertiser in New York radio.
Wanting to expand into New York clubs and venues, he really wanted to land Webster Hall as a client. He tried for quite some time but was ultimately dismissed until Z100 called him and wanted to premier Madonna’s “Bedtime Stories” album at a New York venue. McGarr made it happen at Webster Hall, and thus they became his biggest advertiser.
When Webster Hall wanted to start a record label, leadership tapped McGarr to be president. Eventually, McGarr sold his stake and became a partner at Webster hall from 1997 through 2008. In 2005, he and his partners bought the Village Pour House directly across from Webster Hall, which lead McGarr to invest in Sidebar, Hudson Terrace, all restaurants at Meadowlands Racetrack, and Hoboken’s own House of Que and Little Town. At one point, McGarr owned and operated 22 restaurants at once until contracting Lyme’s Disease and taking some time to recover.
The Spa’s Roots
His father worked for him for years, and during his recovery, he was looking for something new for his father and him to run together. “My dad is my best friend,” said McGarr.
A landowner purchased the building that housed the Spa Diner in Hoboken, and McGarr was asked if he wanted to buy it. Seeing this as an excellent opportunity for his father and him, McGarr leaped at the opportunity.
McGarr was already familiar with the Spa Diner, and so he assured everyone that worked there when he bought it that their jobs were safe and nothing would change. He kept his word. Everyone that worked at the Spa Diner when he bought it remains there to this very day.
“The Spa diner is definitely part of the fabric of Hoboken,” said McGarr. “It is probably one of four or five places that if you grew up in that time, you could say, ‘that’s how it was when I was a kid.’
“I didn’t want to gentrify it. I wanted to be very careful about keeping it the way it was”
Opening in the 1940s, the Spa Diner was originally known as the Hudson Restaurant before changing its name to the Hudson Diner, then the Spa Restaurant, and finally one last time when McGarr took over.
“When I came over, I was like ‘restaurant? This is New Jersey, this is a diner,’” said McGarr.
“New Jersey is very fond of its diners,” said McGarr. “There are staples that you know you go in and get a Taylor, egg, and cheese, it’s not pork roll.”
McGarr wanted to remain true to Spa Diner’s menu, prices, and overall vibe. Since Diner menus are pretty uniform throughout the state with a few exceptions, McGarr wanted to preserve this classic diner’s legacy.
“We have men that have been there 36 years,” said McGarr. “You have these customers that come every day, they walk in, they don’t even order, they sit down at the table, the cooks see them and they start making their food. It’s the weirdest thing, it’s like no one even talks.”
McGarr and his father loved that about the Spa Diner, and his father forbade him from even changing the prices. His father’s thinking was that people have depended on the Spa Diner for meals for years, it would be unfair to change things on them. So, they didn’t, and the regulars keep coming back.
“It’s like Cheers, everyone knows your name and they know what you eat,” said McGarr.
Walking into the Spa Diner, you’ll notice that approximately 90 drawings adorn the walls. These drawings, done by local artists, depict some of the regulars. McGarr says there are roughly 60 more drawings on the way.
“They’re small creature comforts,” said McGarr, “but it makes us stand out, it makes us a better place.”
The Worst Breakfast Ever
When the diner received a poor Yelp reviewing citing the “Worst Breakfast Ever,” McGarr reached out to the review’s writer. The writer was furious, saying that the food was too expensive and he got a flat tire from the broken bottles strewn about the parking lot.
McGann politely told the writer that the Spa Diner didn’t have a parking lot, and in fact was not on Route 206 in Lake Hiawatha as the writer had mentioned. Naturally, the review’s writer was mortified and apologetically offered to take down the review, but McGarr had something different in mind, and he asked the writer to leave his review.
He posted a sign out front that read: “Try the worst breakfast one man on Yelp ever had.” The sign went viral and was great publicity for the restaurant, McGarr has since made “The Worst Breakfast Ever” a menu item that’s a massive plate of breakfast foods and meats.
The COVID-19 Effect
“It was very rough,” said McGarr, “and I was able to not lay anybody off. “It wasn’t for financial reasons, but it was the promise that I had made. So, nobody lost their jobs during COVID.”
McGarr appreciated the help and guidance he got from the city of Hoboken. He was able to keep the diner open and stay afloat until this week’s announcement.
“When all those places closed, said McGarr, “where were the firemen going to eat? Where were the policemen going to eat? Where were the train people going to eat? Hoboken thought about that. The town, lucky for us, deemed us essential. We were one of the only places where the firemen and police could get something to eat in those weird shift changes of theirs.”
And so, the Spa Diner catered to first responders and essential workers. Additionally, McGarr collaborated with Hoboken Homeless shelters to work out a $5 meal for the homeless. The diner has served over 5,000 meals for the homeless. “Hoboken Cares,” said McGarr. “People really banded together.”
For the time being, we will miss the diner and await its return! “The restaurant is 70+ years old, and it was always open,” McGarr told TAPinto Hoboken, “so we never really had a chance to redo anything. If we can renegotiate the lease, we hope to do it up nice and get back in there within a few months.”
McGarr has managed to keep the diner true to its reputation as a neighborhood diner. “We’re proud of being part of the fabric of this community,” said McGarr. “We’re so thankful. We’re going to be there. We’ve been there 80 years, we’ll be there at least another 80.”