A New Day at the Office

The future of the Office Beer Bar & Grill, a North Jersey chain, can be seen in the transformation of its Morristown flagship from ho-hum to very happening.

The Office Tavern Grill upstairs dining area.
Office Perks: The upscale industrial look includes chandeliers clustered like machine gears.
Photo courtesy of The Office Tavern Grill.

In restaurant circles this fall, much attention has been focused on South Street in Morristown, where the veteran New York restaurateur Chris Cannon has been transforming the grand 1918 Vail Mansion into the multilevel Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, easily the most momentous opening of the year.

Meanwhile, just three blocks up South Street, toward the Morristown Green, another transformation has taken place totally under the foodie radar.

The fooderati pay scant attention to chain restaurants, usually for good reason. Yet in its own way, the transformation of the somewhat dowdy and outdated Office Beer Bar & Grill into the Office Tavern Grill is as heartening and ambitious as the rescue of the long-vacant Vail Mansion.

What’s in a name change? In this case, a lot: a total redesign and expansion of the physical space, inside and out; a new logo and graphic design, from the sign outside to the look of the menu; and a new menu (click here to read our review). All of these significantly upgrade the dining experience, making it something the seven Office restaurants have never been: exciting.

There’s an interesting tale in how this came to be. It seems that the first Office restaurant dates to at least the early ’70s in Cranford, eons ago in restaurant time. In the mid-’80s, the Jolly Trolley in Westfield was converted into the what was likely the second Office. Later, Charlie Brown’s bought the brand; then in 2011, when it emerged from bankruptcy, sold all seven to Villa Enterprises, headquartered on South Street in Morristown. The aim from the git-go, says Kathleen Janssen, marketing manager of Villa’s 40 North restaurant group, was to upgrade and reinvent the brand.

They hired David Jackson, leader of a Rhode Island design group known for its work for hip casual chains like Au Bon Pain and stand alones like Burger Deluxe in Wayne. The project was expected to take a year, but took three, largely because the building—originally the Title Guaranty and Trust Company, older than the Vail Mansion—was structurally unsound.

A new steel skeleton solved that problem and also made it possible to create a mezzanine running the length of the building. It’s lined with extra-wide, curving booths of a type originally devised for dinner theater.

Indeed, you are watching a show, especially in the downstairs booths, which face the open kitchen and raw bar (both Office firsts). All the booths and banquettes are plushly upholstered with a cloth inspired by old New York subway-car destination rolls.

“They wanted it to be more urban and attract younger professionals,” says Jackson. “So we went with factory imagery, but not the typical exposed ductwork and metal everywhere.” Wanting to appeal to women as much as men, the designers enriched the look with dark woods, upholstered chairs and a host of original paintings of iconic office objects like staplers, pencil sharpeners and old-fashioned manual typewriters.

The paintings (by Rhode Island artists) are, in fact, one of the delights of the new space. Another is the design of the bar, with its upholstered stools and row of 40 craft-beer taps in front of a gleaming stainless-steel backsplash carved with industrial motifs.

By moving the restrooms from the front to the back, the designers were able to install French doors that invitingly open almost the whole frontage to the broad sidewalk, where tables can be placed in nice weather. Expanding the building to the rear created spaces upstairs for larger groups and a quieter environment than downstairs.

40 North aims to convert the six remaining Office Beer Bars by 2017, with site specific touches for each. Next up is Summit, which will get a train motif because it faces the commuter rail station.

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    Mo-town too crowded. I worked there for Years. That’s why I moved to North Dakota. Much quieter.