Best Bars: Central Jersey

These Central Jersey bars have plenty of cocktails, beer, food and fun to go around.

Bernard O'Connell, bar manager of the Dillinger Room in New Brunswick, proffers a Raspberry Beret.
Bernard O'Connell, bar manager of the Dillinger Room in New Brunswick, proffers a Raspberry Beret.
Photo by James Worrell

Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten

Asbury Park
Crowds pack every square foot of this cavernous, space, no matter the season. Like Pilsener Haus in Hoboken, Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten is another of co-owner Andy Ivanov’s industrial-strength evocations of an early-20th-century Czech beer hall. In summer, the Festhalle’s beer list swells from 100 to 150 (including at least 40 on tap) with a German-inflected, year-round menu as appealing in winter (brats and schnitzels) as in summer (smoked trout, beer-steamed mussels). It attracts families with kids as well as couples and bundles of bar buddies. And it boasts something Pilsener Haus does not: a roof garden with a sliver of ocean view that is one of the joys of an Asbury Park summer.—AC

527 Lake Avenue, 732-997-8767.


Asbury Park
In 2011, the huge club (called the Student Prince, where once upon a Selmer and a Stratocaster Clarence Clemons met Bruce Springsteen) was turned into a bar serving Neapolitan pizza certified authentic by the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani. Meatballs, mozzarella and ricotta are made in-house daily. The menu includes pastas, risottos and salads. Porta was a hit from the git-go. These days it attracts everyone from Boomers to bachelorette parties to late-nighters checking out whatever the social tide has swept in. Cocktails lean to the novel or even the odd (the Kai Ryssdal, named for the canny host of NPR’s Marketplace, combines cachaça, pineapple-kale purée, ginger beer and lime juice, and tastes unlike any of its ingredients). There’s always beer and wine to accompany those dozen or so charry Neapolitan pies.—AC
911 Kingsley Street, 732-776-7661.


Asbury Park
To reach this esoteric, self-described “drinkery” on the second floor of the First Avenue Pavilion, many eschew the elevator for the steep flight of stairs. Some do it in high heels (pray for them). It’s worth the effort. The space overlooks boardwalk, beach and ocean, with luxe seating indoors (banquettes, couches, ottomans) and out. The tapas are tasty and the cocktails are among the most intriguing anywhere. In winter, leather couches by the hearth make the perfect perch to savor a puckering Bitter Truth; in summer, it’s hard to beat a minty Asbury Iced Tea. The scene is seriously swank, with a 12-point dress/etiquette code that includes such admonitions as “Shirts, Shoes and Manners Must Be Worn at All Times.” Ah, well. Like we said, it’s worth it.—AC
800 Ocean Avenue, 732-455-3447.

Le Malt

Brown is the color of love at this plush, posh lounge in thrall to whiskies worldwide: about 900 Scotch, bourbon, rye, Canadian and Tennessee types dominate a spirits list that management says is “more than 1,000” strong. The bottles are beautifully displayed on back-lit shelves, like starlets ready for their close-ups. Cocktails add to the wow, like the Elixir de Le Malt, a potion of gin, St. Germain and lychee purée. At dinner, single malts and cognac find their way into entrée sauces. Tapas such as black-truffle fries, lamb lollipops and bone-in quail all but shout date-night.—AC
1021 St. Georges Avenue, 732-510-7700.

The Boat House

Nothing else on our distinguished roll call is quite like this tiny bar (sans website) on two floors of an old, ivied cottage down an alley near the Delaware and Raritan Canal. Every inch of wall (even the rafters) is covered in framed nautical art as well as paraphernalia ranging from signal flags to oars. Old wooden and leather chairs, settees, a leather couch and small tables supplement the cheek-to-jowl bar. Serving just bottled beer, 10 wines and classic cocktails (the margarita is exemplary), the Boat House is a place to unwind among the local gentry. There’s always music playing and ageless ambience. Feast on that you must, for not a morsel is served. Or needed.—AC
8 1/2 Coryell Street, 609-397-2244.


Long Branch
A brasserie on the beach, common in the South of France, is rare here. This upscale French restaurant on the boardwalk brings a bit of Saint Tropez to the Shore. Its floor-to-(high)-ceiling windows flood the tiled interior with light and make the 20-foot-long pewter bar sparkle. A smart set convenes here, clutching well-made cocktails as colorful as their couture. The well-curated wine list is a delight to delve into. A glistening tray of oysters and a Loire Sancerre make a marvelous mini-splurge. In summer, there’s an actual Beach Bar on the sand, with its own cooling libations.—AC
23 Ocean Avenue, 732-759-2900.

Dillinger Room

New Brunswick
Opened in 2015, the Dillinger calls itself “speakeasy inspired.” You’ll instantly see why. Brick and wood accents lit by a starburst of tiny lights strung from the ceiling give the room a subterranean feel. Cocktail enthusiasts line up three deep at the bar to watch mixologists in action late into the night. Classics are revered, but given slight twists, like a milk punch with your choice of spirit. After sampling the comfort foods on executive chef Calvin Hwang’s menu, a Golden Brown, combining mescal, vermouth, curaçao, crème de banana and chocolate bitters, makes a memorable nightcap.—JH
338 George Street, 732-214-0223.


New Brunswick
In recent years, high-end haunts like this one have lifted a scene once synonymous with the old college-town’s beer-and-shot joints. Opened in 2015, INC (Ingredients N Craft) brings wit and polish to food as well as drink. Cocktail names elicit smiles that remain as you sip them: Salute Your Scotch; Who Killed Roger Rabbit?; Ahh! Kelly Clarkson! INC has a large selection of craft-beer in cans, and a deft kitchen that turns mac and cheese, for example, into crisp cubes perfect for dipping into smoked tomato aioli. On weekends, recent grads and local professionals pack the bar, with its honeycomb wall, to thoughtfully absorb flights of fine whiskey served in proper snifter-like glassware. In the same building as the Heldrich Hotel and across from the State Theater, INC adds lustre to any night on the town.—JH
302 George Street, 732-640-0553.

Ninety Acres

The winding road that leads through the 500-acre county park to the front door of the converted carriage house builds expectations that the restaurant (an NJM Top 25) and its bar fulfill. Actually, two bars. The main one is glassy and chic. The adjoining Cognac Lounge, with its long, communal table, creates an intimate mood in wood and brick. Appetizers and cocktails in recent memory (sumac-rubbed quail; the Pig & Fig, made with bacon-infused bourbon) were as tasty as they were Instagram-ready. The prosperous locals, special-occasion celebrants and foodie adventurers who have made Ninety Acres a destination get into their valeted cars plotting an early return.—JH
2 Main Street, 908-901-9500.


After a spell walking around town dipping in and out of shops, the afternoon bar menu at Agricola makes a welcome finish line. The dry-aged Angus burger with house-made zucchini-and-squash pickles and hand-cut fries pairs well with a glass of cava or a Moscow mule. Snag a seat by the street-facing windows if you can. As day settles into evening and the cosmopolitan crowd gathers, floor space becomes precious and the bar resounds with laughter and spirited conversation.—JH
11 Witherspoon Street, 609-921-2798.


On Mondays, Happy Hour lasts till last call, featuring beignets paired with Irish coffee. The creativity of Mistral’s kitchen, one of NJM’s Top 25, is an obvious draw. Yet the caliber of the drinks—whether ordered in the restaurant or in the separate bar room—clearly keeps pace. Locals will tell you that the bar, which opened in 2015, is one of downtown’s gems. Happy Hour specials (which can be ordered only in the bar) vary daily. For all the modernity of food and drink (like the Albanian, involving mescal, Irish whiskey, caraway liqueur, artichoke liqueur and bitters), you can get a most satisfying burger here, and even watch the big game.—JH
66 Witherspoon Street, 609-688-8808.


In über-ritzy Rumson, Murphy’s seems an odd duck indeed. Maybe that’s why Rumsonites and other locals embrace this funky basement in a nondescript house on a residential street a few blocks from a cove of the Navesink River. It began as a speakeasy during Prohibition, which it shrugged off—thanks, it is said, to rumrunners dropping anchor in the cove. Its most colorful owner, among many, was Mary Murphy, who brooked no foul language. Food is basic (pizza, fries, chicken fingers); drinks, too (with exceptions like the Witch’s Kiss, with cinnamon-infused tequila, fig simple syrup, Amaretto and lemon). Darts and shuffleboard amuse the crowd on the black-and-white checkerboard floor. Mostly locals show up for Monday-night bingo.—AC
17 Ward Lane, 732-842-1600.


Head down the stairs into the glow of the handsomely furnished bar and American-style tapas lounge, and you just might conclude that Tapastre is not boasting outlandishly when it calls itself “the coolest basement in town.” The host of small plates, along with thin-crust pizza and burgers, mate well with flights of five samples from the 22 taps of fine craft beer. Chipotle chicken with an IPA, short ribs with a porter—the beauty of small portions of food and drink is exploring the many permutations and finding new favorites. Meanwhile, just above street level, a new feature called Project PUB has recently opened, featuring the products of one brewery for a whole month, with menu to match.—JH
1 West High Street, 908-526-0505.


Somerville’s first legal drink after the 1933 repeal of Prohibition is said to have been served at the Court House Cafe, which today is the Landmark Bar of 20-year-old Verve restaurant. The bar’s ornate tiled floor and dark wood bar evoke olden days, but its calling card is contemporary. Bartender Steve Fette won the 2016 Iron Shaker cocktail competition, thanks in part to whimsical twists. Take his prize-clinching Sage-istic Bastard, for which he toasted fresh sage leaves to commingle with doses of Laird’s Applejack, mescal, fresh lime and cranberries. Fette carries on the tradition of creativity and craftsmanship set by N. Bryan Mack, who died in January at 46 after an award-winning 12-year tenure as Verve’s “chef behind the bar.”—JH
18 East Main Street, 908-707-8655.

Trenton Social

On St. Patrick’s Day exactly six years ago, local entrepreneur T.C. Nelson opened Trenton Social as a music and arts pub/hub for central Trenton’s youth movement near the Delaware River. He drew inspiration from the scene that had flourished in the same space when it was the Urban Word in the late ’90s. Looking similar, though renovated, Trenton Social has its own appeal that goes beyond craft beer and affordable eats. Tuesdays are open mic nights for singer/songwriters. First Wednesdays celebrate sushi with chef Charlie Yeh from Sumo Sushi in nearby Pennington. Third Thursdays are LGBT Happy Hour, though all are welcome and comfortably mix. First Fridays celebrate the opening of a month-long show by a local visual artist. But all isn’t high culture. Trenton Social also hosts the annual Trenton Pork Roll Festival.—KCM
449 S. Broad Street, 609-989-7777.

Somerset Hills Hotel Taproom

The words hotel bar may conjure thoughts of overpriced drinks and generic decor, but the Taproom has neither. It’s a beer geek’s bull’s-eye, thanks to its often-local, always-rotating draft list. Padded seats are packed around the peninsula bar, and dark wooden walls give it a cozy, man-cave type atmosphere. On weekends, rocking cover bands encourage patrons to dance the night away. Wings (bbq or hot) are a staple. A recent facelift has added modern touches, including new flat-screens, ensuring that everything a traveling craft-beer lover might need is in one place.—JH
200 Liberty Corner Road, 908-647-6700.

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