The 25 Best Restaurants of 2016

Our annual list of the absolute best restaurants to eat in New Jersey. A star denotes a the restaurant is new to the list.

Drew’s Bayshore Bistro, Keyport

Voodoo Shrimp in spicy Worcestershire cream sauce.

Voodoo Shrimp in spicy Worcestershire cream sauce. Photo by Karyn Baggs

The next gen has arrived, and not a moment too soon. Fresh from the CIA and internships, Andrew “Drew” Araneo’s 21-year-old son, Andrew II, has joined the Bayshore Bistro after what Dad calls “one of the busiest winters we ever had.” Bolstered by sous chef Mark Michael, 28, the team bangs out record batches of voodoo shrimp with spicy Worcestershire cream, its best-selling willpower destroyer, along with the blazing gumbos, jambalayas, crawfish étoufées and classic chicken and waffles that have kept the cash register ring-a-dinging since Drew opened here in his hometown in 2005. Andrew II is working up a revisionist pork braciole stuffed with tasso ham and provolone. Michael has won a following for his crisp pork belly on scallion pancakes topped with Coca-Cola glaze and a diabolical green sriracha he devised. Dad is glad it’s high summer and he can make his famous corn ice cream from fresh Jersey crop. “I’ve got things I’d love to change,” he admits, “but I can’t. I took off the salty-pretzel-chocolate-caramel tart, and people threatened me. It’s a great problem to have.” BYO. 25 Church Street, 732-739-9219.

Elements, Princeton*

Elements chefs Scott Anderson, left, and Mike Ryan.

Elements chefs Scott Anderson, left, and Mike Ryan. Photo by Stuart Goldenberg

Like the world-famous Noma in Copenhagen, Elements takes the concept of an open kitchen beyond the norm. As at Noma, the food at Elements is advanced in technique yet rooted in tradition (pickling, fermenting, foraging, seasonality, etc.), and it is brought to the table from the kitchen (even more visible and open than at Noma) and presented, with a brief overview, by the chef or cook who prepared it. That would be mere show if the flavors, textures and contrasts in each dish were not so well-knitted, rewarding and often surprising. Compared to the old location on the outskirts of town, the new dining room is smaller, more comfortable, and quieter—actually serene—a superb environment in which to immerse one’s senses in the delicacies and delights created by executive chef Scott Anderson, 41, chef de cuisine Mike Ryan, 36, and their three chefs de partie, Vanessa Hernandez-Avellan, Staci Lopez and Karen Ryfinski. There is no need to invest an entire evening and $185 in the roughly 18-course Grand Menu, though it’s quite an experience. The sweet spot, we think, is the weeknight $79 four-course menu, with four or five terrific choices in each course. A recent meal included an ethereal scallop crudo showered with crisp rings of fried shallots and an insanely sybaritic plate of ricotta gnudi in hazelnut cream, with caramelized cipollini onions and strips of meltingly lush jamon ham. Read Our November 2015 Review. 66 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-0078.

The Frog and The Peach, New Brunswick

Peach carpaccio with crispy duck confit and prosecco dressing at The Frog and the Peach.

Peach carpaccio with crispy duck confit and prosecco dressing at The Frog and the Peach. Photo courtesy of Frog and Peach.

We’re lucky that, in the Garden State, the virtue of eating local requires relatively little sacrifice. But Bruce Lefebvre won’t get slavish about it. “There’s so much great food in the world,” says the F&P’s restlessly creative chef/owner. “We just find the best, or something unique, and balance it with the local, which is in our DNA.” Lefebvre’s veteran kitchen team help him turn small Iberico pigs from Spain, rarely seen here in fresh form, into an exceptional duo of grilled skirt steak and croquettes made with béchamel and tender rib meat steam-roasted over red wine. From Hawaii comes striped marlin that, quick-seared, eats like beautifully marbled tuna. He serves it with a (local) four-bean salad, Marcona almonds and a sweet-smoky purée of charred Vidalia onions. Intensity and balance on the plate are matched by seamless service; an excellent wine list and bar program featuring barrel-aged cocktails; and two comfortable dining rooms, the clubby main room and the enclosed yet light-flooded garden room, especially enjoyable at this time of year. 29 Dennis Street, 732-846-3216.

Girasole, Atlantic City

Photo courtesy of Girasole.

Photo courtesy of Girasole.

At 61, Gino Iovino is still as passionate about food as you might expect a Naples native to be. Maybe more so. He travels to Italy a few times a year, “always searching for new ideas, new ingredients” to feature at Girasole, his one-of-a-kind temple of Italian food and fashion. Girasole, though just a block from the Boardwalk, has no connection to any casino, and has been delighting visitors from near and far since it opened in 1992. Staffed almost entirely by family, the restaurant is beloved for its Neapolitan and Puglian cooking, including marvelous pastas, wood-fired pizzas and a braised beef braciole for the ages. From Milan in the North, one of Iovino’s favorite stops, come warm beef carpaccios, a delight of that fashion capital. In 1980, Iovino introduced Armani to Philadelphia at Eleganza, Iovino’s boutique there. Moving Eleganza to Atlantic City, he says he introduced Versace to America in 1984. Eleganza now has two locations in the Playground (the former Caesars Pier jutting over the surf). Girasole, beautifully tailored in Versace fabrics, with displays of ancient Greco-Roman vases, reflects Iovino’s continuing passion for design as well as food. Soccer, though, is not far behind. “I just played yesterday—and scored a goal!” he chortled in June. “Against kids!” 3108 Pacific Avenue, 609-345-5554.

Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, Morristown

Oyster platter with white wine.

Oyster platter with white wine. Photo by Laura Moss

Chef Kevin Sippel, 39, oversees one of the most multi-faceted and ambitious restaurant under one roof in New Jersey. JHBK, as staffers call it, is actually three restaurants on three levels. All serve food as deep in flavor and steeped in tradition as it is informed by modern cooking techniques and ideals like local, seasonal ingredients, meat produced without growth stimulants and so on. Top floor is the fine dining, mainly prix-fixe Dining Room; main floor the hip, casual Oyster Bar and Vail Bar; ground floor the German-themed Rathskeller (live music on weekends). Delights range from a superb raw bar to entrancing pastas, a roasted carrot soup beyond all expectations, pork schnitzel with mushroom cream sauce and one of the most atavistically satisfying burgers around. All this plus terrific wine pairings—a specialty of owner Chris Cannon—and great cocktails from mixologist James Gelmi. Read Our January 2015 Review. 110 South Street, 973-644-3180.

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  1. Lindsay

    Can you do one of these articles highlighting the great ethnic restaurants we have in our state?? There is a huge Indian, Cuban, Latin population (and many others) in New Jersey and it would be so nice to see NJMonthly Magazine acknowledge that… and talk about the restaurants that have terrific food.

    • Eric Levin Deputy Ed/Dining Ed

      Hi Lindsay. You’re quite right about the great wealth of ethnic cuisines we have in NJ. They figured large in our Cheap Eats cover story of 2013. For example, here’s a link to the Latin/Caribbean/Mexican section
      There are other ethnic sections in the package as well. –Eric Levin, Dining Editor

      • Lindsay

        2013? But that was 3 years ago. Perhaps it’s time for another. The Indian restaurants alone should offer up a great article. I look forward to seeing the next, more inclusive, article that doesn’t necessarily have to be “Cheap Eats” … and perhaps seeing them more often. Your articles are great.

  2. Lindsay

    2013? But that was 3 years ago. Perhaps it’s time for another. The Indian restaurants alone should offer up a great article. I look forward to seeing the next, more inclusive, article that doesn’t necessarily have to be “Cheap Eats” … and perhaps seeing them more often. Your articles are great.