New Jersey is a small state, but the New Jersey Monthly dining team typically racks up thousands of miles each year to evaluate its restaurants. Not only did Covid-19 preclude such travel, but for much of the year, restaurants were shadows of their normal selves. Indoor dining did not resume until September, and then at just 25 percent of capacity—a level few chefs see as sustainable. The public’s willingness to dine indoors also remains to be seen. We sent this issue to press in early October realizing that the situation could change, for better or worse, by the time the November issue hit newsstands.
With that in mind, we decided to bring back all the restaurants that made last year’s Top 30 to this year’s list, unless they had ceased to exist or to function as traditional dinner-focused entities. In the latter category, Red Store in Cape May Point went to a mostly grab-and-go format. The closing of Cucharamama in Hoboken, Modine in Asbury Park, Osteria Radici in Allentown, and Verjus in Maplewood opened four more slots. The pandemic may have hastened the demise of Cucharamama and Modine, where investors stepped in to halt operations amid a decline in revenue. Last fall, the husband-and-wife operators of Osteria Radici, a BYO, decided to pack up their family and move to Maine—not least, they explained, because liquor licenses there are eminently affordable. The chef and hostess of Verjus, another married couple, decided to retire after almost 20 years of operation.
Appearing in the Top 30 for the first time are Aarzu in Freehold, Café Chameleon in Bloomingdale, Il Nido in Marlboro, James on Main in Hackettstown, and Turtle and the Wolf in Montclair, all of which we visited this year.
Modernizing traditional Indian dishes, chefs Shravan Shetty and Dayanand Shetty (no relation) offer creations like a smoky, rich, classic butter chicken, and avocado mango bhel, a twist on a traditional Mumbai dish of puffed rice, which they enliven with avocado and mango and present in colorful layers. Their duck paratha tacos cradle the curried meat in small, round flatbreads instead of tortillas. “We like to play with regional flavors and focus on different regions,” says owner Archana Sharma. The menu is as approachable as it is adventurous. BYO.—Shelby Vittek
30 East Main Street, 732-333-0933
While chameleons blend into their background for safety, they also adopt arresting colors when feeling social. So it is with chef Bryan Gregg’s Café Chameleon. The building blends in on a fairly nondescript street, but Gregg’s cooking stands out for flavor and finesse, whether he’s pairing a roasted-onion tart with chicken mousse and a Goffle Road Farm egg, combining heirloom grits with fine herbes and lobster, or acing a straight-ahead hanger steak. With most entrées on the frequently changing menu priced under $30, many regulars happily stop by twice a week.
60 Main Street, 973-850-6969
When he opened for outdoor dining on July 20 after nearly four months of Covid-19 closure, Kevin Kohler didn’t know what to expect. “Suddenly the phone is ringing off the hook,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe it. People wanting to sit at tables in a parking lot in 90-degree humidity.” After 34 years in business, maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised. But he certainly was touched. “It brought tears to my eyes,” he says. Drawing from French, Italian, American and Asian influences, Kohler ranges from filet mignon ravioli to sea-scallop sashimi with scallion-cucumber vinaigrette. The dining rooms are elegant and comfortable. Fine dining dead? Not when done with Panache. BYO.
130 E. Main Street, 201-934-0030
When owner Jamie Knott shut down in March, he funneled proceeds from sales of bottled spirits, beer and wine to his furloughed staff. The Cellar aesthetic is best described as bad boy dressed for a luau and packing a wink. The restaurant does occupy a cellar, color scheme black and red, but the chairs and booths are upholstered and comfy. The staff is eager-to-please, and so is the menu, a kicky melange of bao buns, garlic/chili shrimp, whole roasted branzino and a wild wedge salad studded with bacon, blue cheese and pineapple. The festive signature cocktails go down easy in their monster-face mugs, then sneak up on you.
335 Newark Avenue, 201-222-1422
Owner Stephane Bocket was luckier than some in that he was able to set up tables this summer in the covered parking area of the building in which Chez Catherine is situated. Meanwhile, he upgraded the ventilation system, “so now it’s probably safer indoors than outdoors,” he claims. Chef Christine Migton has subtly lightened the modern French cuisine that has long made Chez Catherine a destination. Foie gras, for instance, came off the menu in favor of thin-sliced steak tartare with tabasco-worcestershire mayo.
431 North Avenue West, 908-654-4011
“We were going to hemorrhage money if we did takeout and outdoor dining,” says chef Ehren Ryan, who owns Common Lot with his wife, Nadine. So after shutting down in March, Common Lot did not reopen until mid-September, when it presented a tapas-style menu. Dishes were as frisky and flavor forward as ever, ranging from corn-and-manchego croquettes to confited duck leg with red curry sauce. “I was ecstatic to get back to work,” Ryan says. “My 2-year-old is a lot more work than any of my staff, so I pay complete tribute to my wife.” BYO.
27 Main Street, 973-467-0494
Chefs Scott Anderson and Mike Ryan scaled back their larger tasting menus to a regularly changing five-course for $125. For that money, you expect, and they present, a set of dishes that reveal the complexities of a few rigorously sourced, often locally foraged, ingredients. What Elements manages to do is make every bite meaningful. You want to linger over it, something the patient, informative service and well-curated wine list and cocktail program encourage.
66 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-0078
Chef/owner Ryan DePersio closed Fascino in March and enjoyed spending time at home until he realized, “my kids have a future I need to support, and I couldn’t sit on my ass and wait.” So he reopened for takeout and, later, outdoor dining and brunch, none of which he had done in the restaurant’s 17 years. In September, patrons flocked back for indoor dining, where they discovered a first (a burger) and, among other things, an exciting new pasta: squid ink pappardelle with octopus and crab ragù, chili oil and brown-butter citrus crumbs. BYO.
331 Bloomfield Avenue, 973-233-0350
Still a young restaurant—it doesn’t turn two until January—Felina benefited from the foot traffic engendered by Ridgewood closing blocks off its main street during the summer. “Outdoor dining won us a lot of new customers,” says chef Anthony Bucco. That trend should continue as Bucco transitions the modern Italian menu from lighter pastas to richer ones and to braised meats “that warm the tummy.” Chef de Cuisine Martyna Krowycka, meanwhile, has perfected her pizza doughs, fermented three days for feathery-crisp crusts.
54 East Ridgewood Avenue, 551-276-5454
Chef/owner Bruce Lefebvre and his team took the Covid-19 lockdown as an opportunity “to do a total deep clean, all the nooks and crannies, a lot of hands-and-knees and ladders.” With new chef de cuisine Joe Beninato, a Jersey veteran, the F&P dialed up a sophisticated spectrum of pleasures, from black-truffle ricotta gnocchi to pepper-crusted Wagyu skirt steak with green-peppercorn Cognac sauce.
29 Dennis Street, 732-846-3216
The sizzle returned to Hearthside in late September, when the restaurant and its wood-burning grill and oven reopened after being closed nearly seven months. The sizzle was literal—servers sending out porterhouse steaks and hot skillets of whole prawns roasted over the fire in chili-citrus butter. Chef/owner Dominic Piperno again allowed himself to indulge in his favorite menu item—ours too—red snapper ceviche in orange vinaigrette with elderflower syrup, garnished with cilantro, shallots and avocado puree. BYO.
801 Haddon Avenue, 856-240-1164
“Making things beautiful in an aluminum tray is something I never thought I’d do,” says chef David Viana, looking back at the year, “but it’s been fun to put all the same care and expertise into to-go.” When the heart of the Heirloom Kitchen experience—sitting at the kitchen counter, close enough for Viana and his team to pass tastes and plates directly to you—finally resumed in September, the energy was as vibrant as the food. There were crispy skate wing with caramelized cauliflower, and an upscale s’mores with dark-chocolate cremeux. “I’ve been cooking 19 years, and I didn’t think I’d ever be surprised again,” Viana says. “But we’re growing again, and I feel very optimistic.” BYO.
3853 Route 516, 732-727-9444
Having won a Michelin star in Manhattan, chef Ben Pollinger came home to found the Hill two years ago as a down-to-earth place for elevated food. After shutting down in March, he reopened for takeout and, later, outdoor dining, envisioning the Hill as “even more of an everyday type of place.” Now his best sellers are a juicy half chicken with crisp skin, an 8-ounce burger and fish tacos. “What hasn’t changed,” he says, “is making guests feel comfortable and hiring good people to take care of them.”
252 Schraalenburgh Road, 201-899-4700
Though chef Joseph Voller is not Italian, he’s traveled widely in Italy and has crafted a ravishing menu that ranges from a lobster and crab salad sparked with citrus and mustard to a unique pasta dish, mugnaia, consisting of one long, unbroken strand in a light sauce braced with cruschi peppers and garlic. With three separate dining rooms, Il Nido had well-spaced tables before that became a necessity. Service, gracious and attentive, has been another hallmark.
184 Route 9 North, 732-851-6347
When you open the door of Bill Van Pelt’s modest little storefront, your nostrils tell you right away you are in for some serious eating. Van Pelt, tending the wood-burning grill and overseeing the tiny open kitchen, has a biology degree from Rutgers, but we’d give him a PhD in deliciousness. His hog chop with spaetzle is an atavistic wonder. His lamb sausage with olive tapenade makes the Mediterranean seem local, and his shrimp and grits could pass muster in N’Awlins. The staff makes everyone feel like a local, however far they drove. BYO.
105 Main Street, 908-852-2131
With four dining spaces on three levels (and almost as many menus), JHBK used to be one of the more complex operations around. It often served 500 dinners on a Saturday night. Covid-19 simplified things. “Now it’s one 65-seat restaurant,” says executive chef AJ Capella, “and it’s more refined and focused.” And it’s still busy. Little wonder, given items like Capella’s Jersey scallops in brown butter with corn pudding and lemon-verbena shrimp sauce. Owner Chris Cannon’s wine list is packed with under-the-radar labels offering great bang for the buck.
110 South Street, 973-644-3180
When restaurants were restricted to takeout and delivery on March 16, chef Josh DeChellis and his wife, Jennifer, decided, as DeChellis puts it, “to offer a lot of choice, for the sole reason that, having a family of my own, I know everyone has likes and dislikes.” Casual dishes, like grilled pizzas cooked over mesquite and the buttermilk-fried-chicken sandwich, would sell well early in the week; as the weekend neared, the needle swung to substantial items like slow-roasted pork shoulder and halibut with Vietnamese chili-lime dressing. As the year progressed, what remains consistent is cooking that finds ways to renew the tried and true.
73 Beaver Avenue, 908-335-8905
It’s worth the drive to the northwest corner of the state to experience that out-of-fashion art, the tasting menu, at its most adventurous and rewarding. “Nobody wants to travel right now, so we’re hoping to have people travel through food,” says Aishling Stevens, executive chef of the Crystal Springs Resort and its destination restaurant, Latour. Stevens has bolstered the resort’s local foraging and supply chain with exotic ingredients from afar, such as percebes, a tasty Spanish crustacean harvested from aquatic caves at low tide. The menu is backed by one of the country’s most comprehensive wine cellars.
1 Wild Turkey Way, 973-827-5996 ext 3
Reopening in May after a two-month Covid-19 shutdown, chef Joe Mooney was unsure what to expect from Mother’s Day, usually a grand slam for any restaurant. They did 250 brunches, all takeout, nearly equaling their previous record of about 300 sit-downs. On whatever day, count on Mistral to reintroduce you to foods you thought you knew. Case in point: duck breast. Mooney pan roasts a smoked breast and serves it with an intense duck jus, creamed cabbage, marinated beets, duck-liver sausage and rye spaetzle. It will keep your receptors occupied.
66 Witherspoon Street, 609-688-8808
That first name, Nicholas, will be familiar to NJM readers, who have seen it grace every Best Restaurants list since the first one in 2007. But after a 20-year run, Nicholas and Melissa Harary have transformed Restaurant Nicholas, the avatar of contemporary fine dining in the Garden State, into a new, family-friendly eatery tailored to these times.
160 Route 35 South, 732-345-9977
If one dish can capture the spirit of a restaurant, at Osteria Crescendo it just might be chef Robbie Felice’s whole deep-fried octopus. Bronzed and tangly, it’s quite a sight, and quite a treat. The rest of the menu may not be as visually arresting, but is equally devoted to unabashed gustatory pleasure, whether Sicilian eggplant cappellacci or whole branzino with smoked tomato and black-eyed peas. Opened in 2019, Crescendo again joins its older brother, Viaggio, in Wayne, in our Top 30. Unlike Viaggio, Crescendo has a liquor license, and its signature cocktails are worth exploring.
36 Jefferson Avenue, 201-722-1900
With its brick fireplace, wood beams and polished wood floors, the Pluckemin nestles elevated cuisine within a rustic coziness. Executive chef Jason Ramos can seduce you with a salmon fillet gentled in a miso brodetta or, as he did this summer, summon your inner lumberjack with slow-cooked suckling pig nested in corn and peaches. The wine program, under the leadership of Brian Hider and Christopher Cree, is one of the most comprehensive and edifying around.
359 Route 206 South, 908-658-9292
Point Pleasant Beach
Chef Scott Giordano’s New American food pulls you in with its sumptuousness and keeps you engaged with its nuances. But he asked himself, when he reopened after a couple weeks of Covid-19 shutdown in March, “Will our level of food work for takeout?” He needn’t have worried. “We had a good amount of customers coming to pick up dinner,” he says. When he resumed indoor dining, signatures like the braised pork chop with red cabbage marmalade and crispy spaetzle were as compelling as ever, and nightly specials broadened the appeal.
816 Arnold Avenue, 732-701-1700
Recognizing that “everyone was cooking at home for months on end,” chef Chris Albrecht, when he reopened this bastion of fine dining in September, fashioned a menu “of things that are not easy to make at home.” These ranged from herb-crusted, pan-roasted venison to salmon baked in a salt crust to apple-and-quince strudel with prune Armagnac gelato. Much of the produce comes from the Ryland’s own gardens for a hyper-local iteration of farm to table.
115 Old Highway 28, 908-534-4011
“I truly got to know my three children,” says chef Jamie Knott of the months when the Inn—the fine-dining flagship of his three restaurants (with Saddle River Café and NJM Top 30 Cellar 335 in Jersey City)—restricted itself to takeout one day a week, Saturday. The Inn resumed indoor dining in late September with classics like its fennel-dusted pork chop, and branzino with capers, raisins and romesco sauce. What inspired Knott during the summer’s darkest days? “My 84-year-old grandmother. She’s a lifetime smoker, prefers Miller Lite to water, and her diet isn’t the best. She got Covid, was hospitalized 11 days, but fully recovered. And hasn’t changed her ways.”
2 Barnstable Court, 201-825-4016
After nearly 23 years of fine-dining excellence, chef James Laird pivoted to takeout in March, sharply reducing the menu and adding Jersey favorites like calamari salad and chicken parm. “Takes me back to my roots at Middlesex County Italian restaurants,” he says. Bestsellers more recently? Lobster roll, tuna tartare, steaks and, especially, cocktails. As for to-go, “delivery and takeout were already the fastest growing segments of the business,” he says. “With the pandemic, it increased tenfold in like two months. We’ll probably do it for the rest of our lives.”
6 Roosevelt Avenue, 973-701-0303
A beet-and-watermelon salad could turn out prissy, but chef Lauren Hirschberg’s comes at you joyously crisp, juicy and bright. Hirschberg, a Montclair native who rose to the upper ranks of Tom Colicchio’s restaurant group before opening Turtle and the Wolf in 2015, does not overcomplicate dishes. He’s a flavor maximizer, attentive to textures, whether in his fried chicken or his signature duck pot pie.
622 Valley Road; 973-783-9800
Until Covid-19 pretty much shut down dining and travel, 2020 was looking bright for chef Robbie Felice. Named a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef Award, the 29-year-old was also invited to enter a national pasta competition in California. The competition was cancelled, but at Viaggio—as at his other restaurant, Osteria Crescendo in Westwood, also a NJM Top 30—Felice continues to show the potency and finesse that got him those honors to begin with.
1055 Hamburg Turnpike, 973-706-7277
“When the pandemic hit, I switched gears a little bit,” says chef/owner Sam Freund. “I put simpler, more approachable dishes on the menu to make it more comfortable for families. Now my steak frites and my brined fried chicken are my number-one sellers. I put on sliders for the kids.” Freund didn’t abandon his bring-it-on proclivities, however. His local fluke crudo with fresno chilies and mango was well received, as was his duck with black-plum agrodolce. For dessert, coconut-corn ice cream topped with caramel corn and toasted coconut “went flying out of here. The support from the local community,” he says, “has been amazing.”
380 Route 206, 908-955-0443
Chef Joey Baldino’s core menu remains Sicilian, like his roots, but late autumn brings two hearty specials to fight the frost. Both involve pasta, his great passion. There will be tortellini filled with pureed pumpkin and butternut squash, cosseted in a sauce of sage and brown butter. Pappardelle, broad and silky, will be lavished with a cocoa-powder enriched ragù made from braised shoulder of wild boar. One thing you can always count on is peerless pistachio gelato, made from nuts imported from Sicily.
618 Collings Avenue, 856-854-2670Click here to leave a comment