Upstart Bloomfield is nipping at the heels of über-dining-destination Montclair.

Holsten's Ice Cream in Bloomfield.

Until now, it took the finale of an HBO series to put a Bloomfield eatery in the spotlight.

Weekends on Broad Street, people still stand in line to get a table—not at Holsten’s ice cream parlor, where Tony Soprano sang his swan song, but just down the block at Stamna, the hugely popular year-old Greek taverna.

In the last three years, Bloomfield’s venerable diners, luncheonettes, and under-the-radar ethnic joints have been joined by a new wave of restaurants, upscale in quality if not in price. Improbable as it once seemed, a restaurant rivalry is emerging between upstart Bloomfield and its prestigious neighbor, Montclair. A mile and a half south of Holsten’s and Stamna, a restaurant row is budding on Broad Street between Warren and Pitt streets. Within two blocks, choices include Bohemia (Peruvian), Brookside Thai, Kira Kira (Japanese), Pandan (Asian fusion), and Vinnie’s (Italian). All told, the range of options in Bloomfield approaches that of Montclair, even if the latter maintains the edge in quantity and overall quality.

“We are getting our share of restaurants that certainly rival the ones in Montclair,” says Bloomfield mayor Raymond McCarthy. “The nice part is, I see people from all different areas coming to eat here.”

The owners of Stamna, Alexios and Vagelitsa Nissirios, also own Bloomfield’s Nevada Diner, among others. A year ago, they opened Stamna to bring a taste of their home island (Karpathos) to the town. Bloomfield natives are behind two other fine arrivals, the brand-new Orange Squirrel (see review, previous page) and Senorita’s, a Mexican grill that opened in 2005. Ricky Cascante, Senorita’s executive chef and co-owner, had spent the previous seven years as chef of Montclair’s Mexicali Rose.

“We typically would have been in Montclair, but it’s gotten way too expensive to rent there,” says Cascante’s cousin Andre Quesada-Cascante, another co-owner. “Here we were able to get a liquor license, which means our profit margin is higher.”

Last year, Natraj Palace, a modest but long-lived Indian restaurant, moved from Montclair to smaller quarters on Broad Street after its rent was hiked. Restaurateurs wanting to open a place often start looking in Montclair, but, finding rents high and liquor licenses sky-high (not to mention unavailable), happily cross the border. The last liquor license to change hands in Montclair sold in February 2008 for $750,000 to the buyer of the Wellmont Theater, Jonathan Rosen. The seller was Montclair developer Steven Plofker’s Marlboro Loft Partners, which bought the license in 2004 for $250,000. In the most recent Bloomfield transaction, in 2007, the license for the club Heartbreakers was sold to new owners for $150,000. (The club was sold separately.)

New Jersey law ties liquor consumption licenses to town population (pre-Prohibition establishments were grandfathered in at repeal). Montclair (pop. 37,052) has twelve such licenses, none currently available; Bloomfield (pop. 47,683) has 21. At press time, two were for sale.

One restaurant that opened in Bloomfield in 2007 after searching in Montclair is Bohemia, which despite its name serves Peruvian food. In Bloomfield the owners found more space at lower rent—plus a liquor license, enabling them to offer South American wines as well as Pisco Sours, a typical Peruvian cocktail made with brandy.

“People are surprised to find that we have a license,” says Olga Loo-Diaz, the manager and co-owner. “People from Montclair come in and say, ‘You should be in Montclair,’ but we also get a lot of customers from Bloomfield, and they see it as a great convenience to have us nearby.”

Bloomfield’s new luster has imbued even some of the old guard with new confidence. When Willie’s Diner, a fixture of old Bloomfield, burned down a few years ago, the owners decided to rebuild. Perhaps sensing which way the aromas were blowing, they undertook an upmarket makeover. Bye-bye Willie’s, hello State Street Grill. Opening in 2008, the new place has chandeliers and plusher booths. Less chrome and more wood. You can still get a Reuben and slice of cheesecake; it just seems to taste better.

Click here to read a detailed review of The Orange Squirrel in Bloomfield.

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