Feeding the Soul: A Family Dining Tradition Forges Bonds Far Beyond the Table

This writer's foodie parents instilled a lasting love for New Jersey's restaurant scene in their children—especially at Christmastime.

Illustration of family members of all ages happily eating and drinking at an abundant table

Illustration by Ellice Weaver

My parents, New Jersey born and raised, were foodies with humble beginnings. They were not experts, but they knew what they liked, and they were passionate about food. 

They married young, got an apartment in New Milford, and had four kids in short order. They paid rent, put food on the table, and rolled the car down the hill on payday. Later, they moved to Wyckoff, upgraded to a station wagon, and had another kid.

Despite their frugality, my parents took us out to eat as often as possible. They taught us to order burgers in burger places and lobster in lobster places, and never to confuse the two, even if their menus offered both. We celebrated special occasions at the Town Tavern’s smorgasbord in West Milford and the Manor’s buffet in West Orange. We sampled hot dogs everywhere. 

Dad chronically over-ordered. In trips to Segovia in Moonachie, or to Iberia or Fornos of Spain in Newark, he ordered shrimp in garlic, chorizo and more, before digging into a heaping platter of paella. 

Sometimes, Mom would make a bubbling pot of sloppy joes for us so she and Dad could go out to dinner. We had friends who thought this was an excellent idea, but we knew better.

Some nights, we’d pile into the station wagon for an enormous ice cream cone at the Old Barn Milk Bar in Wayne. While Jahn’s in Paramus was for special events, Van Dyke’s homemade ice cream in Ridgewood was a cool consolation after a disappointing summer baseball game. 

In 1991, Mom and Dad treated us—with our spouses—to a family dinner that eventually evolved into a Christmas tradition. It’s been held every year since, despite ice storms, blizzards and other mild brushes with disaster. 

The list of places we’ve dined in New Jersey is stellar. Fromagerie (now Red Horse by David Burke), Restaurant Nicholas (now Barrel & Roost), the Pluckemin Inn, Latour, Ninety Acres, Metuchen Inn, Restaurant David Drake, Bernards Inn, Manasquan River Golf Club and, most recently, Faubourg, have all provided spectacular food and nights to remember. 

[RELATED: The 30 Best Restaurants in New Jersey of 2022]

We vividly recall what we’ve ordered—fois gras, angry lobster (a signature dish of chef David Burke‘s) and other exotic fish, homemade pastas, cheesecake lollipops and many, many perfect steaks. 

When Dad died years ago, we encouraged Mom to continue the tradition. The first year was difficult, though sharing the meal together was healing. It became a point of pride for her to plan this night; we swore she was considering next year’s options on the ride home. When Mom found love again, we initiated him into our yearly tradition, just as we had welcomed our own significant others into this intimate group. 

In 2020, with the pandemic raging and all of us now scattered in several states, for the first time in memory we could not gather. That year, we experienced our first family dinner without Mom, so maybe that was a blessing. Instead, we gathered for a call and raised a glass to her and Dad. We reminisced about the wonderful food, the fancy outfits, the festive cocktails and the many laughs we’ve shared. We were reminded of how spoiled we have been when so many go hungry. We mourned the loss of restaurants, large and small, and spoke of favorites on our list. We understand, more clearly than ever, that a dinner is so much more than just a meal.  

Kathy Anne Cowie is married to a guy who loves to cook. They live in Ridgewood (a town with plenty of dinner choices) with their two daughters.

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