Bergen-Lafayette’s Restaurant Renaissance

The Jersey City neighborhood has been attracting newcomers priced out of downtown. Now, restaurants and bars are following suit.

The Oak on Pine, located in Jersey City's Bergen-Lafayette neighborhood. Photo by Sophia F. Gottfried

A few years ago, there weren’t many dining options available after 9 PM in Jersey City’s Bergen-Lafayette neighborhood, located west-southwest of the downtown area. “Everything was an Uber or a drive away,” says Ria Ramkissoon, owner of Harry’s Daughter. “There was a huge void in the neighborhood.”

The hospitality industry veteran and Trinidad native set out to open a Caribbean gastropub a few minutes from her apartment, naming it Harry’s Daughter in honor of her father. Over piles of jerk chicken nachos and glasses of passion fruit guava rum punch, neighborhood old-timers and newcomers alike have embraced the cheerful, tropical spot since it opened last November.

Harry’s Daughter is a delightful destination for drinks or dinner, and ideally, a long evening of both. The splashy decor—bold palm-print wallpaper, wicker swing chairs and a coconut cart parked by the open kitchen—is fun without being over the top. You can’t go wrong with a cocktail starring house-made ginger beer, like the Dark and Stormy, or a Moscow Mule (both $12), courtesy of Ramkissoon’s boyfriend Alasdair Cotter, who runs the bar program.

Simply sipping cocktails and skipping the food at Harry’s Daughter would be a shame. The whole red snapper ($25) was crispy on the outside, juicy and flaky on the inside, but the star of the dish was the escovitch sauce: a sweet-and-sour heap of pickled peppers and onions balanced with hot honey. After we found out the curry chicken and roti special we ordered had sold out, our server suggested the roti quesadilla ($12). Stuffed with jerk chicken, cheddar and pineapple and wrapped in a chewy roti flatbread, we made as much headway into the generous portion as possible. The stewed red peas and rice, and the buttery pumpkin rice nicely complimented the tang and heat of our entrées. We lingered over a second round of drinks, Ria’s sweet rum punch ($12), and enjoyed the “chilltown” vibes, as Ramkissoon dubs it.

Beyond the doors of Ramkissoon’s “chilltown,” several other trendy, new establishments have stepped in to fill the neighborhood restaurant void in the last year, quickly making Bergen-Lafayette one of Jersey City’s most exciting up-and-coming neighborhoods for dining. Over the last year, Bergen-Lafayette has gained Corgi Spirits, a craft distillery; Pinwheel Garden, a dumpling and noodle bar; Hooked JC, a casual seafood shack; and Mordi’s Schnitzel Truck, a popular food truck-turned-sandwich spot. The vast 902 Brewing Company, complete with a rooftop bar, is also in the works.

Cocktails at Harry’s Daughter. Photo by Sophia F. Gottfried

One spot that’s become a neighborhood staple is the Oak on Pine. Owner Sam Kirk, who also owns Sam A.M. in downtown Jersey City, was drawn to Bergen-Lafayette’s lower rents, quiet, community feel and location nestled between the light rail line and scenic Liberty State Park.

Last November, he opened the Oak on Pine, a 35-seat Southern-inspired BYO—within weeks of and just steps from Harry’s Daughter. Kirk calls the area a “gem of a neighborhood,” made up of “a lot of established families that have been there for years and years as well as new young families.” Kirk lives with his wife and infant son in another swiftly developing Jersey City neighborhood, the Heights.

Across the street from the Oak on Pine in Jersey City’s Bergen-Lafayette neighborhood. Photo by Sophia F. Gottfried

Kirk, who worked under James Beard-nominated chef Jody Williams, hopes his restaurants serve as a “comfort and extension of home,” in an urban area where most people lack ample outdoor and gathering space. While the Oak on Pine nails a comforting atmosphere, with a large open kitchen, southern-style fans and shutters and floor-to-ceiling windows, the fare is more elevated than most home-cooked meals.

Take, for example, the sweet corn fritters starter ($6). Though described as doughnuts, they weren’t sticky or oily, and showcased the flavor of peak summer corn (a dining companion described them as “light as a feather”). The menu changes seasonally, and Kirk sources produce from New Jersey and nearby states. Local produce shone again in the summer succotash, a standout medley of corn, peppers, zucchini and onions ($7) and the Colorado chili verde ($14), a thin tomatillo stew with pulled pork and crispy tostones.

The Oak’s most popular entrée, the salted honey fried chicken ($17), lived up to the standards of my dinner guest, who has Southern roots, and I appreciated the simple pairing with mashed potatoes. Vegetarians will find the Grilled Trees sandwich ($9), with eggplant, squash, peppers and fried onions and an ancho aioli, satisfying and hefty. Dessert lovers should save room—the key lime pie ($9), the Oak’s most popular dessert, wasn’t overly sweet (or artificially neon green) and came with a copious scoop of house-made whipped cream. We were too stuffed to double up, but the seasonal cobbler (peach during our visit, $9) at our neighbor’s table was tempting.

With so much growth in Bergen-Lafayette’s food scene, Kirk is grateful for the strong “sense of community and support for one another” among the neighborhood’s restaurant owners. As for their collective place in the rapidly changing neighborhood, it’s a bit more complicated. “In any community in which there’s change happening—and there’s a lot of change coming in Bergen-Lafayette—there’s uneasiness, too,” says Kirk. “But I hope every time people come in, they feel welcomed.”

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