Restaurant Review

Ho-Ho-Kus Inn

New owners renovated the venerable Ho-Ho-Kus Inn when they took it over in 2009. Last fall they brought in a new executive chef, their fourth.

In recent decades, the very personable Ho-Ho-Kus Inn—built as a private home in 1796, a tavern since 1890—had seemed stuck in a time warp, serving up tired roasts and stiff service in increasingly tattered surroundings.

Perhaps no owners have put more heart and money into getting the inn right than Ho-Ho-Kus residents Laurie and Gordon Hamm, who have run the business since 2009. The Hamms—who own stakes in several Manhattan eateries—invested seven months and $1.5 million in a renovation. “We wanted to get rid of the stodginess, but still honor the history and architectural integrity,” Laurie told me.

The 172-seat inn—with its library bar, nostalgic local artwork and five cozy, jewel-toned dining rooms—does feel unstuffy yet elegant. A new no-reservations tavern room and an umbrella-shaded bluestone patio broaden the appeal. Staff, in pressed white shirts and black ties, are smiling and polished.

Getting the food right, however, hasn’t been a slam dunk. Since opening, the Hamms have gone through three chefs. With their fourth, Paramus resident Hank Barrett, 51, hired last September, the couple hopes to hit the sweet spot.

“Hank’s got a diverse background and he’s very talented,” said Laurie, “but he is also flexible and willing to listen. And that’s really important to us now.”

Trained at the Philadelphia Restaurant School, Barrett is certainly versatile. In New York, he aced lamb shanks at Alison on Dominick; figured out farm-to-table at Union Square Café; and got his Asian on at Ruby Foo’s. Most recently, he took on tapas at Sangria in Mahwah. “My longest stint was at Docks in New York, and that’s where I really learned fish,” he told me, noting he was also at one point a fish buyer for 80 restaurants.

Barrett actually fares best on land, especially with the hearty tavern dishes the Hamms hanker for. Crumbled wild-boar sausage in roasted piquillo peppers made a zesty and satisfying starter. A crunchy, feta-flecked red-quinoa and baby black-kale salad was so delicate and bright, it won over the most inveterate kale haters among us.

A hanger steak, its crust crisp and flavorful from an espresso-infused barbecue sauce, scored bonus points with its sassy side of smoked red onion and comforting cheddar-jalapeño polenta cake. So did a tasty pan-roasted strip steak nestled next to a creamy-crisp square of potato gratin, nuttily enriched with manchego cheese. Short ribs were fork tender, their fattiness cleverly cut by a just-bitter-enough Guinness braise. Lamb shanks won kudos, too.

Fowl didn’t fly quite as well: Pan-roasted organic chicken was ho hum, its house-made sausage stuffing leaden. And pan-seared duck was oddly flavorless.

Surprisingly, Barrett’s prominently featured fish and seafood failed to impress. Togarashi shrimp, dusted with what Barrett described as exotic Japanese spices, tasted under-seasoned, their bed of honey-white peppercorn risotto merely bland. Crisp yet tender grilled marinated octopus suffered from severe over-salting. Braised lobster and white bean stew showed scant evidence of the menu’s promised lobster, shaved brussels sprouts and pancetta. A rice-crusted grouper (with a thick, bland crust and soggy interior) arrived on yet another bed of risotto—delivering one seriously starchy mouthful.

Ordinary bread and limited house-made desserts were the rule during our visits. But the recent hiring of pastry chef Krista Guiwo from Orama in Edgewater may bring improvement.
The Hamms need to tell Barrett not to overreach. The setting is lovely, the wine list stellar, the service solid. Barrett is clearly capable of preparing simple, honest, delicious fare. If he serves it, people will come.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    American - Modern
  • Price Range:
    Moderate
  • Price Details:
    Appetizers $12-$16; entrées, $25-$42; desserts, $6-$10.
  • Ambience:
    Fine country inn.
  • Service:
    Friendly and attentive.
  • Wine list:
    "Wine Spectator" Award Winning; many craft beers.
  • Ho-Ho-Kus Inn and Tavern
    1 East Franklin Turnpike
    Ho Ho Kus, NJ 07423
  • Hours:
    Dinner: Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 pm; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 pm. Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 am to 3 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 am to 5 pm. Brunch: Sunday, 10 am to 3 pm. A casual “tavern menu” is served all day in the tavern and dining rooms.

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