Hackettstown, on the Musconetcong River in rural Warren County, is known for its state fish hatchery (opened in 1912), the M&Ms characters on the welcome and street signs (the candies have been made there for 60 years), and the adventurous productions of the Centenary Stage Company. In the last three years, the Man Skirt and Czig Meister breweries have opened on Main Street, and foot traffic has picked up. Hmm. Anything missing?
In 2016, longtime Hackettstown resident Bill Van Pelt came up with the answer. Taking over a little storefront vacated by a Brazilian rodizio, he opened James on Main, a terrific New American BYO. Not only has it developed a loyal local following, it has led foodies from places like Whitehouse Station, Mendham, Morristown, Sparta, Parsippany and even Montclair to head to what they might once have considered the boonies.
Van Pelt, who grew up in the neighboring town of Independence, earned a degree in biology from Rutgers in 1996. He thought he would go into physical therapy, “but my externships were incredibly boring. I’m a fast-paced person and I need to be making things.”
He had grown up working on local farms and reveling in the Italian food culture of his mother’s side of the family. His cooking career has had so many stops, it would take an old-fashioned railroad conductor with a sonorous voice to do them justice. (“Pizza Hut, Chi-Chi’s, Old Man Rafferty’s, Soho on George, Clydz, the Park Avenue Club, Perona Farms, Harker’s Hollow Country Club, Hawk Pointe Golf Club…”) Those names don’t all sound highfalutin. But in roughly 30 years of kitchen work, involving long commutes from Hackettstown, Van Pelt assiduously educated himself, rose to top positions, spent two winters cooking in Vienna and developed his own style.
At James on Main, named for the youngest of his three children, Van Pelt, 44, brings it all together. His mantra is fresh, local, seasonal. The regular menu, priced to please locals, includes the succulent, $22, local pork schnitzel with dijon-lemon aioli; $24 shrimp and grits replete with lip-smacking jalapeño jelly and a smoky bourbon butter; and a rewarding $6 French onion soup.
With only 42 seats, including six at the handsome counter, reservations are hard to snag, and there’s often a line for brunch. “It’s all word of mouth,” says Van Pelt. “We did a couple radio spots at first, but no print ads.”
The specials list changes two to three times a week. “It’s more expensive than anybody else in town,” Van Pelt says, “but not unreasonable for what you’re getting.” For $35, a Viking Village tilefish with rutabaga-vanilla purée and toasted barley salad was not only reasonably priced, but staggeringly good. A blood-orange salad with mustard greens, beets and sage vinaigrette would have been stellar on its own, but as underpinning for a plump confited duck leg, it was nearly a meal for $19.
Salads and desserts are the specialty of sous chef Kelly Sweeney. Van Pelt recognized her talent eight years ago when she was working at a small catering company and he was executive chef of Hawke Pointe. He hired her, and they’ve worked together ever since. “I could just tell by her energy and the way she carried herself,” he says.
Sweeney’s Jom chopped salad is a marvel of deft knifework that organizes a menagerie of celery, carrots, radishes, tomato, chickpeas, chopped eggs, olives, black and white beans, baby greens and an herb vinaigrette into a delicious grab bag where you can’t put a fork wrong.
With kitchen space scarce, desserts are few, but there seem to be no bad choices. Hot cinnamon doughnuts filled with Austrian apricot marmalade, fried to order, were eye-rollingly good. A slice of Sweeney’s light cheesecake with crunchy toffee topping and burnt caramel sauce made me want to hit rewind and have it again.
“We think the same way,” says Van Pelt. “We’re only as good as our last dish. Let’s make sure what we do today is better.”Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Modern
Price Details:Appetizers, $6-$16; entrées, $22-$30; sides, $5-$7; desserts, $8-$10
Ambience:Compact storefront, convivial crowd
Service:Knowledgeable, helpful, enthused