Best New Restaurants in NJ of 2021
That hope springs eternal is nowhere clearer than in the restaurant business, where profit margins are slim, liquor licenses (in our state) are high, and finding staff is a continuing challenge. But terrific places continue to open. Our tough job is to sort through them and point you toward the ones we think are worth your time and money.
Burke, the Hazlet-raised commander of six New Jersey restaurants, in November planted his flag on the historic Morristown Green. The dramatic, high-ceilinged space often thumps with deejayed music. (The Topgolf suites down the hall are inaudible.) The menu matches the ambiance: assertive pastas, pizzas and seafood; Burke’s patented salt-aged beef; his chili-strafed Hipster Fries and marshmallow-filled cookie sliders that may slide into your dreams.—K.T. Harrison
67 East Park Place • 973-829-1776
Point Pleasant Beach
On the side of the building, the wavy seaside mural (by Melissa Hood, with local helpers) signals fun on the inside. Chef Ken Held follows through with a grilled 6-ounce patty (or two 4-ouncers) on a brioche bun, hand-cut fries made from fresh russets, and all house-made sauces and condiments. Truffle fries are topped with shaved Parmesan and truffle oil. Cheese fries are topped with a house-made beer cheese made with Sky Red ale from the Last Wave Brewery across the street. BYO—Eric Levin
522 Bay Avenue, 732-965-2018
“Opening another restaurant was the last thing I thought I’d be doing,” says James Avery, looking back at last summer. “But if there was anywhere people would gravitate, a place they’d say, ‘Let’s get back out in public,’ it would be this.”
He had found the perfect space, a historic building that had served as the city’s post office, a bank and, more recently, Modine restaurant. The gamble has paid off, and the 170-seat restaurant is packed most weekend nights and for Sunday brunch, with patrons choosing among the sporty bar, the high-ceilinged dining room, a window-lined alcove called the tea room, and the former bank’s vault, which Avery refers to as the snug.
“Every pub has one—a place you go to have conversations you don’t want others to hear,” says Avery.
Opening a British pub seemed an obvious choice for this native of Spring Lake, which some refer to as the Irish Riviera, and indeed, the idea had been percolating for several years for this chef of Irish descent. Avery did his homework, traveling to gastropubs throughout Britain and Europe to amass design and menu ideas. He borrowed the popular flower-laden mantels that shroud the doors of many British pubs. A tall, silk cherry tree dominates the dining room, while vines of silk wisteria trail throughout.
The menu features traditional pub dishes like Scotch eggs, bangers and mash, fish and chips, and shepherd’s pie, along with burgers, grilled steak and hot wings. There’s also chicken tikka masala, standard fare in England, with its large Indian population.
For the British dishes, Avery says “the backbone of the recipes come from working with Gordon Ramsay,” on whose FOX shows, Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares, Avery has been a regular. He puts his own twists on these, adding a hint of curry to the breaded coating on the fish and being more lamb forward with the shepherd’s pie.
Avery calls himself a Jersey Shore guy. The Black Swan joins his other Asbury Park restaurant, the Bonney Read, and he has previously served as executive chef of Asbury Festhalle and Biergarten. Now 40, Avery, who lives in Wall with his wife and four children, says his goal is to have 10 restaurants by the time he’s 50.
“I’ve got 10 years and eight restaurants to go,” he says.—Jill P. Capuzzo
601 Mattison Avenue, 732-361-7159
Every one of his 30 years, Alex Pineiro has visited Galicia, his father’s homeland in northwest Spain. “Fishing, farming and foraging” are its pillars, he says, and he honors the earthy flavors at Bodegón (a bucolic Spanish tavern). The shrimp toast, served warm, is a chopped shrimp salad that puts shrimp flavor foremost. His beef filet boasts a ravishing char, and his arroz negro (squid-ink black rice, studded with bites of tender squid) amounts to a meal in itself.—EL
631 Anderson Avenue, 856-521-9135
Netflix celebrity-chef Nick Liberato came back East in 2020 to be closer to family, and in June launched the Borscht Belt, a designer version of the Jewish deli. There’s a dining room where you can sit down and order a thick hot-pastrami sandwich, smoked whitefish salad, tangy chopped liver and legit matzo ball soup. On the deli side, the shelves and counters of the brightly lit establishment are lined with deli staples, from Dr. Brown’s cream soda to 8-inch-high cakes of halva to slabs of house-cured fish and freshly roasted meats. Comedy acts appear here on some weekends. Though raised Catholic, Liberato has spent plenty of time eating in Jewish delis around the country and is happy to bring what he calls “that delicious nostalgia” to Central Jersey. BYO—JPC
19 Bridge Street, 609-460-4051
When the pandemic furloughed Brendan Ullmann, (left) 27, and Tyler O’Toole, 29, rising chefs at Manhattan’s vaunted Jean-Georges, their defiant response was to restore a 1720 farmhouse in Ullmann’s hometown of Fredon. On a country road surrounded by fields, they unfurled a restaurant with homespun charm and food that downplays its own elegance in favor of sensory pleasure. Exacting French technique, farm-fresh ingredients and focused creativity characterize every dish, often with exciting Asian touches, like the delectable duck breast basking in pho broth. “We never stop tasting and tweaking,” says O’Toole, “and we don’t send anything out that we don’t agree is a total wow.”—KTH
310 Route 94 • 973-862-6410
Chef Chris Siversen, who made his name presenting sparkling seafood at Maritime Parc on the Jersey City waterfront, was invited to create a signature spot at the renovated Westminster Hotel. His idea: “Play up the hotel’s social vibe with an appealingly updated steak house and festive bar.” Feathered Fox is as sleek and lighthearted as its name. The bustling bar pours impeccably updated cocktails, craft brews and oenophile-friendly wines. The airy, buzzy dining room offers splendidly crisp dry-aged steaks from DeBragga & Spitler, pristine sushi and seafood, and intriguing salads. Must-orders: the lush tuna tartare and the deep-fried mashed-potato rings.—KTH
Westminster Hotel, 550 W. Mt. Pleasant Avenue, 973-994-4900
People from the Tuscan city of Florence are Fiorentini. Antonio De Ieso and his wife, Brenda, are Fiorentini, even though she was born in Peru. She designed the interior, including the graphics and the greenery suspended from the high ceiling. Antonio is the chef. He grew up in an orphanage in Florence and might not have warm feelings today about the city had a woman who came to work in the orphanage kitchen when he was nine not taken him and his siblings under her wing. “She was from a family of farmers,” he says. “Unlike the other ladies, she was focused on giving us good, healthy food. That’s had a big impact on my life.”
As a teen, De Ieso began working in Florentine kitchens. Although the tasks were at first menial, “you would see that when a dish goes out, people respond to it.” De Ieso came to New York in 2012 and worked his way up to executive chef of the Sea Grill in Rockefeller Center.
At Fiorentini, his dishes are detailed and ingratiating. Pastas are made in-house from Italian flour, and meats are organic. “My wife and I always intended to have our own place,” he says. “When the pandemic hit, we looked at each other and said, ‘Time to put down a plan.’” BYO—EL
98 Park Avenue • 973-721-3404
Astride a cliff, with huge picture windows facing the luminous Manhattan skyline in the distance, the Highlawn challenges a chef to keep attention on his plates. Reopening in October after a Covid closure, the new owners of the former Highlawn Pavilion entrusted that challenge to veteran chef Sam Hazen and built a new kitchen to his specifications. He has rewarded their investment. The three pillars of the menu are first-rate steaks, chops and seafood cooked over wood and charcoal; sushi and a raw bar; and sumptuous pastas.—EL
1 Crest Drive • 973-731-3463
Sandy and John Vizzone knew one thing about their menu when they opened Jardin at their inn, the Hugh: Cape May did not need “another freaking crab cake.” Under veteran chef and Cape May native Michael Schultz, Jardin’s ambitious, French-influenced tasting menu has quickly earned a following in the city’s vibrant dining scene. Moroccan-spiced duck breast is exemplary, and attention to detail shows even in amuse bouches like a bonbon combining flavors of green olive and smoked butterscotch. It’s Cape May’s most interesting new restaurant in years. BYO—Adam Erace
653 Washington Street, 609-435-5458
The pandemic forced Richard and Christina Cusack to close their French restaurant in Philadelphia in 2020, just six months after opening. But June BYOB has been a boon to our side of the river. The gold-plated flatware and crystal chandeliers veer high Empire, but classically trained Cusack showcases rustic French dishes like braised rabbit-leg stew, steelhead trout cooked in a fig leaf, and the stunning Trio de Canard of roast duck breast, foie gras and duck leg pithivier (pie). Cusack, 34, says he prefers “old-school techniques and recipes” to the science-lab turn some French restaurants have taken. “It’s a dying art, and I’d like to bring it back.” BYO—JPC
690 Haddon Avenue • 856-240-7041
Makai means “by the sea” in Hawaiian, and looking out the sixth-floor windows of this newest addition to the Ocean Casino Resort confirms that’s where you are. Warren Richards, Ocean’s senior vice president of food and beverage, says attending a wedding in Maui in May gave him the idea for the theme. “A lot of places were going the Key West route, and I thought, Why not do the other ocean?”
Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, Makai offers pancakes smothered in tropical-fruit compote, fish or prawn tacos, and the Hula burger, topped with grilled pineapple and bacon, along with drinks like the Hawaiian Sunrise punchbowl, filled with two rums and four tropical fruit juices.—JPC
500 Boardwalk, 609-783-8000
Stefano Bosetti, born and raised in Trento, northern Italy, says he grew up “putting a finger in everything my mother was making.” She was a professional cook, and he followed in her footsteps, first in Italy, and since 1994, in New York. Last July, he and his friend Massimo Apicella, having moved to New Jersey, opened Palato, a place as compact (about 20 seats at small tables, including one in the front window) as it is big in flavor, spirit and value. On offer: Polenta with mixed mushrooms and melted fontina, lush and crusty eggplant parm, served sizzling in a black-steel pan; and personal-size pizzas. The squid-ink pasta with crabmeat, garlic and Fresno peppers tops the price list at $22.95, and it’s big enough to feed two. BYO—EL
377 Bloomfield Avenue, 973-509-0416
The wrought-iron chairs, painted baby blue, are cheeky (and, saving grace, have cushions). There are bright, red banquettes and vintage movie posters to peruse. Fortunately, the fun doesn’t end there. Owner Mido Emad and chef Floyd Monteal follow through with ultra-thin-crust pizzas, lusty pastas, grilled lamb chop pops and novelties such as fried burrata injected with pesto sauce over marinara. BYO—EL
1047 Broad Street, 973-338-0616
Three Shore natives who have a thing for New Orleans food and style bought the former nightclub Cascada in 2018 and, after off-and-on construction, finally opened R Bar in December. Chef Michael Feinberg, who worked for Marc Forgione at American Cut in Atlantic City, ranges from crab beignets to deviled eggs under a blizzard of shaved Parmesan to a worthy burger. There’s a vest-pocket stage from which, recently, a deft jazz trio held forth. What’s in the name? “We’ve opened so many restaurants for others,” says partner Casey Richards, “that we decided this one would be ours, so it’s R Bar.”—EL
1114 Main Street, 732-776-7463
Chef David Burke returns to the gracious old country house he once ran as the Fromagerie. With a new partner, he saddled up Red Horse in March, gracing it with paintings of elegant thoroughbreds. Burke calls it “a country steak house with an Asian accent.” He buys Kentucky prime beef (“whole animals, mixed breed Wagyu/Black Angus”), butchering on premises, and aging with his patented red-salt-brick process. Also dry aged are crispy-skinned ducks. Sushi provides the Asian accent, along with wok-fried rice, tempura lobster, and short rib chow fun noodles in Korean barbecue sauce.—EL
26 Ridge Road, 732-576-3400
Eager to replace the somewhat stuffy Robert’s Steakhouse space with a middle ground between their high-end and casual options, the Hard Rock in July opened Sandpiper, a tapas restaurant that Grace Chow, vice president of food and beverage, describes as “more lighthearted and fun.” The 200-seat restaurant sports Shore colors and a floor-to-ceiling tree at its center. Located next to the casino’s theater, Sandpiper has been a hit pre- and post-show. Executive chef John Zaitoun’s small plates run the gamut, from pierogies to tenderloin sliders to truffle-cheese dusted tater tots to toothsome and stimulating shrimp ceviche. The drink menu has lightened as well, with fruity craft cocktails and house-made red and white sangrias leading the way.—JPC
1000 Boardwalk, 609-449-1000
The week of Independence Day, it felt as if everyone was talking about Santorini. Not the Greek isle, but the Greek and Italian restaurant that had just opened in town. After surviving the opening-night crush, Santorini quickly hit its stride, thanks to chef Armando Gjana and owner Florian Furxhiu. Wait—Greek and Italian? It’s an unusual combination, at least at the Shore, but for Furxhiu, who came to America from Albania in 2000, they go together quite comfortably, and indeed feel like home. “Albanian,” he says, “is a mix of Greek and Italian.” Lamb shank with stuffed grape leaves, chicken parm, grilled branzino with lemon sauce?
Wherever you’re from, the food at Santorini needs no translation. BYO—AE
517 W. Rio Grande Avenue, 609-551-2432
“Mild and buttery, on the sweeter side” is how chef Melissa McGrath describes the oysters Ed and Lisa Pappas raise on their farm on the Delaware Bay. McGrath serves them at the Pappases’ roadside stand and restaurant, north of Vineland. It’s bright yellow and hard to miss. And you won’t want to miss the oysters, raw, fried, or in seasonal preparations like leek, asparagus and butter, coming March 1, when Sweet Amalia emerges from its winter hibernation. You might even see Amalia, Ed and Lisa’s daughter. BYO—EL
994 US Route 40 • 856-839-2478
Aneesa Waheed offers a new taste on the Shore—Moroccan, heady with lamb or fish tagines, stuffed cabbage rolls, and dishes that mostly avoid gluten, nuts and dairy. A Food Network, regular, Waheed has been serving Moroccan comfort food at her three restaurants in upstate New York for the last 10 years. But last summer, when Covid led her family to forego their usual European travels, they vacationed in Wildwood instead. They loved the area and decided to make it their permanent summer home.
“Moroccan pulls from so many other cuisines people are more familiar with, like Spanish, Italian and Greek,” Waheed says. “It’s a cuisine that’s different, but still very accessible to the American palate.” Tara reopens in April after a winter sabbatical.—JPC
5209 Pacific Avenue, 609-523-7053