It’s been a brutal 10 months for Garden State grub.
New Jersey has lost dozens of restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic. Some stood for decades, others were just starting their culinary journey — neither could make ends meet amid the crippling shutdowns and restrictions.
Earlier this month, Esquire listed five New Jersey restaurants among the 100 the country cannot afford to lose. It got us thinking: Which Garden State eateries would make our list of essentials, the restaurants we truly cannot afford to lose? Not just the places with the best food, but the places with the most cultural and culinary significance that would be irreplaceable if they closed.
Here are the 25 restaurants New Jersey can’t afford to lose, according to us food writers Peter Genovese and Jeremy Schneider. The entries are marked “JS,” for Jeremy, and “PG,” for Pete, so you know who wrote what.
The eerily-red-lit bar, like something out of “Twin Peaks,” is just one irreplaceable feature at Tony’s Baltimore Grill, an old-school wonder. The white stucco exterior, red awning and bright neon are a throwback to A.C.’s pre-casino glory days. Google describes the place as “trendy.’’ Tony’s is about as trendy as a pair of old socks. Tony’s opened in its current location on April 1, 1966, but it was no April Fool’s joke when the restaurant declared bankruptcy in 2016. The new owners promised not to change a thing. And they haven’t. (PG)
Elvis, Frank, the Beatles, Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld, Lady Gaga, even Justin Bieber, have eaten at White House Subs; what more do you need to know? The state’s most famous sandwich shop has been serving subs, cheesesteaks and a side order of attitude at the corner of Arctic and Mississippi since 1946. Photos of scores of celebrities cover every available inch of wall. You gotta know the rules here. If you’re eating in, a waitress will not serve you until you’re seated at a booth (putting your stuff down on the table and then walking around taking pictures doesn’t count). If you’re doing takeout, you must take a number; the machine is at the rear of the orange-boothed shop. There may be better subs in the area, but there is only one White House. (PG)
Because Bruce ate here, and maybe still does. Frank’s Deli, open since 1960, is a time-warp wonder, more luncheonette/diner than deli, with a faded blue facade, tile floors, a bustling dining room and no-nonsense breakfasts. The “overstuffed’’ sandwiches live up to their name, and the pork roll egg and cheese (they don’t call it Taylor ham) is a classic of its kind. (PG)
Chicken savoy and shrimp beeps. The only two reasons why the Belmont Tavern needs to stay around forever. Wood paneling, American-flag-decorated bar, fluorescent lighting, cash-only: they don’t make them like this anymore. The garlic-and-vinegar heavy Chicken Savoy and sauce-studded Shrimp Beeps are must-orders. Ignore all those Chicken Savoy imitators out there; no one comes close to matching Belmont Tavern’s version. (PG)
The last scene in “The Sopranos” was filmed at Holsten’s. Need any more reason why its loss would be incalculable, wise guy? But this old-school luncheonette didn’t need fictional mob guys to cement its place as a New Jersey dining landmark. It opened in 1939 as Strubbe’s Ice Cream Parlor, then became Martin and Holsten’s, and finally Holsten’s. Ice cream and candy counter up front, dining room in back. (PG)
A Camden bar serving great cheesesteaks? Must be Donkey’s Place, where you can hear and smell steak sizzling and onions popping on the grill. Boxer Leon Lucas bought the place in 1947; fans likened his punch to a mule’s or donkey’s, thus the name. Great divey atmosphere, and a must-stop on any cheesesteak pilgrimage. Did we mention that no less an authority than Anthony Bourdain declared Donkey’s cheesesteaks better than any in Philadelphia? (PG)
An essential Jersey food experience. The best hot dog in the U.S. Home of the Ripper, a deep fried dog so named because the dog rips open during its hot oil bath. That’s Rutt’s Hut, a brick-walled roadhouse that should be on the National Register of Historic Hot Dog Places, if there were such a thing. Abe Rutt opened the place in 1928; bacon and eggs back then cost 80 cents. The front counter portion is standing-only — no tables — and there’s a restaurant in back. But currently it’s pickup/takeout only. No matter. The Ripper abides. (PG)
The cultural smorgasbord that is Middlesex County is home to so many amazing restaurants from around the world — and that includes terrific Vietnamese food. This unassuming roadside restaurant just across the street from Edison High School serves up delectable bahn mis that are, indeed, delights. Their pho and rice dishes are terrific as well, but it’s the thin sandwiches topped with BBQ pork, lemongrass beef and Vietnamese meatballs among other fillings are the main draw. The ambiance is simple, the prices are low and the food is delicious. (JS)
Pizza is king in New Jersey. But how many spots have been open for more than 100 years, feature a walk down an alleyway to order your pizza and are run by an idiosyncratic pizza master like Al Santillo? No one makes pizza quite like Al. A hearty crust, insanely flavorful sauce and a menu of pies that doubles as history lesson — speciality pies are named after the year they were popular — all make Santillo’s a New Jersey treasure. Bring cash, call ahead and make sure Al is baking; his days and hour vary. (JS)
We can’t afford to lose it, though we very well might. Spirito’s has been open for more than 88 years in Elizabeth’s Peterstown neighborhood, serving up pizza, ravioli and old-school Italian charm. But the dimly lit restaurant that looks like “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas” and “The Irishman” all could have been filmed there is up for sale, and there’s no guarantee it will continue operations as the one of the most ardently supported restaurants in the Garden State. Try saying a single bad thing about the tavern to any of the families who’ve been going to Spirito’s for Sunday dinner for generations and see how quickly they throw their butter-less bread at you. (JS)
No Jersey diner says “small town’’ more than Angelo’s Glassboro Diner. This stainless steel wonder scarcely seems to have changed since 1951, when the current diner opened (Angelo Tubertini opened a diner on the site in 1946). Lettered menu board, two-section counter, meatloaf sandwiches, chipped beef on toast — it doesn’t get any more old-school than that. A classic whose loss would be as emotional as much as physical. (PG)
The White Manna is the cutest diner in New Jersey, a glass-block, red-awninged jewel. There’s scant seating inside, so you may have to take that double cheeseburger with onions (I can smell them now) out to your car. Across the street is a McDonald’s; talk about choices. There is no place in New Jersey remotely like the Manna; it simply cannot be replaced. (PG)
If I had to take one sandwich to my desert island, or the pearly gates, it might well be the roast beef and homemade mozzarella sandwich, available Thursdays and Saturdays only at Fiore’s. It looks like a vintage deli movie set — brick storefront, tin ceiling; fluorescent lighting; a display case filled with olives, roasted red peppers, mushrooms, and other specialties. A photo of Mother Teresa is wedged between sardine tins. There’s no website or official Facebook page — no surprise there. The shop opened more than 100 years ago as a “milk and cheese store.’’ Hopefully, it’ll last another 100 years. (PG)
There are restaurants. There are home-cooked meals. Then there are restaurants that literally serve you home-cooked meals. There aren’t many eateries that fall into this peculiar category, but one of the absolute best is 15 Fox Place in Jersey City’s Marion neighborhood. What used to be the Budinich family’s home (and a staging ground for their catering company) is now a restaurant where the family’s time-tested recipes like roasted hot peppers on homemade potato chips, Spaghetti al Limone and polenta with arrabiata sauce make up multi-course feasts. No menu, just sit down and let the Budinich family take you along for a dining experience unlike any other in New Jersey. (JS)
Their famous “fat” sandwiches were born in the ’80s, when the Rutgers University grease trucks started serving the subs stacked high with fried goodness like chicken tenders, french fries and mozzarella sticks. The trucks are gone, but RU Hungry? now has a brick and mortar shop on Hamilton Street. Everyone should have at least one Fat Darrell (chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, French fries and marinara sauce) in their life, even if only one is all they can handle. Plenty of restaurants make fat sandwiches now, but losing the originator — especially after losing the trucks — would be a belly blow. (JS)
Maybe no restaurant in New Jersey is as much a part of its town’s heart and soul than Jim’s Lunch, founded in 1923. Closing would be unimaginable to its owners and customers. The current owner, Nichole Maul, was determined to keep the luncheonette open during the pandemic, and she helped feed those in need out of her own pocket. A burger with “secret sauce’’ is a must-order. Millville native and baseball superstar Mike Trout knows them well. (PG)
Montclair has long been one of New Jersey’s hottest food towns, with a list of posh restaurants populating Valley Road and Church Street. But keep walking up Church until you hit Beyond Pita, a hole-in-the-wall Mediterranean joint next to a dry cleaners and a convenience store that serves up fluffy yet crispy falafel, succulent shawarma and uniquely spiced cheesesteaks with peppers, onions and potatoes. I’ve been to Israel — none of the falafel there touched what they’re frying up here; a blissful balance of texture and flavor. If you’re adventurous, ask for the Mad Jerry’s hot sauce. (JS)
Hobby’s brags that it’s been in business “since before you were born.” If you were born after 1962, that is indeed the case. The Brick City institution is vaunted for its classic Jewish deli fare like overstuffed sandwiches topped with corn beef pickled in-house, chopped liver, pastrami and more. Don’t forget the potato latkes or the matzoh ball soup. (JS)
Star Tavern may have a whole new look following major renovations in 2020, but their pizza remains the same. Thin, crispy bar pies with tangy sauce and curling cups of grease-filled pepperoni? As good as any pizza you will find in New Jersey — and that’s saying something. Scampi wings, underrated penne alla vodka and a shockingly good thick-crust pie — sounds counterintuitive, I know, but trust me on this one. It’s my favorite place to go watch the NCAA Tournament or a Yankees game with my dad, and I know I’m not alone. (JS)
Often named among the best pizzerias and Italian restaurants in the United States by national food sites — and one of the top old-school pizzerias in the Garden State by NJ.com, Reservoir Tavern is the rare Italian restaurant that is closed on Sundays. So plan accordingly, but come hungry. They’ve been serving pizza, Chicken Francaise, sausage and peppers and other Italian classics since 1936 in a no-frills barroom situated right on the eponymous Boonton reservoir — but don’t be fooled, the tavern is in Parsippany. One of Morris County’s most beloved retro haunts. (JS)
Who says you can’t get amazing food in a strip mall? Located right off Route 46 is Shan Shan Noodles, home to some of the most unforgettable hand-pulled noodles in the tristate area. When the shop is open for indoor dining, you can even watch Shan Shan’s amazing chefs meticulously pulling their delicious carb-y strands. The cumin lamb noodles are terrific, but the noodles in hot oil are my personal favorite, paired with steamed pork dumplings, cucumber salad and beef wrapped in scallion pancake. (JS)
A massive, 500-seat dining room that NJ.com once described as “if the Knights of the Round Table opened a family steakhouse,” The Pub has an open hearth fire grill and stained glass windows to give it a real Medieval vibe. It looks just like it did when it opened in 1960, a branch of the original location in Philadelphia in 1950. The Pennsauken location opened in 1951 but burned to the ground nine years later. While there were several Philly locations, the Garden State location is the last one standing. If you want Medieval Times without the jousting, this is your place. (JS)
Taylor Swift knows all too well that Springer’s can never leave its Jersey Shore hideaway. From age 2 to 14, her parents owned a summer house in Stone Harbor and Springer’s frozen treats were a mainstay of her Jersey Shore summers. There are hundreds of ice cream stands/stores in New Jersey. Losing Springer’s would suck the heart out of Stone Harbor. (PG)
There are 600-some diners in New Jersey, Diner Capital of the World, but if I had to take an out-of-state visitor to one, it would be the Summit Diner. It’s a barrel-roofed, wood-paneled wonder in downtown Summit, with booths, coat racks and, best of all, the sight, sound and smell of food cooking an arm’s length away. My book, “Jersey Diners,” opened with the Summit Diner and its pre-dawn crowd; it should lead off any Jersey diner road trip. (PG)
The only thing more Jersey than the boardwalk? Eating pizza on the boardwalk. Sam’s Pizza Palace is indeed Jersey Shore royalty — even if it looks more like a cafeteria than the home of a king and queen, it’s nonetheless a staple of Wildwood. A trip there wouldn’t be the same without it. (JS)
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Peter Genovese may be reached at [email protected].Jeremy Schneider may be reached at [email protected]. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.