Visiting an iconic New Jersey restaurant is as much a history lesson as it is a meal.
The Garden State is overflowing with diners, delis, pizzerias and eateries that tell New Jersey’s story just as well as many museums. They have been in business for decades (some since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918), and are often passed down from generation to generation, further weaving themselves into the state’s eclectic fabric. And through natural disasters, fires and gentrifying neighborhoods, they’ve managed to survive.
But even the most famous or resilient culinary establishments cannot easily withstand the unprecedented economic crunch of the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. With cold weather rendering outdoor dining untenable, looming speculation of another indoor dining ban and coronavirus cases spiking, many restaurants fear the next few months may be too heavy a blow.
NJ Advance Media talked to 11 of New Jersey’s most legendary restaurants to see how they are faring during the coronavirus pandemic and how they believe they can survive the winter doldrums. We spoke to owners and managers, who are all hopeful they’ll make it to spring — but know the winter of 2020 may be the biggest threat to their existence yet.
The line still gets long for the sub shop that once served the likes of Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio, sometimes stretching down the block on Arctic Avenue.
White House Subs General Manager Wayne Richardson often finds that customers would rather wait to pick up their cheesesteak or Italian submarine from a newly crafted takeout window made specifically for service during the pandemic than eat it in their small but socially distanced dining room right away.
“We yell out the window like, ‘Hey listen, we’re open for eat-in.’ And a lot of people are still hesitant about coming into eat,” Richardson said. “We even have it on our windows, when we have the long lines outside we’re like, ‘Hey listen, if you don’t want to wait, come on in,’ and they’re like ‘Nah, we’ll wait.’”
Richardson says business is down 35% at this location as well as their outpost at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. But Whitehouse was selling subs nationally through premium food delivery service Goldbelly even when the main location was closed through the early part of the pandemic, providing a lifeline.
Still, Richardson admits they may have to decrease their hours, especially at night.
“After six o’clock at night, there’s nobody in the city, it’s dead, it’s pretty slow,” Richardson said. “Hours are going to get tough for employees. But we’re not going to lay anybody off.”
While some “Sopranos” fans are still debating whether Tony made it out of Holsten’s alive in the finale, co-owner Ron Stark is wondering if the Bloomfield icon itself will survive the pandemic. The cherished ice cream parlor known for its candy, milkshakes, duster sundaes and burgers is struggling mightily.
“We’re doing everything we can to deal with it. We’re doing deliveries, curbside pickup. We have some indoor seating but it may not be enough.” Stark said. “(Capacity) comes down to 25 people, 20 people. It’s not enough to pay the rent, let me put it that way.”
The outlook was better during the summer, when Holsten’s set up a tent on the side of the restaurant and dubbed it an “ice cream garden.” December is typically a decent month for the old school shop, but customers has dropped along with the temperature.
If things don’t improve soon, Stark says the legendary ice cream parlor could close.
“It’s been in my family since ’64. So we’ve put a lot into this. You don’t want to see it go away, you don’t want to see all your efforts over the years get dwindled away,” Stark said, noting he’s looking to develop an app to stoke sales. “I’m trying to hope for the best, but I’m preparing for the worst.”
Donkey’s Place was a Camden cornerstone long before food legend and Jersey guy Anthony Bourdain proclaimed their cheesesteaks served on poppy seed-topped kaiser rolls better than anything served in Philadelphia.
The Lucas family opened the perpetually busy bar in 1943, which looks and feels a little bit different at 25% capacity, per COVID-19 regulations.
“They’re still coming in, (but) it’s not like it was before,” owner Robert Lucas Jr. said. “It would be packed, you wouldn’t be able to walk in here before.”
While COVID-19 restrictions have quieted the pub, business hasn’t slowed enough to worry Lucas Jr. Donkey’s Place is one of the lucky restaurants that already had a well-established takeout system in place.
“We’re doing pretty good. We were already set up for takeout way before this happened, so it wasn’t too much of a change,” Lucas Jr. said. “Except for they shut down the bar so no one can sit at the bar and drink. So liquor sales are really far down.”
Gus Chrisafinis and the other owners of Rutt’s Hut realized back in March it was going to be a while before they had hot dog lovers back in their dining room. Much like esteemed pizzeria Star Tavern in Orange, they used the downtime as an opportunity to do some renovations. New bathrooms, floors and a bar will greet diners when they return.
That’s the good news. The bad news is, Chrisafinis still doesn’t know when that will be.
While Rutt’s has been serving its delicious deep-fried rippers from its takeout counter throughout pandemic, its sit-down dining room is closed indefinitely as construction continues. Even if it was done, it probably wouldn’t be open. People flocked to Passaic County for their signature dogs over the summer, creating socially distanced tailgates in the parking lot.
Now, business is down as much as 50%.
“I’ll be honest with you. I mean, (we’re doing) just okay. It’s been a rough go,” Chrisafinis said. “Your evening business has fallen off as well as during the day. It’s not gonna be the same as it was in June, July or August.”
Chrisafinis is still hopeful that Rutt’s will get its typical holiday bounce, when people coming back to the Garden State to see family make their way back to the stand to get a few rippers for the road.
“Anybody that comes back home for the holidays is always going to visit, that’s the first place they come,” Chrisafinis said. “We’re always optimistic.”
For nearly two months this spring, the award-winning White Manna burger haunt in Hackensack shut off its grill and waited for things to improve.
“It was a tough choice. But we were pretty confident that we have a great reputation with the community and customers and once we could get going again, we’d have a lot of support,” Dan Cohen, whose family owns White Manna said. “That has been the case so far.”
The modest joint slinging tiny sliders returned for takeout service only on May 1 — their cramped dining room doesn’t exactly lend itself to social distancing. People were so excited to return to the place that serves what The Daily Meal recently crowned the second-best burger in the country that wait times could be up to an hour.
“We’re trying to not draw crowds, because crowds are not a good thing right now,” Cohen said. “I know that there have been points where it’s been hard to sort of keep people away, particularly over the summer.”
Cohen is unsure how the winter will go — a newly launched online ordering system for takeout means less waiting in the winter cold for food, which he thinks could bolster sales.
“From our perspective, yes, we’re happy with where things are,” Cohen said. “But we’re not thriving.”
“He’s finishing up making the mootz-a-rel,” the deli worker says over the phone. “Can he call you back?”
The “he” in question is John Amato Jr. And yes, he’s still making the worship-worthy fresh mozzarella at Fiore’s House of Quality in Hoboken, as legendary as any of Mile Square City’s myriad Italian delis.
“We can’t complain. We’re open, we’re doing business,” Amato Jr. said. “Business is off, but it could be a lot worse.”
With less people working in offices in Hoboken, Fiore’s isn’t getting the same big lunch orders — Amato Jr. says sales are down as much as 30%. But there is still a decent amount of Adams Street foot traffic, and their service setup is conducive to social distancing: Five customers maximum in the shop at any given time; get your sandwich and get out.
The line for their coveted roast beef sandwich with gravy and mozzarella, served only Thursdays and Saturdays, can be even longer than normal because customers are six feet apart. But as the pandemic drags on, Amato Jr. is bracing for a slow winter and hoping its Hudson County social hub doesn’t become a ghost town.
“We’re trying to just get through Christmas right now,” Amato Jr. said “And then we’ll see what January and February bring.”
Gary LaMotta Jr. has one word to describe business at Krug’s Tavern right now: Slow.
The bar that opened in 1932 and serves the incredible burgers NJ.com crowned New Jersey’s best in 2015 is suffering just like the rest of the city’s Ironbound neighborhood as the virus disproportionately ravages Newark.
“Nobody wants to come down here,” said LaMotta Jr., whose family has owns the pub since it opened. “Everyone’s scared.”
Krug’s has suffered since March, as soon as nearby Prudential Center closed for events — no more stops at the bar for a burger before or after a concert or Devils game. Newark implemented a 10-day lockdown in late November to combat the spread of the disease, and since then customers have essentially dried up.
“There’s no more lunch business, no more night business,” LaMotta Jr. said. “I get a lot out-of-towners. I’m not a big hometown bar. We have a lot of tours throughout the city. And we don’t see that business coming back anytime soon.”
Krug’s set up a tent for outdoor dining, but it was too hot as it was set up on a blacktop, LaMotta Jr. said. Now winter weather is too cold, so they shut it down at the end of November. They can get only 25 customers inside at a time — a severely reduced capacity they still struggle to meet. They’re doing takeout but no delivery — the steep fees with GrubHub and UberEats have deterred them.
“We’re hoping we can pull it through. We think we’ll survive,” LaMotta Jr. said. “But how long is the bleeding going to last?”
Stuff Yer Face’s 60-ounce boozy fish bowls and saucy, cheesy pizza stromboli (shortened to “bolis”) make it a staple for Rutgers University students. But with the New Brunswick campus all but closed, it’s getting harder every day for owner Matthew Poznick to keep his bar and restaurant open.
“This thing is just totally crushing business,” Poznick said.
The Easton Avenue restaurant utilizes its small patio for outdoor dining, but it’s rarely used now that temperatures have fallen. Only nine tables fit safely indoors now — a far cry from the perpetually packed and bustling scene.
“The days of being three-deep at the bar are gone,” Poznick said.
Stuff Yer Face was closed for April and May, typically the restaurant’s biggest months as college kids in pre-graduation party mode boosted profits. There was an initial rush of people returning when they opened for the summer, but that wave has passed. Poznick has considered scale back their hours, and maybe close on Mondays.
“It’s not, it’s not even worth turning the lights on,“ Poznick said. “The only thing I’m preparing for is to be a long, cold and unprofitable winter.”
George Andretta grew up in Pete & Elda’s, which his family opened in 1961. He started working there when he was 14, and remembers the hustle and bustle, the dining room and bar loaded with people munching cracker-crust pizza.
He doesn’t remember anything like 2020, of course.
“It’s just so strange. It’s really disheartening,” Andretta, now the owner, said. “Sometimes I get there and say, ‘Hey, you know, let me just close up. Let me just close.’”
The Neptune City bar and pizzeria is doing steady takeout sales. But they are used to getting a bit of a rush in December for the holidays when people come eat after Christmas shopping. That extra profit isn’t coming this year.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen once we get to after Christmas,” Andretta said. “January, February and March? That could be a little scary, because that’s when people don’t really come out. I don’t know what’ll happen.”
Things were mostly steady for Papa’s Tomato Pies in Robbinsville, the oldest pizzeria in America, over the summer. Takeout numbers for their revered pizzas were solid, and they even had tents set up for outdoor dining.
“Now it’s a whole different feel,” manager Mike Azzaro said. “We’re seeing people being a little bit more cautious about going out.”
Takeout is available seven days a week, but the Papa’s dining room is only open Friday through Sunday. Business is down around 15%, and Azzaro fears it could dip even more as the temperatures drop and COVID-19 cases rise. The weather is even starting to affect takeout numbers, which would be a major blow.
“That was the bread and butter,” Azzaro said. “This is the coldest we’ve experienced through this pandemic. I think a lot of people don’t want to come out and wait outside to wait in lines to pick up their pies.”
Azzaro says he isn’t overly nervous about sales declining, but he has certainly noticed a change. He also notes that Christmas falling on a Friday this year is more harmful for restaurants than you would think.
“That’s the biggest day of the week. So we’re actually losing that,” Azzaro said. “Based on weekly sales, you’re talking probably 30% of your revenue gone for that week.”
Summit Diner owner Jim Greberis feels for every restaurant owner fighting to pay mortgage or rent as COVID-19 ravages the industry. He counts himself among the lucky ones.
“Thank god I’ve been here for 40 years. The diner is payed for and I own my property,” Greberis said. “That’s why we’re holding on. If I had to pay mortgage or rent, we’d be struggling, too.”
Greberis says the 91-year-old diner’s history and strong customer base, as well as its central location, have made things bearable. But even so, business is noticeably slower at the railcar diner known for its Taylor ham, egg and cheese sandwiches and cramped quarters — down as much as 30%. Diners were enthusiastic about outdoor dining over the summer but are less keen on stepping inside the train.
“Now that we’ve closed the outdoor dining, a lot people are skittish about coming in,” Greberis said. “I have a lot of regulars that I haven’t seen in months because they’re afraid.”
Greberis has cut hours of operation (they now close at 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday, as opposed to 8 p.m.) and staff (he hasn’t brought his head chef back yet), which means he has to simplify the menu. He’s nervous about a slow winter, but has faith in his devoted clientele.
“It’s a little place, but we have a big customer base,” Greberis said. “If we don’t get you once a week, we’ll get you every other week. It’s keeping us okay.”
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