New Brunswick—and its restaurants
—are getting better all the time
PHOTOGRAPHS BY KARIN BELGRAVE
The New Brunswick food and drink scene of my college (and postcollege) years at Rutgers University was marked by a few highlights: Patti’s Pizza after late nights editing at the Daily Targum, bohemian aspirations and open-mike sessions at the funky Café News, and my first date with the man who would become my husband at Old Man Rafferty’s. Only Rafferty’s—and my husband— remain. The others are long gone.
When it comes to food, New Brunswick is a quirky, slippery mix. It’s privy to the ebb and flow of polyglot student and faculty populations and the kinds of businesses that cater to them: ethnic eateries, pizza joints and sub shops that seem to disappear soon after you discover them. But it’s also the county seat of Middlesex and home to corporate offices and major hospitals, as well as 55,000 residents. So the city also needs—and provides—places to go after work, after a long shift, with clients or with the family.
New Brunswick is experiencing a period of sustained growth. The completion of the Route 18 expansion project, which took many, many years, makes it easier to get around. Rutgers has joined the Big Ten and is elevating its profile—and expanding its footprint—with new dormitories, forcing the beloved grease trucks to relocate. The opening of the Robert Wood Johnson Fitness and Wellness Center, plus the recent Rutgers merger with UMDNJ’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and its School of Public Health, reaffirm the importance of the health care industry to this city.
Indeed, every time I return, New Brunswick looks a little different. New high-rise apartment buildings keep springing up, built for the 6,500 people who’ve taken jobs here in the last ten years. Several of the new residences designate 20% of their apartments as affordable housing, helping to ensure that low-income city residents aren’t at a disadvantage when new construction is built. Keith Jones II, chairman of the New Brunswick Community Food Alliance and a community organization specialist for the city, says it’s “become a model for small urban centers across the state and beyond. The city is alive and growing in a beautiful way. The motto is ‘It just keeps getting better’ and not just for some; we want these opportunities for all residents.”
The food scene in New Brunswick is also getting better—more robust—with longtime standouts like The Frog and The Peach and Stage Left being joined by intriguing newcomers like INC.
THE FROG AND THE PEACH
When I was a college student, The Frog and The Peach always seemed to me like the most elite restaurant in town, and in many ways, that is still true. With its light-filled garden room, antique wooden bar and white tablecloths, it still dazzles. Renovations have brought in gray tones and exposed more of the native brick of this former printing press. French in discipline but modern-American and relaxed in execution, The Frog and the Peach has long been an advocate for urban renewal and a culinary trailblazer, garnering accolades across the state. From the beginning, its chefs and owners have prioritized local and sustainable fare; the debut menu in 1983 included a salad with local arugula and Hunterdon County goat cheese.
When executive chef Bruce Lefebvre started at the restaurant in 2001, sourcing locally was more challenging than it is today. “We had to pick things up from the farmers,” Lefebvre recalls. In 2012, Lefebvre bought the restaurant from its founders (and Rutgers grads) Jim Black and Betsy Alger. In the height of the season, Lefebvre estimates 90% of what he gets is local—much of it through Ringoes-based distributor Zone 7. Local sea scallops, Jersey clams and tilefish have popped up on the menu. Summer brings the revered peach tasting menu (five courses for $65), which usually runs through September, and a multi-course dinner focusing on eggplant. Yes, eggplant. This CIA-trained chef loves them and learned how to properly cook them from his grandmother.
As to the restaurant’s own sustainability, Lefebvre says, “You have to be generous with people.” It’s no surprise, then, that the Frog can be credited for spawning a real food community in New Brunswick. It is a feeder restaurant for chefs and other industry workers and a benchmark of excellence recognized throughout the state.
Linked by a friendship that dates back to their undergrad days at Rutgers, Mark Pascal and Francis P. Schott started their careers bartending at The Frog and The Peach before opening Stage Left in 1992. Now, nearly 25 years later, the two are considered industry leaders through their work with the state’s restaurant association and their advocacy for greener restaurant construction and operation; they were among the first restaurateurs in New Jersey to install solar panels. Along the way, they have been dedicated to putting local ingredients on the menu at French-inspired Stage Left, and, to a lesser extent, their Italian restaurant upstairs, Catherine Lombardi.
“We want to avail ourselves of the best food we can, when it’s in season,” Schott says. “The sin is to have a tomato from elsewhere in August and September in New Jersey. It’s a sin of stupidity.” Tomatoes are serious business at Stage Left. It’s not unusual for the restaurant to can nearly 10,000 pounds of tomatoes, half Jersey, half imported San Marzanos—“the best of both worlds,” according to Schott.
There was no farmers’ market in the region when they first opened Stage Left, so they’d head straight to the Greenmarket in Union Square in New York City to shop. It’s a move that’s both practical— everything’s in one place—and savvy. “Everyone brings their A game to the market,” Schott says. They buy regularly from Dreyer Farms (Cranford), Wightman’s Farms (Morristown) and Garlind Farm (Monroe). On the day I visited the restaurant, line cook Brian Isabella kept handing me samples of fresh microgreens, including radish, sunflower, red Russian kale and the arrestingly zippy cow sorrel. I spied a pile of “itty bitties,” stubby potatoes half the size of fingerlings with a creamy interior and a thin skin that “pop like grapes,” according to Isabella. Unique ingredients like these arrive every few days—Greenmarket trips are supplemental nowadays—which allows executive chef J.R. Belt to experiment with flavor combinations. Every week, Schott sends out an email to thousands of customers, alerting them to what’s new and seasonal.
Their ethos is fairly simple. “We realized early on that people want to be more connected to the food they are eating,” Pascal says CLYDZ In 1997, Mike Parla opened the subterranean Clydz, a warren of cozy, exposed-brick nooks leading to a large dining room, with former partner Joe Clyde. “We try to be as organic, hormone-free and antibiotic-free as possible,” says Parla. Throughout the season, Parla brings into the kitchen whatever he grows on his 17-acre farm in Sergeantsville— including herbs, tomatoes, peppers, cherries, raspberries and more.
This farm-to-table tidbit may come as a surprise to some, as it’s not widely advertised or promoted by the restaurant; rather, Clydz is known for its focus on wild game and a lively bar featuring craft cocktails—the Holiday Inn and Bourbon & Cigarettes are favorites. True to form, the ostrich and some other game meats are local (Fossil Farms in Boonton) and the herbs for those libations come from Parla’s farm, including specialty mint varieties such as orange and chocolate. “We pride ourselves on trying to stay seasonal and use as much local produce as we can,” says co-executive chef Justin Quint, who runs the kitchen with Orlando Ramos.
There’s something to be said for doing one thing and doing it well, and that’s the appeal of Destination Dogs, which opened in 2012 in the former Doll’s Place, right up against the train tracks. This popular bar and restaurant proves that hot dogs can be culinary chameleons, easily adopting the flavors and accompaniments of regional foods and world cuisines. The restaurant is the brainchild of Jimmy Cronk, Sean Hosty, Michael Parker and Frank Karthauser (three of whom met while working at Clydz). The house-made sausages include ones made from chicken, lamb, pork, duck and wild boar. The all-beef hot dogs come from Best Provision in Newark.
Clockwise, from top left: drinks at INC; pork roll, egg and cheese at Stage Left; Executive chef J.R. Belt of Stage Left; Executive chef Ryan Anderson of INC; Executive chef/owner Bruce Lefebvre of The Frog and the Peach; Peach bruschetta at INC.
Due Mari is an elegant, airy space featuring refined takes on Italian classics, including house-made pastas and an Italian-leaning wine list. Seafood features prominently, with sustainable choices sourced from SONA, a supplier in Newark. And then there’s the burrata, that deliciously creamy mozzarella, which comes from Lioni Latticini in Union. Many more ingredients are sourced from local farms and farmers’ markets, from the organic chicken to the berries in the desserts.
The restaurant’s name, which means “two seas” in Italian, isn’t a romantic reference to the motherland. “It actually refers to our CEO Ahmass Fakahany and chef Michael White—two forces coming together, one with passion for food and beverage and an accomplished business background, and the other a great chef,” says Anthony Jackson, a spokesperson for the restaurant.
INC, which opened in February, calls itself “New Brunswick’s whiskey bar,” but it’s much more than an ode to America’s history of rugged outlaw moonshiners. It’s a restaurant that focuses on creating a handcrafted, from-scratch experience. Short for “Ingredients-NCraft,” INC offers an expansive approach to American fare; it’s inspired just as much by Chinese takeout and tacos (with shells made in-house) as by burgers and fries. It may be a newcomer, but INC’s major players have worked around town—executive chef Ryan Anderson started at The Frog and The Peach, and general manager Danny McGill is a Jersey native who went to Rutgers and tended bar at Doll’s Place and the Olive Branch (both closed).
Anderson is in the early stages of creating relationships with farmers and vendors. INC’s lobster scampi will feature oven-dried tomatoes and corn custard, both made with Jersey produce. The house salad is composed of local mixed greens (from Garlind Farm), and the chicken comes from Murray’s Chickens in South Fallsburg, New York, which has partner farms in Pennsylvania.
Although the space may look sleek and modern, INC isn’t some rarified spot. “We don’t want to be exclusive. At the end of the day, we want people to enjoy themselves. That’s why we’re in hospitality,” McGill says. “I grew up in a large Irish family and my dad never let anyone have an empty drink in front of them. A lot of that passed on to me.”
3 Livingston Ave.
55 Paterson St.
101 Paterson St.
78 Albany St.
The Frog and The Peach
29 Dennis St. at Hiram Square
302 George St.
5 Livingston Ave.
WHERE TO BUY FRESH, LOCAL, ORGANIC
The New Brunswick Community Farmers Market seeks to bring fresh and local food to underserved pockets of the city. The Jones Street location is its flagship and features a community garden. Elsewhere, the Rutgers Gardens Farmers Market has nearly tripled its mix of vendors to 35 since its inception in 2008. Although it’s not located in town, market manager Mary Ann Schrum notes that its Ryders Lane location makes it convenient for popping in on the way home from work. Fees from vendors go directly to the gardens—some of whose produce is donated to Elijah’s Promise, which also operates Better World Market, another spot for local foods. It’s not on its namesake street anymore, but the George Street Co-op, a longstanding fixture dating to 1973, offers local produce, macrobiotic meals to go, locally sourced tofu, and vegan and wheat-free goodies, plus a lot more. Speaking of vegan, there’s also Veganized, which opened in June. The colorful, casual space seats about 35. Come for lunch, brunch or dinner—the small but mighty menu is loaded with organic, raw and vegan items such as the winning “Rawvioli.”
Better World Market
1743 Rte. 27 at Skillman Lane, Somerset
George Street Co-op
89 Morris St.
New Brunswick Community Farmers Market
Kilmer Square Park, 108 Albany St.: Wed 11am–3pm
Jones Avenue at Farmers Market Pavilion: Thurs 11am–3pm;
Rutgers Gardens Farmers Market
Fri 11am–5pm, May through November
112 Ryders La.
9 Spring St.
WHERE TO STAY
Along with its vibrant dining scene, New Brunswick offers a wide variety of cultural offerings, thanks to venues such as George Street Playhouse, Crossroads Theatre Company and State Theatre NJ. If you want to turn a day trip into an overnight one, the usual chain hotels are nearby, but consider the boutique spot The Heldrich. Centrally located and across the street from the theaters, the hotel offers a spa, restaurant and bar. Ask for a deluxe room, which offers views of downtown and, if you’re up high enough, the Raritan River. 732.729.4670; theheldrich.com
WHERE TO EAT LIKE A COLLEGE STUDENT:
Stuff Yer Face: Known for its enormous “bolis”—that’s short for stromboli—Stuff Yer Face defies you to go home hungry. The beer selection is admirable, with more than 100 beers, many of them craft. The Fishbowl, which isn’t a sushi dish but a 60-ounce alcoholic beverage, is also a draw. (Mike Parla of Clydz came up with it in 1989 when he worked there.) (49 Easton Ave., 732.247.1727; stuffyerface.com)
Thomas Sweet: Since 1983, owners Mike and Jen Schnur and the staff of Thomas Sweet have been scooping out 30 to 35 flavors of ice cream daily—and doling out chocolates and sweets by the pound. Ask for the Dexter Freebish: With vanilla, cashews, caramel and chocolate chunks, it’s the shop’s most signature flavor, named for a band the owner is friendly with. (55 Easton Ave., 732.828,3855; thomassweet.com)
Tumulty’s: With its Tudor-style exterior, beamed ceiling and long wood bar, Tumulty’s has a warm, Old World feel. Its roots date to 1937 as a simple neighborhood watering hole; in 1962 it morphed into a restaurant now known for classics such as ten-ounce prime and Angus burgers, served with a heart of lettuce. Its house beer, Tumulty’s IPA, comes from Climax Brewing Company in Roselle Park. (361 George St., 732.545.6205; tumultys.com)
Evelyn’s: Since the 1970s, Evelyn’s has been serving freshly prepared Mediterranean (especially Lebanese) specialties such as hummus, tabbouleh, falafel and spinach pie. When weather permits, the outdoor patio is the most coveted seating for sipping a glass of Lebanese wine and listening to live music. (45 Easton Ave., 732.246.8792; evelynsrestaurant.com)
Noodle Gourmet: What college campus would be complete without at least one unassuming Chinese restaurant delivering all the classic late-night dishes? Here, Macau Spicy Chicken and Gourmet Chow Udon are big sellers. Family-run Noodle Gourmet has been around since 1991. (43 Easton Ave., 732.828.8188; noodlegourmet.com)