How Moorestown revived its food
scene while holding on to its past
Photography by Thomas Robert Clarke
The corridors of the Moorestown Mall, built in the 1960s on the site of a former apple orchard, felt semi-abandoned during my recent Saturday visit. This mall was one of the first in the country, but clearly times have changed. I came armed with my credit cards and a yen to shop; I left with empty shopping bags but a surprisingly full stomach. This was hardly the weekend mall excursion I remember from the ’80s and ’90s, when the crowds were thick, the checkout lines long and the food basically inedible.
The Moorestown Mall is in transition. Its owners hope to accomplish here what they’ve handily pulled off just three miles away at Moorestown’s sister shopping plaza, the Cherry Hill Mall. There, finding a spot in the jammed parking lot is a competitive sport as shoppers flock to the modern, trendy stores. And this renaissance started not with retail but with restaurants like Bobby’s Burger Palace, branded by celeb chef Bobby Flay.
The Moorestown Mall currently has no answer to the Apple Store and Crate & Barrel of the Cherry Hill Mall—but that may soon change. The arrival of several splashy new restaurants, including Distrito, a Mexican spot from Iron Chef Jose Garces, and Osteria, by Italianate impresario Marc Vetri, is starting to draw in a new crowd. Many people—like me—are now here for the food.
These Philadelphia-based chefs and restaurateurs took notice of what was happening in Cherry Hill, just a 15-minute drive from Center City Philadelphia, and sensed the opportunity to expand their businesses by giving a large and nearby pool of potential customers easier access to their famous food.
“We’re the demographic we’re trying to reach with the new restaurant,” says Jeff Benjamin about his own family. A South Jersey resident and co-owner of Osteria, he’s long recognized a need for more and better options in dining out for his community, and now, with Osteria, he and his partner, chef Marc Vetri, are meeting them. Distrito adeptly serves this market as well.
Families in particular are drawn to the new restaurants, especially on weekends. Many in the community came here in the first place to raise kids, says Phil Garwood, Moorestown’s deputy mayor. That’s precisely why he and his wife, after living in other South Jersey towns, chose to settle down in Moorestown back in 1989 when they decided to start their family.
“It’s a quiet, traditional, conservative town with a rock-solid school district,” Garwood says. Moorestown has always been popular with parents for this reason. But while the demographic may once have been content with the likes of McDonald’s or Friendly’s, today’s families are looking for something better. First food became pop culture; now it’s becoming mall culture.
So much so that Distrito created the first kids’ menu in all of Jose Garces’ 17 restaurants. “It’s a combo of the normal kids’ menu things—chicken fingers, pasta—and kid-friendly versions of our food, like quesadillas and tacos,” says Nick Agosto, general manager at Distrito. Not that the restaurant caters to children. In fact, the busiest time has a decidedly grown-up vibe: happy hour.
“During happy hour, we open the whole front of the restaurant to the outdoors. The bar and patio are filled with people having discounted margaritas and carnitas after work,” Agosto says. Part of the community’s enthusiasm likely comes from the fact that Moorestown has historically been a dry town. It took a referendum in 2011 to allow a limited number of liquor licenses for mall restaurants only. Everything elsewhere is strictly BYOB.
Osteria, just across the interior hallway of “boutique row,” the mall’s name for the wing that these restaurants occupy, hosts a similarly packed happy hour. In fact, Osteria is currently planning to expand the new restaurant’s bar area to provide more seats and open it up to the dining room. The restaurant’s outstanding wood-fired pizzas and an earthy Sangiovese on tap are a great reason to stop, but happy hour treats are far from the only reason to go.
Much like the offerings of the original Osteria in Philadelphia, the food here is spectacular. Small plates like rich, raw tuna paired with bittersweet grapefruit segments or lightly charred octopus served with peppery arugula and creamy potatoes can challenge expectations about what an Italian restaurant is. All the Vetri restaurants make exceptional fresh pasta, and you’ll find those classics here as well, including the irresistible chicken liver rigatoni. It’s not what you think of when you think of “mall food.”
Because of these new restaurants, it’s often food enthusiasts rather than shopaholics who are visiting the mall now, people who want the kind of restaurant experience they recently had to cross the bridge into Philly to enjoy.
“Restaurants are the new mall anchor,” says Jeff Benjamin, co-owner of Osteria. He draws a parallel between high-profile eateries and the retail powerhouses of yesteryear, like Gimbels and Wanamaker’s, the two original anchors at this mall and many others during their mid-century heydays. The hope is that the increased foot traffic drawn by the newly upscale food scene will lure more luxury brands to Moorestown Mall’s “boutique row,” and the shoppers will follow the diners.
There’s a certain excitement about what’s happening at the mall, but it’s hardly as if Moorestown residents were going hungry before. One favorite is Thomas’ Ristorante, an upscale BYOB located a few miles away on Main Street, that specializes in pasta and seafood.
“Main Street has been the heart of the community for more than 100 years,” says Garwood, the deputy mayor. “It’s our cultural center.” He describes a warm and welcoming spirit of togetherness when people gather there, as they often do for concerts and parades. Many small towns lack a real, functioning main street these days, but Moorestown’s main drag is a pleasant throwback to a time when Main Street was a more common part of a community’s life. There are churches and a community center, places to shop and, of course, many places to eat.
My favorite is a 500-square-foot bakery called the Pie Lady Cafe. Set in a lavender Victorian building and fronted by a quaint porch, the bakery charms passersby even if they don’t come in. But they should. Here, owner Christine McHale creates a dozen varieties of pie, including a rich coconut custard version that she says is one of her best sellers. On weekends, she fries up fresh apple cider doughnuts. Scones are another specialty.
Everything here is made from scratch, and the labor shows in the tender and flaky crust that cradles each slice. In the summer, McHale embraces the bounty of local fruits, turning out sour cherry and blueberry pies based on New Jersey’s choicest ingredients. The seating area is tiny, but with local art on display and a pressed tin ceiling overhead, it’s the ideal place to hunker down with cup of freshly brewed La Colombe coffee and read the paper on a Sunday morning.
Some of the businesses that dot Moorestown’s Main Street have been passed down through multiple generations. One of these spots, Ralph’s Market, seamlessly brings together the town’s past and present. Owner Ralph Wolfe has worked the counter here for more than 40 years, making classic beef hoagies and crowd-pleasing breakfast sandwiches. As always, customers get their beef ground to order here, wrapped in butcher paper—not Styrofoam and plastic.
To meet contemporary customers’ demands, the deli now carries organic, fair-trade coffee beans. Ralph’s sandwich board advertises grass-fed steaks, an item popular with the same kind of folks likely to frequent Osteria over at the mall. The food scene in Moorestown is clearly evolving, with its celebrity-chef-branded restaurants, but shops like Ralph’s show that this community cherishes its food traditions, too. Some things should never change.
45 E. Main St.
This micro-chain with three South Jersey locations specializes in sushi as well as Asian fusion.
Blue Fig Cafe
200 Young Ave.
This small, spare space on the edge of a strip mall offers fresh Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes including standards like hummus and tabbouleh, and rarer Lebanese selections such as tajen samak.
400 W. Rte. 38, in the Moorestown Mall
Iron Chef Jose Garces’s casual Mexico City–inspired eatery is a perfect mid-shop stop, with a $15 lunch prix fixe and a wide assortment of small plates for any size appetite.
Harvest Seasonal Grill & Wine Bar
400 W. Rte. 38, in the Moorestown Mall
This local chain appeals to diners interested in local and sustainable food. You can choose between two burgers, but they’re both made from grass-fed meat: beef or bison.
Healthy Garden & Gourmet Pizza Natural Food Cafe
73 E Main St.
The multipage menu may be a little ambitious, but it rightly lists the excellent juices and smoothies front and center.
400 W. Rte. 38, in the Moorestown Mall
One of Philadelphia’s best restaurants translates quite well to a new setting, with its signature pastas and pizzas blistered in the prominent brick oven.
13 W. Main St.
Sit-down and take-out service both offer a wide variety of Italian specialties, including a “family recipe” rice ball that might actually be so named because it could feed an entire family.
61 E. Main St.
This longtime Moorestown fine-dining favorite specializes in Italian pasta and seafood.
Aunt Selma’s Candy
37 E. Main St.
Candy maker Pamela Orris has a background in visual art and it shows in her work. Creative chocolate sculptures line the room. Stop by on Saturday evenings after dinner for her “dessert café” where families eat homemade cake and play board games on her front lawn.
Brain Freeze Ice Cream Parlor
99 W. Main St.
Tucked behind an orthodontist’s office, this straightforward scoop shop is a crowd pleaser on hot days.
Pie Lady Café
9 E. Main St.
The fact that “pie” is the first word in the name of the establishment is a big hint: Start off with a slice of pie. Scones are another highlight, as is the Pie Lady herself.
137 W. Main St.
Stop in to grab a hoagie or roast beef sandwich and leave with a pound of organic coffee beans and some grass-fed steaks for later.