Foodtown: A Visit to Vibrant Montclair
It was a cold, calculating computer algorithm that first led me to the inviting community of Montclair. When my husband got a job in New York City about five years ago, it was time to leave our lovely home and dear friends in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. The mad search for a new place to raise our then-5-year-old daughter developed into an obsession with the various “Best Places to Live” online calculators. I spent hours typing in our preferences: good schools, safety, affordability, reasonable commute, diverse population and a strong sense of community. One place kept popping up time and again: Montclair.
What we found when we got here was a beautiful, leafy suburb with character, culture and history, populated by friendly, interesting people. The town, while home to multiple award-winning restaurants and acclaimed cultural institutions, remains at heart a family-centered community. An added bonus: The New York Times refers to this place as “the state’s most food-obsessed town.” Montclair is located on the first of the Watchung Mountains, just 12 miles west of Manhattan. Because most of the municipality’s six square miles lie on the east side of the ridge, many homes and parks are graced with excellent views of the Gotham skyline. But that’s only where Montclair’s charm begins. What other towns in the U.S. with a population under 40,000 boast over 175 acres of parks, a university, two libraries, three public swimming pools, six railroad stations—and over 200 restaurants? No wonder people come from all over the tristate area to shop, dine and be inspired by our cultural offerings.
THE MANY ECLECTIC DISTRICTS OF MONTCLAIR
Montclair is divided into several distinct, thriving cultural and culinary areas— astonishing for a town of its size. All are well worth a visit.
Let’s begin our tour in the primary commercial zone, which goes by Montclair Center, or downtown. Bloomfield Avenue, the main drag, is lined with restaurants boasting quality cuisine from around the world, for example, home-style Brazilian at Samba Montclair, where my favorite dish is the pork ribs with banana farofa and sautéed collard greens. You can also dine on authentic Peruvian at Costanera Cocina Peruana, and robust Italian at Osteria Giotto and Fascino.
You’ll find exotic Ethiopian at Mesob [see article on page 74], adventurous French (as well as a lively bar scene) at Pig & Prince Restaurant and Gastro-Lounge, and classic fare at Fricassée French Bistro. Escape Montclair serves locally sourced, Southern fine cuisine, while Blu and Next Door focus on modern American. For more affordable, healthy fare, head to HLS Juice Bar & Grill, and Terra at the Isabel Rose, a charming fair-trade café conveniently located alongside the Montclair Public Library.
Grace Grund, the proprietor of Terra, personifies the town’s community spirit. Her establishment often hosts book readings, healthy food drives and other events and she’s a longtime supporter of New Jersey producers such as Tassot Apiaries and Starbrite and Cherry Grove farms. She applauds recent changes in the local food scene. “Things have really improved with more people wanting to support the local business economy, and specifically seeking locally produced farm products in restaurants,” says Grund. “There are also more school and community farms in Montclair. I’m glad to see it.”
The downtown scene is also energized by the historic Wellmont Theater, which presents an eclectic mix of concerts and, since reopening after a facelift last fall, boasts a multi-level lobby bar.
With its art galleries, restaurants and not-to-be-missed shops, Glenridge Avenue is possibly the hippest street in all of Montclair Center. Even its new moniker is mod: the GLAM district (Glenridge Avenue Merchants). The zone’s dominant restaurant is the stunning Fin Raw Bar and Kitchen, with its driftwood-covered walls and quartz bar, where diners can choose from a half-dozen varieties of oysters. Across the street, there’s an upscale vintage-home-goods store, studio, and local arts and crafts marketplace called Verdigreen. Also nearby is The Art Garage/StudioKids Art, an art gallery, classroom and live music performance space.
Many locals would agree the most alluring locale in all of Montclair is Church Street. Lined with delightful architectural details, locally owned boutiques and a variety of restaurants, it meanders down several blocks in Montclair Center—from Bloomfield Avenue to Orange Road. The pedestrian-friendly street was named one of eight Great Places in New Jersey by the American Planning Association-NJ last fall, and justifiably lauded for its “wide sidewalks, comfortable benches, window-shopping opportunities, alfresco dining, and outdoor entertainment.”
There’s something for every taste here, but try Mundo Vegan for inventive, home-cooked healthy dishes, the wildly popular Raymond’s (a known favorite of local resident Stephen Colbert) for brunch, or Le Petit Parisien for flavorful quiches, crepes, and their signature macarons: rose and pistachio are my daughter’s preferred flavors. Enjoy an unhurried stroll along Church Street, and be sure to check out Amanti Vino for boutique wines and craft beers. The inviting shop regularly hosts tastings and other events.
The area around the Walnut Street Station is home to the popular Saturday farmers’ market and two of Montclair’s finest restaurants: CulinAriane and Le Salbuen Café Market. Both eateries are inventive in their use of top-quality, seasonal ingredients. At CulinAriane, the service is gracious, the décor is minimalist, and celebrity chef Ariane Duarte’s sea scallops are pan-seared to perfection. At Le Salbuen, chefs John and Christina Salierno craft menus from the harvests of farmers and producers they trust—displaying their names on a chalkboard in the romantic, European-type café. “Our customers are like family; they come back day after day,” says Christina. “As chefs who own our own restaurant, we feel it’s our duty to serve them the freshest, most locally sourced ingredients we can find.”
Other spots well worth investigating on the street are more comfort food–focused. The owner of the Montclair Bread Company, Rachel Crampsey, rises early to bake artisanal breads, croissants and doughnuts for her legions of loyal customers, continuing a commitment to excellence established by the previous bakery’s legendary founders Sally and Will Reinhardt, who returned to their native Australia in 2012. Across the street, Mac Attack Gourmet Cheesery uses Crampsey’s bread to make their grilled cheese sandwiches—including my favorite, Manchego and apple. It also sells mac ’n’ cheese with imaginative ingredients such as white truffles and Atlantic lobster. Next door, Cucina 98 features ravioli handmade by “Mama,” and delectable Italian treats. Down the road at Irish pub Egan & Sons, you can order fish and chips, along with a house-brewed seasonal ale.
The area around the Watchung Avenue Train Station, located in the geographic center of town, is home to many small businesses. The most notable is Watchung Booksellers, which gets my vote as one of the most impressive independent bookstores in the U.S. Attend their weekly readings and signings by authors, plus fun family events such as last summer’s Scrabble evenings.
As for the best eats in the area, get carryout from The Pie Store, which sells varieties both savory and sweet. Their creamy Portuguese egg custard tarts and their chicken madras soccer pies are consistently baked to perfection. Koreander Fusion Café is a great choice for healthy dining, serving Korean cuisine that’s heavy on the fresh veggies.
At the north end of Montclair, the attractive streetscape showcases Tudor- style buildings that house numerous restaurants, a movie theater and several one-of-a-kind boutiques. Stop by the Little Daisy Bake Shop for moist, flavorful butterscotch scones and ginger molasses cookies. Other standout shops in the neighborhood are Olive That and More—sample their tangy blueberry balsamic vinegar, and Jafajems—the carefully curated, globally sourced gift store is among the best in Montclair. The neighborhood’s most tempting restaurants include Brick Lane Curry House (my husband loves the tikka masala curry) and Jackie’s Grillette for marinated chicken kebab and freshly blended fruit smoothies.
And no trip to Montclair would be complete without a stop at Java Love, easily the best café in town, and the most community-minded. Since opening its doors a year ago, the shop has become a town favorite, known for its hand-roasted small batches of organic, fair trade and Rainforest Alliance–certified coffee beans in a variety of intriguing flavors. Java Love’s owners support Montclair artisans by selling their products, and visa-versa. The shop has such arrangements with Le Baker’s Dozen, Sweet Home Montclair candy store, the Montclair Bread Company, Little Daisy Bake Shop, Yogic Chai, and the highly regarded local supplier of fine dark chocolate The Chocolate Path. “Part of our mission is that we’re here to truly connect with other local businesses and our community,” says Jodie Dawson, co-owner of Java Love. Her partner, Kristine Petrik, agrees, and adds, “What we love about Montclair is that sense of openness and support. Everyone is free to be who they are. We want to nurture that.”
Looking back on five years ago, that computer algorithm calculated correctly. But what the software had no way of knowing is how much I’d love writing in a laid-back café downtown, meeting a good friend for lunch on Walnut Street, or ambling through the world-renowned Presby Memorial Iris Gardens with my family. Montclair truly is the “Best Place” for us to live. And it’s a great place to visit, too.
So, just how did Montclair grow to become the small-town cultural capital of New Jersey? It started in 1856, when train service was introduced to Montclair. The farming community began attracting wealthy Manhattanites who wanted to escape the crowded, filthy city. “These railways have completely changed the character of our town, from a sparsely settled agricultural region to a community of elegant suburban homes,” wrote a local historian in 1876.
The well-to-do weren’t the only ones drawn to the railroad suburb. “Accounts of the town stressed that Montclair was a place where people were valued not for their wealth, but for their character and talent,” wrote Elizabeth Shepard, former historical librarian for the Montclair Public Library, in the book Images of America: Montclair, which she co-wrote with her father, former town historian Royal F. Shepard Jr.
The talented newcomers included 14 artists who lived here from around 1870 to around 1920, including one of America’s finest landscape painters, George Inness. The venerable Montclair Art Museum, the town’s most distinctive cultural icon, has an intimate gallery dedicated to the work of Inness, who lived and painted in the area for a decade.
Montclair developed a sophistication and elegance that continues to draw artists, musicians, writers, journalists and other highly educated and creative types who contribute to our vibrant community.
Montclair is home to a trio of invigorating, artful annual festivals in celebration of film, food and wine, and music.
The Montclair Film Festival, started in 2012, just wrapped up its third successful year in late April, with over 90 movies and events, including live conversations with documentarian provocateur Michael Moore, actor and filmmaker Kevin Smith, director Nelson George, and Montclair resident Stephen Colbert—who interviewed Tony award–winning director Julie Taymor. As the MFF T-shirts say, “It’s Sundance. Only Jersier.”
A Grand Tasting at the Montclair Art Museum showcasing over 30 local restaurants, a foie gras sampling and seminar, and a six-course Gala Dinner are all on the menu at the second annual Montclair Food & Wine Festival, which runs May 31 through June 2. Oyster and clam fans, in particular, will enjoy a tasting and discussion of New Jersey aquaculture that promises “a shuckin’ good time.” It features Matt Gregg, an Edible Jersey Local Hero  and grower at Forty North Oyster Farms. Chef Floyd Cardoz of Battery Park City’s North End Grill will join five local chefs to create the six-course Gala Dinner. Pairing wines will be Sharon Sevrens, sommelier and proprietor of Montclair’s popular boutique wine and beer shop, Amanti Vino—a fine finish to the foodie fest.
Several thousand music lovers are expected to lug lawn chairs and coolers to the historic, 17-acre Nishuane Park for the popular, fifth annual Montclair Jazz Festival on August 16. Local Grammy-winning bassist, composer and arranger Christian McBride regularly performs at the outdoor concert, along with a host of other talented musicians. Montclair’s own nationally recognized Jazz House Kids take the stage at the festival every year, and reaffirm that the future of the uniquely American musical style is secure in the hands of a new generation.
All Montclair restaurants are BYOB unless otherwise noted.
Brick Lane Curry House | 540 Valley Road
Montclair’s best Indian restaurant is an outpost of the popular Manhattan venue. Don’t miss the perfectly seasoned tandoori meat or seafood sizzlers; the methi salmon marinated in fenugreek, ginger and garlic; or the flavorful baghara baingan, an eggplant dish.
CulinAriane | 33 Walnut Street
Chef Ariane Duarte (whom you may have spotted on season five of Top Chef)creates deliciously seasonal dishes incorporating the flavors of the Mediterranean, the American Southwest and Asia in a quiet residential neighborhood.
Escape Montclair | 345 Bloomfield Avenue
Chef Bryan Gregg’s inventive eatery specializes in locally sourced, Southern fine cuisine. Though only a year old, it was recently named by diners on opentable.com as one of the top ten restaurants “fit for foodies” in northern New Jersey.
Fricassée French Bistro | 6 Park Street
Lively bistro ambiance and high-quality fare are the hallmarks of this downtown eatery. Chef Mark Papera’s cassoulet, hanger steak, chicken liver mousse and french fries with garlic aioli will transport you to the French countryside.
Le Salbuen Cafe Market | 97 Walnut Street
This charming restaurant serves local diners with tasty, inventive dishes created from fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Favorite dishes include the Walnut Street Salad, made with caramelized walnuts, figs, and organic baby spinach; the pork burger; and brioche bread pudding, made with honey from the owners’ own bees.
Mundo Vegan | 20 Church Street
The intimate, homey new restaurant serves dishes that are 100% GMO free, vegan and mostly organic. Standouts include organic lasagna made with cashews; mildly spicy mushrooms served with fresh corn tortillas; and naturally sweet, organic red juice concocted from eight fruits and veggies, including kale, beets and pineapple.
Osteria Giotto | 21 Midland Avenue
Attentive Old World service and upscale yet relaxed ambiance. Get the lasagna, although it’s hard to choose a dish—all the pasta is amazingly fresh every time. They also serve the most scrumptious insalata frutti di mare you’ll ever eat outside Italy.
Pig & Prince Restaurant Gastro-Lounge | 1 Lackawanna Plaza
Located in a spectacularly renovated space that once was part of the Lackawanna railroad terminal, Pig & Prince is easily one of Montclair’s most stunning restaurants—and one of the few with a liquor license. Chef Michael Carrino cures his own meats and frequents local farmers’ markets to create his progressive French cuisine. Carrino also supplies appetizers for the Montclair Art Museum’s free First Thursday evenings, when the museum is open to the public.
Raymond’s | 28 Church Street
This upscale diner with a retro vibe almost always has a line outside. It’s famous for its brunch choices, including French toast that’s velvety inside and amazing egg dishes such as migas, eggs in brioche, and eggs and grits, along with a variety of omelettes. If you can, grab a table outside, where it’s much quieter.
Samba Montclair | 7 Park Street
Ilson Goncalves modeled this romantically rustic eatery after his mother’s restaurant in Blumenau, Brazil. The menu features homestyle Brazilian cooking, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients. Try the feijoada, a black bean and meat stew—the quintessential Brazilian comfort food. And don’t forget a side of crispy, creamy fried yuca.
SHOPS & CAFES
Amanti Vino | 30 Church Street
This sleek and popular wine, beer and specialty spirits shop is known for its Saturday free tastings and for carrying craft beers and artisanal wines from all over the world in a variety of price ranges.
Java Love | 244 Bellevue Avenue
Owners of the inviting café in Upper Montclair, which is decorated with a sparkling chandelier and reclaimed wood, serve a variety of their own hand roasted, organic, fair-trade coffee. Their smooth Cold Brew, crafted specifically for iced coffee drinks, is a summertime hit.
Montclair Bread Company | 113 Walnut Street
The best place in town to get freshly baked, handcrafted breads, croissants and muffins. Sunday doughnuts have officially reached legendary status. Selections change weekly; favorites include Stumptown coffee, bacon-maple and plain glazed.
Montclair Farmer’s Market | Walnut Train Station
Droves of Montclairians happily gather here every Saturday between 8am and 2pm to talk with the neighbors while waiting in line at the Taquería Auténtica food van or shopping at the Pickle Licious and Matarazzo Farms tables. You can also pick up flowers, local wines, cheese, baked goods and a variety of fish and meats.
Terra at the Isabel Rose | 50 South Fullerton Avenue
(Located in the Montclair Public Library)
Terra is a relaxing place to read a book from the adjacent Montclair Public Library, or enjoy full tea with a friend, which includes assorted finger sandwiches, fruit, scones and clotted cream.
Montclair Art Museum | 3 S. Mountain Avenue
MAM is known for its holdings of American and Native American art, its exhibitions, its programs and its art school. It welcomes more than 65,000 visitors annually. The museum features works by George Inness, John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein.
Presby Iris Gardens | 474 Upper Mountain Avenue
With 3,000 varieties, these gardens boast the largest repository of the genus Iris in the world. Plan to visit during bloom season, May 9 through June 6.
Van Vleck House and Gardens | 21 Van Vleck Street
The 5.8-acre public gardens feature unusual trees, gorgeous wisteria that blooms around Mother’s Day, a formal garden and an azalea walk. It’s open dawn to dusk, 365 days a year.
Wellmont Theater | 5 Seymour Street
Thomas Edison, inventor of motion pictures, attended movies at the Wellmont. Now it’s the area’s largest theater venue, capable of seating 1,500. Performing there this summer will be Buddy Guy and Los Lobos, Steven Wright, and ’80s bands Missing Persons and Bow Wow Wow. The theater has a liquor license.