There are currently three speakeasy-style bars in downtown Jersey City — a little over two years ago, there were none. It’s an easy indicator of the surging eating and drinking scene in the scrappy New Jersey city that lies just across the Hudson from Manhattan. And while locals have long bragged of its proximity to New York City, the laid-back vibe, and enticingly lower prices, its dining scene has taken a little longer to catch up.
No more, says James Beard-nominated chef Dan Richer, who owns Neapolitan pizzeria Razza in downtown JC. “When we opened in 2012, my wife and I would go into the city every chance we had because the food was so much better. There was no reason to stay around here,” Richer tells Eater. “And now it’s like, you’ve got so many choices that there’s no reason to leave the neighborhood.”
In the last five years, downtown Jersey City has exploded with diverse restaurants, helped along by lower costs, a changing population, and the rezoning of main drag Newark Avenue into a partially pedestrian-only street lined with restaurants and bars.
Among those new spots are uber-trendy additions like celebrity chef Dale Talde’s Asian fusion Talde, a Charleston-inspired Southern comfort food restaurant with a serious bar program called Mathews, and one of those aforementioned speakeasies with housemade charcuterie, The Archer.
But there have been growing pains along the way. Razza sits just a few storefronts away, thriving, while Marco & Pepe, another trailblazing bistro on Grove Street, shuttered this March after 16 years in the much-changed neighborhood — due to a rent hike. “It was Marco & Pepe that gave me the confidence to open here, seeing how busy it was,” Richer says. The space has already been snapped up by a Lebanese restaurant expanding from Montclair, NJ.
Another newcomer with advanced press, Thirty Acres from Momofuku alum Kevin Pemoulie, opened in 2012 and closed in the span of three years, with Pemoulie saying, “Maybe the timing wasn’t right. Maybe Jersey City didn’t want us, or we didn’t want them at the right time.”
Cynics could say that new restaurants are forcing longtime operations — the ones that paved the way for them to open in the first place — to have to close up shop. For his part, Richer diplomatically says, “I just put my head down and focus on what we’re doing as much as possible.”
One longtime deli owner sees the newcomers as a positive, though. Monmouth Street Deli owner Joseph Faccone tells Eater, “Competition is good. It keeps you on your toes. But there’s only X amount of dollars out there.”
Faccone opened the Italian sub shop in 1984 and has watched the neighborhood change around him. Whereas in the early years, Sunday was one of his busiest days with two parishes nearby, Faccone now closes on the weekends after both churches closed and weekend business dwindled.
“Millennials don’t want a sandwich on Saturdays the day after they go out. They want to sit down and have brunch. The demographic is changing,” he says. It helps that he owns the shop, so he is not subject to a landlord looking to cash in on downtown’s rising cachet.
Changes come fast in stretches. “It’s amazing to be a part of it and to watch it develop,” says Richer. He says his landlord built a new building in what used to be a parking lot. “It went up in 18 months, fully leased, with commercial storefronts and a communal office space.”
There are 10,000 units currently under construction, with another 17,000 units planned for the area, including a micro-unit building that was just approved despite a long fight from neighborhood groups. Even more restaurants and bars will likely open to support that boom. In perhaps the ultimate sign that gentrification has hit downtown Jersey City, a poke bar is on the way.
Where to Eat
Now that the neighborhood is swimming in choices, here’s a map to the 25 best options. Or if you’d rather a snapshot, these eight places are representative of Jersey City’s history and present.
Monmouth Street Deli: This no-frills Italian deli has been around for 30 years and has held on through Jersey City’s rapid gentrification. That’s because here you’ll find affordable Italian comfort food classics that haven’t changed one bit — massive sandwiches and a daily-rotating hot bar. 500 Monmouth Street
Golden Cicada: There sadly aren’t many dive bars in Jersey City, so the 30-plus-year-old Golden Cicada plays a critical role. Luckily, this one has plenty of personality, with cheap beer, a ritual of hazing newcomers with baijiu shots, and rowdy karaoke. 195 Grand Street
Second Street Bakery: No more than five people can pack into this tiny deli/bakery that has been around for almost 100 years. Longtime locals go for the relatively inexpensive Italian sub sandwiches and meat-stuffed breads. 402 Second Street
Taqueria Downtown: This no-frills taqueria is always crowded, whether people are crammed into the chaotically-decorated space, or spilling onto the sizeable patio out back during warmer months. 236 Grove Street
Razza: Tender Neapolitan pizza from a James Beard-nominated chef is the name of the game here. Beware that the restaurant can run out of dough some nights, so come early. 275 Grove Street
Hottest New Spots
Talde: NYC chef Dale Talde transplanted his Brooklyn hit across the Hudson River, bringing his laidback style of Asian fusion to downtown JC. It’s a sprawling space with flavors of Korea, Thailand, China, Japan, and more on a menu that comes together to make sense. Don’t miss Miss Wong’s, the “secret” speakeasy downstairs that often turns into a dance party on weekends. 8 Erie Street
Mathews: Charleston was the inspiration for this light and bright — and very on-trend — restaurant and bar. Owner Mat Kopec (White Star Bar) recruited One if by Land, Two if by Sea chef John Mecca to help execute what is admittedly a concept inspired by “the theater of a Keith McNally restaurant” and “Danny Meyer hospitality.” 351 Grove Street
The Archer: The Archer may be the most Manhattan-feeling of any Jersey City bar, with its craft cocktails and housemade charcuterie. Sip boozy classics with a duck burger in the warm wood-filled, dimly-lit space, and feel right at home. 176 Newark Avenue