If New Jersey had a food capital, a mecca for all things tasty, most would argue that Montclair is the place. The town is a densely packed hub where the food is as diverse as the residents with 120 restaurants and growing.
One of the oldest spots in town is Applegate Farm.
“Applegate Farm started in 1848,” said owner Jason Street. “This area was settled by the Dutch. The Sigler family actually owned the farm originally.”
The family sold it to an investment banker, who was later joined by a friend, Frank Oliver.
“Around 1927, they started making homemade ice cream,” Street said.
The shop uses the same time-tested recipe, offering more than 60 flavors to choose from on any given day. In the summer they’ll make ice cream 10 to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, to keep up with demand.
People flock to Applegate Farm from across the state, even making a cameo in “The Sopranos.” The original farmhouse sits in the distance, along with the last standing tile silo built in 1919. The nostalgia is a big part of the charm.
Applegate Farm has withstood the test of time, surviving the Civil War, two World Wars, the Great Depression, remaining a Montclair favorite.
“My family has been coming here since before I was even born,” Randolph resident Jeanne Glodek said. “So we actually just stopped at the cemetery, and that was our tradition when I was a kid. We would go to the cemetery and then come here, so that’s what I’m doing here with these guys.”
In Montclair Center, just off busy Bloomfield Avenue downtown, an influx of new restaurants are planting roots. They’re drawn by the active community and demand for a quality, unique dining experience.
Montclair itself is divided into several distinct sections, neighborhoods within the neighborhood. And each offers its own vibrant cuisine, so no matter where you live there’s something for everyone.
“Villalobos is a blend of modern Mexican with traditional ingredients and approaches to the food,” said Villalobos chef and owner Adam Rose.
Rose, a Montclair native, sees it as an opportunity. His meals include a new take on tacos using fresh, local ingredients, small plates to share and an open kitchen for entertainment. Homemade guacamole keeps customers coming back.
“It’s important for us to always stay focused and sharp because of the competition,” Rose said. “You’re only as good as your last meal.”
Take a stroll to nearby Church Street and you’ll find eateries for all food lovers. Restaurants here cater to growing crowds of young couples and families leaving Manhattan for the leafy suburb.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in the 12 to 15 years I’ve been here,” said Chris Egan, co-owner of Egan & Sons.
At Egan & Sons you can belly up to the bar for a good beer and soccer game just as easily as you can get a proper three-course meal. Egan says he kept the restaurant true to his hometown of Dublin and believes that’s why locals make it their go-to spot.
“People are more sophisticated in their palate, they’ve traveled, they’re educated. They eat out as a matter of convenience as opposed to a celebration, so they’re out quite a bit,” Egan said. “And they’ve developed an understanding of food and have high expectation levels.”
It’s the place where you’re bound to bump into someone you know, and Egan set up his restaurant with socializing in mind, encouraging connections over a good drink and a meal.
There are countless dining options in Montclair, way too many to visit in a day, but perhaps one of the best known fixtures is the home of the ‘Angry Dwarf.’ The Watchung Deli has been open since 1926. It’s passed through many hands since then, but always to Montclair families who’ve lived in the town for generations.
“I think that people come in here and they feel comfortable. They feel like they’re at home, so it’s been a really important part of the business, making sure that people feel like they’re welcome and like nothing has changed,” said owner Danielle von Hoffmann.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the hilariously named sandwiches. They come, of course, from the customers who create them. Anyone who’s grown up in town knows the deli as the after school hangout, the lunchtime favorite.
“The ‘Angry Dwarf’ I would say is the biggest, ‘The’ sandwich is really good, the ‘Ben Special’, the ‘Benny Mac’. A lot of kids from the high school, somehow they’re 110 pounds and they’re eating that thing, I don’t know how,” said owner Peter von Hoffmann.
“I don’t think that you’ll walk into another deli in this town and have the same feeling,” Danielle said. “The things here you can tell have been here forever.”
The hometown feel stems not just from the atmosphere, but the decades-old recipes that were passed down from the original owners.
“You’ve got to bring it. I think if you’re coming with something that’s mediocre, or just trying to be all things to all people, I think you’re going to find it difficult. I think you’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game,” Egan said.
One thing is certain here, tradition is the thread that ties the old and new and top-notch hospitality is the focus. Creating a sense of family everywhere you go, no matter whose dinner table you’re using to dine.