These 18 restaurants aren’t simply the fanciest or most expensive restaurants NJ has to offer; because “great’’ doesn’t have to mean “high-end.’’ These aren’t restaurants that received the most positive reviews on Yelp, the highest Zagat scores, or most Facebook likes.
As the food writer for NJ.com, I've eaten my way all over the state (that includes South Jersey, which is often regarded by North Jerseyans as a culinary wasteland), and these are must-visit restaurants that reflect the state’s dining diversity. There are formal and informal restaurants; breakfast, lunch, and dinner spots; and even a mall restaurant and a hot dog stand. Get to eating.
This spacious, wood-floored Shore roadhouse specializes in steak and seafood, but don’t skip the apps; the yellowfin tuna poke, with sushi-grade tuna, seaweed salad, pickled ginger, and wasabi chips, is excellent. Good craft beer selection, too. Other great options include oysters on the half shell, the superlative ribeye, or the OC burger. Next door is sister restaurant Mud City Crab House, with its Airstream-turned-bar in the parking lot.
It’s not a bakery, despite the name. This small, no-frills space just minutes from Route 1 offers first-rate Vietnamese sandwiches, pho, and other dishes. My favorite sandwich is the lemongrass beef and BBQ pork with oyster sauce, sesame oil, and carrots. Wash it down with one of the bubble teas or a fruit shake.
A former auto parts store -- you’d never know looking at it -- transformed into a casual Italian restaurant with a great wine selection; whites on one side, reds on the other. The beef braciole is one your Italian grandmother would approve of. Another solid move is the gnocchi in sage brown butter sauce.
Located in a town most Jerseyans have never heard of, the Blue Monkey is a beer-centric restaurant with an outstanding, eclectic craft brew selection. The burgers are classic, simple, and superb -- get yours medium rare with Monterey Jack. The Thai mussels are a great app.
This Shore-casual restaurant was an immediate hit when it opened four years ago. I recommend the Jersey Bennie, an eggs Benedict with Taylor ham; or the Nova Scotia scramble, an omelet with smoked salmon. And obviously make sure to get a homemade biscuit. Bradley Beach, just south of Asbury Park, is fast approaching its sister city as a dining destination.
The Committed Pig is a hip and casual eatery, with another location down the Shore, in Manasquan. The baked Brie burger, with Brie, fig preserves, and bacon, is the stuff burger bliss is made of. At the Morristown location, grab a table outside for a front-row people-watching seat across from the park known as The Green.
Owner Drew Araneo’s former location in town was a victim of Hurricane Sandy; the new space is twice as large. The cuisine is Gulf Coast-/Low Country-influenced and made with locally sourced produce. The affable Araneo loves his pork; there’s always a pork du jour dish. Be sure to try the super-spicy city jambalaya.
A small, friendly restaurant -- the name is a reference to owner John Stewart’s wedding date -- decorated with local artwork. The menu is all over the map, with salads, sandwiches, tacos, seafood, and more. Undecided? Go with one of the burgers; the Lunacy burger, a special, uses an IPA from nearby craft brewer Lunacy Brewing. The fried pickles and drunken oysters are also great choices.
Fang Peiyan is the funny, personable owner of this suburban sushi joint. If Fang’s not behind the sushi bar, he’s going table to table chatting up customers. And his creations are always at once delightful and daring. Try the tender tuna sashimi roll -- tuna wrapped over more tuna, and terrific. There’s a second Mr. PI’s location in Metuchen.
If you like Southern fried chicken, you’ll love Korean fried chicken, deep-fried twice to render out the fat. The result: fried chicken with superior crunch. Peck Peck -- tiny, with four tables -- is run by an elderly couple; rock music provides the unlikely soundtrack. Must-try: the pickled veggies.
The state’s most iconic hot dog landmark, a brick-walled roadhouse open since 1928, with no-nonsense countermen up front and a time-warp dining room out back. Get a “Ripper” -- a deep-fried hot dog so named because it splits apart during cooking. If you’re brave, get a “Weller” -- a well-done hot dog, or a “Cremator" -- a dog that’s pretty close to burnt.
Al Santillo is the lovably nutty pizza professor at this house-turned-pizzeria (walk down the driveway, open the screen door). Don’t be surprised if he invites you behind the counter to check out his ovens. His pizzas are based on styles popular in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and beyond, and they’re by far the best in the state. It’s takeout only, but there are several nearby bars where you’re allowed to bring your pizza in.
One category Jersey falls woefully short in is Greek restaurants; there are just not enough, or not enough good ones. This is my favorite -- a friendly, unstuffy place with fine food and attentive service. I recommend the lamb chops. Just down the street is Holsten’s, the ice cream parlor where the last scene in The Sopranos was shot.
Stage Left, in Downtown New Brunswick, can be on the pricey side, but the vibe is casual, and in warmer weather you can relax on a banquette in the outdoor sidewalk “lounge.’’ Get one of the excellent steaks or juicy burgers, cooked on a wood-fired grill. Upstairs from Stage Left is sister restaurant Catherine Lombardi, an Italian restaurant with a killer wine/spirits selection.
New Jersey, with 600 or so diners, is the diner capital of the world, and no diner does it consistently better than this glittery retro jewel across the river from Newark. It closes for just a few hours every night -- hey, the staff needs to take a breather! -- and pumps out good food in prodigious quantities. Get the meatloaf.
Great food in a mall? I’m not kidding. Located next to JC Penney, Viet Bistro is a welcome alternative to chain-dominated, and often forgettable, mall dining. The spicy lemongrass with chicken was the single best dish I sampled in a 50-restaurant statewide mall-food showdown I tried -- and survived -- last year.
A stylish hangout, with Day of the Dead-inspired artwork, house-made tortillas, and tacos unequaled for creativity and variety. Get the carnitas tacos, with cola-braised pork belly, corn, cotija, and morita (a kind of chipotle). The menu also includes such antojitos (“little cravings’’ or street food) as octopus ceviche, tuna tostadas, and a beet & arugula salad.
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Peter Genovese is a features/food writer for NJ.com and The (Newark) Star-Ledger. He is the author of 10 books, including Jersey Diners and Pizza City: The Ultimate Guide to New York’s Favorite Food. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
A hip and casual eatery, with another location down the Shore, in Manasquan, the Committed Pig specializes in the baked Brie burger, with Brie, fig preserves, and bacon. At the Morristown location, grab a table outside for the best people-watching seat across from the park known as The Green.
After undergoing a post-Hurricane Sandy renovation, Drew's Bayshore Bistro is twice as large. The cuisine is Gulf Coast-/Low Country-influenced and made with locally sourced produce. There’s always a pork du jour dish as well as the oft-ordered super-spicy city jambalaya.
A small, friendly restaurant, Kitchen 519's menu is all over the map, with salads, sandwiches, tacos, seafood, and more. Undecided? Go with one of the burgers; the Lunacy burger, a special, uses an IPA from nearby craft brewer Lunacy Brewing. For sides, the fried pickles and drunken oysters are great choices.
This takeout-only pizzeria in Elizabeth, New Jersey is probably one of the only places that categorizes its pizza not by regional style, but by decade. You'll find a 1940s tomato pie with no cheese, a 1959 "thick and saucy" version, and a signature 1964 pie garnished with olive oil and parmesan on the menu. Don't worry about getting too picky -- each and every one of Al Santillo's bread, cheese, and sauce combinations are dynamite.
Tops differentiates itself from a run-of-the-mill diner by being a place you'd actually want to order seafood (it's fresh, and is available frequently as a special), as well as the ever-popular meatloaf and beef ribs.
This cool hangout is decked out in day of the dead decor and serves creative tacos and homemade tortillas. The carnitas tacos are stuffed with cola-braised pork belly, cojita, corn and morita, and you should also get the octupus ceviche and tuna tartare.