‘Newark restaurants’ and ‘foodie hotspot’ aren’t exactly an obvious pairing. New Jersey’s largest city is better known for home-grown celebrities like Whitney Houston, Shaquille O’Neal and Jerry Lewis than its celebrity chefs or culinary prowess – so you’d be forgiven for not immediately heading here to find your next great meal. After all, New York City, where so many food trends are either born or find their fullest expression, is just a 20-minute train ride to the east.
But Newark has a gastronomic character and spirit of its own, one that’s evolved without hype, shaped by generations of immigrants who have introduced a diverse pot of flavours. For travellers landing at Newark Liberty International Airport, the city and its numerous eateries are more or less on the doorstep. Newark may typically have been seen as a way-station in travellers’ minds, but increasingly that’s a mistaken impression. In a world of calculated risks, a day (or more) browsing and munching in Newark restaurants promises real pleasures.
It’s a walkable city, particularly downtown and around the Ironbound neighbourhood. On each street you’ll find everything from small counter-service options to places you can sit and order a full meal with drinks and dessert.
Credit: Laura Barisonzi
Along the way, you might find yourself in a deli that feels homey and comforting, with corned beef piled high on soft, tangy rye bread and a contented buzz from the tables nearby. That’s Hobby’s Delicatessen , a Newark institution that has occupied the same spot on Branford Place since 1962, when D-Day vet Sam Brummer bought it and started serving classic Jewish deli food. Newark’s best-known author, the late Philip Roth, stopped in several times over the years, and you’ll catch a glimpse of the restaurant’s sign in the upcoming Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark. Don’t worry about anyone putting on airs: you’ll feel at home from the moment you step inside the door.
Or you might be more comfortable in one of the many seafood places on Ferry Street, with a glass of Portuguese vinho verde wine; its minerality cutting perfectly through a bacalhau (cod) dish, or a paella rich with saffron and shellfish. Chef George Mendes, whose New York-based Aldea has held a Michelin star for years, swears by Seabra’s Marisqueira on Madison Street, saying it reminds him of childhood Sunday meals with his Portuguese immigrant family. You’ll find fresh, skillfully prepared seafood here, with portions beyond generous, and décor that runs to azulejos (blue tiles).
The main hub of culinary energy in Newark restaurants, though, is downtown. Recent years have witnessed the launch of a first-rate Israeli lunch spot, a burger joint fusing classic American offerings with Southeast Asian flavors, a Cuban eatery and an African-hued restaurant from acclaimed Swedish-Ethiopian chef Marcus Samuelsson.
At The Green Chicpea on Halsey Street, you’ll have to queue if you show up between noon and two, because everyone working nearby has promised themselves a treat at lunchtime. The upshot? It’s worth the wait. When you get to the counter, you’ll find fresh ingredients, perfectly seasoned dishes and earthy nuggets of chickpeas, herbs and spices that constitute the perfect falafel. They’re crispy outside and have an airy, fragrant centre that’s destined to nestle inside a chewy-soft pita with sides that are crunchy, tangy, bitter or sweet.
Credit: Laura Barisonzi
A few steps away, Burger Walla serves beef burgers on potato rolls with an Indian twist; they’re meaty, with a perfect crust at the edges of the patty and an impeccable balance of flavours – sweetness from caramelised onions and bite from cucumber pickle. Add the signature Walla sauce, a smoky-sweet concoction, and you’re set. If red meat is off limits, choose a chicken burger studded with cilantro or a veggie burger that’s fragrant with spices. Owner Kai Campbell and his wife Tamara bring her South Asian heritage to bear in the fresh-baked samosas, the curried cauliflower and chickpeas, and the sauces that include a sweet and tangy tamarind that’s a perfect match for just about everything on the menu.
On New Street you’ll find La Cocina , a very Cuban eatery. Stop in on Wednesdays for ropa vieja, a rich dish of shredded beef, tomato and spices, or grab hot, pillowy empanadas to take away with you any day of the week.
For a full meal, it has to be Marcus B&P , also on Halsey Street. Chef Marcus Samuelsson – well-known for judging the reality TV show Chopped, and previously renowned as the head chef at Harlem’s Red Rooster – makes great use of the highly spiced Ethiopian doro wat chicken stew, deploying it with fresh cheese and rigatoni, or slathering it on cornbread with a runny egg atop the whole dish.
If you can’t stand to sit around, a bakery crawl through Ironbound is just the ticket. After all, it would be culinary malpractice to leave the city without trying pastéis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts) and an espresso at one of its bakeries, or the savoury pastries, such as rissóis de camarão (shrimp turnovers), pão de queijo (cheese bread) or coxhina de frango (Brazilian chicken croquettes), which set the seal on Newark’s magnificent culinary renaissance.
Credit: Laura Barisonzi
An adorable spot on Van Buren Street for handmade chocolates, sweet and savoury pastries, coffee and a generally relaxed and refreshing vibe.
Counter service coffee stop with carefully sourced beans on Halsey Street.
This McWhorter Street favourite is the place to stop for rissóis and coxhinas.
Need a digestif or a wine to pair with the treats from Delicias de Minas? The selection at this Ferry Street store is especially strong on ports and wines – they’ll even tell you which vineyards to visit in Portugal, and when to go.
Hero image: Laura Barisonzi