If you’ve ever wished you could walk into a restaurant and get personally greeted by the host, this one goes out to you. You — yes you — have the chance to become the Jersey version of Norm from Cheers. All you need to do is frequent one (or all) of the family-owned restaurants listed below. They offer the unique opportunity to have delicious food, perfected by generations of people dedicated to the cause (i.e. making the best food possible) and who are genuinely happy to see you walk through the door, brought to your table with a smile. It’s a win-win. No one does food better than Jersey, and these families are the ones who make it all happen.
For nearly a decade, brothers Louis and Ricardo Chavez have been serving up traditional Mexican fare in a fun and welcoming environment. Visit Chapala Grill for some delicious margaritas and unbeatable Mexican favorites like chiles rellenos and ceviche.
Location: 52 South Washington Avenue, Bergenfield
Hours: Monday – Wednesday 11:30 am to 10:00 pm, Thursday – Saturday 11:30 am to 10:30 pm, Sunday 12:00 pm to 10:00 pm
Must-Have Menu Item: Fajitas Chapala – shrimp, skirt steak, and chicken grilled with onions, peppers, tomatoes, and mushroom, and served with tortillas, rice, beans, and guacamole.
BYOB: No — Chalapa has a full-service bar (and margaritas made with fresh fruit)
More Info: www.chapalamexicangrill.com or call 201-387-2107
Piccola Italia is a Zagat-rated eatery, owned by a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef Brian Gualtieri, who also worked at acclaimed NYC eateries Chanterelle and Montrachet. The menu offers traditional Italian dishes with a modern flair — and Piccola also hosts events such as wine tastings, beer sampling dinners, and cooking classes.
Location: 837 West Park Avenue, Ocean
Hours: Monday – Saturday 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm, Sunday 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm and lunch Tuesday – Friday 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm
Must-Have Menu Item: Owner Brian Gualtieri recommends the Porcini Seared Day Boat Sea Scallops – served with truffle mashed potatoes, beurre blanc, port wine reduction, sautéed mushrooms, and mache.
BYOB: No — Piccola offers a robust wine list and an impressive selection of craft beer
More Info: www.piccolaitalianj.com or call 732-493-3090
Luna Rossa Biagio Lamberti
Luna Rossa Biagio Lamberti has been serving up traditional Italian cuisine for the past 23 years. Owner Biagio Lamberti is a member of the Lamberti restaurant family, who have opened seven unique locations over the past three decades. If you’re looking for a casual, family-oriented night out with classic Italian dishes like lasagna and gourmet pizzas, the Lamberti outpost in Turnersville is the spot for you.
Location: 3210 Route 42, Turnersville
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 11:00 am to 10:00 pm, Sunday 12:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Must-Have Menu Item: Luna Rossa – chicken or veal sautéed in a white wine lemon sauce with asparagus, jumbo lump crabmeat, topped with mozzarella cheese and served with capellini.
More Info: www.lambertis.com or call 856-728-4505
Thistle Fish & Chip and Caterers
Since opening its doors in 1963, The Thistle has been serving up Old Country-style fish and chips in a warm, family-oriented atmosphere. The Leahy family continues to treat customers like family and provide some of the best fish and chip dinners this side of the Atlantic, in addition to a full menu of seafood dishes. Stop in, or call up for a catered event and they’ll come to you. (Full disclosure, this family-owned restaurant happens to belong to my family. I’ve been a bus girl, dishwasher, cashier, and waitress, but they won’t give me a go at chef.)
Location: 442 Valley Brook Avenue, Lyndhurst
Hours: Tuesday – Thursday 11:30 am to 8:30 pm, Friday 11:30 am to 9:30 pm, Saturday 3:30 pm to 9:30 pm
Must-Have Menu Item: The obvious choice here is fish & chips, but my personal favorite is the baked crusted flounder special — a fresh piece of flounder baked with a light breadcrumb crust in a lemon caper butter sauce, served with rice and your choice of roasted potatoes, sautéed green beans, or French fries.
More Info: thistlefishandchips.weebly.com or call 201-935-0004
Mama’s & Cafe Baci
For 45 years, the Schiano family has been serving up traditional northern and southern Italian cuisine at Mama’s. They also specialize in gluten-free meals, and even offer separate menus that cater to guests looking for vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options (even including pizza!). Mama’s is BYOB, but they exclusively sell Old York Cellars wines by the bottle. The attached Café Baci offers live entertainment every night, which is played on TVs and speakers throughout the dining room.
Location: 260 Mountain Avenue, Hackettstown
Hours: Sunday – Thursday 11:00 am to 11:30 pm, Friday – Saturday 11:00 am to 12:30 am
Must-Have Menu Item: Owner Thomas Schiano couldn’t choose just one dish to recommend, so he gave us three. Champagne Penne Palma (sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, and artichokes in a homemade white champagne sauce over imported penne), Chicken Toscano (battered chicken, roasted peppers, prosciutto and spinach sautéed in white wine over angel hair pasta) and Di Tomasso “Old School” (rigatoni tossed with ricotta cheese and homemade red sauce over meatballs and sausage, topped with mozzarella cheese).
BYOB: Yes – Mama’s also sells Old York Cellars wine by the bottle.
More Info: www.mamascafebaci.com or call 908-852-2820
Angelo’s has been a Lyndhurst staple since opening its doors in 1966. The Piccirillo family has proudly served the neighborhood since then, and is already planning a celebration for this upcoming July to mark their 50th anniversary. Offering classic Italian-American cuisine in a fine dining room, this is the type of place that makes you feel like you’re in a small Italian village, eating a dish someone’s Nonna made fresh for you. It’s that good.
Location: 263 Ridge Road, Lyndhurst
Hours: Tuesday – Thursday 11:30 am to 10:00 pm, Friday 11:30 am to 10:30 pm, Saturday 4:00 pm to 10:30 pm, Sunday 12:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Must-Have Menu Item: For appetizers, go with the clams oreganata and the shrimp with sauce and biscuit. For dinner, Angelo’s is known for their homemade manicotti and their veal Milanese.
BYOB: No — but if you’re in the mood for just a glass or two, Angelo’s offers half-bottles of wine.
More Info: Call 201-939-1922
For 88 years, Pic-A-Lilli Inn has been the go-to for delicious Buffalo wings in South Jersey. Now run by the fourth generation of founder Thomas Snyder’s family, Pic-A-Lilli’s casual dining atmosphere and full bar continues to draw an eclectic crowd each and every day of the week. Head to Pic-A-Lilli for unbeatable wings, and make it a Wednesday if you can — beginning in 1987, Pic-A-Lilli has offered all-you-can-eat wings each Wednesday for just $11.95.
Location: 866 Route 206, Shamong
Hours: Open every day from 10:00 am to 2:00 am
Must-Have Menu Item: The Buffalo wings, obviously. Drenched in Pic-A-Lilli’s homemade wing sauce, they’re some of the best you’ll find in New Jersey. The creamy crab soup is also a must-get.
BYOB: No — Pic-A-Lilli has a full liquor bar and rotating craft beers on tap
More Info: www.picalilli.com or call 609-268-2066
Martino’s Cuban Restaurant
Since opening in 1993, Martino’s (named for owner Martino Linares) has been serving what the Linares clan describes as “pre-Castro Cuban food with no restrictions.” What this means is that their menu bursts with flavor — and tons of options. Head to Martino’s to enjoy made-to-order food while basking in those one-of-a-kind Latin vibes.
Location: 212 West Main Street, Somerville
Hours: Tuesday – Thursday 11:00 am to 8:30 pm, Friday 11:00 am to 9:30 pm, Saturday 12:00 pm to 9:30 pm and Sunday 12:00 pm to 8:30 pm
Must-Have Menu Item: Pernil Asado – chunks of roasted pork sautéed with garlic, onions, and peppers in a tangy mojo sauce. Or try ropa vieja – shredded flank steak sautéed with garlic, onions, peppers, and simmered in a creole sauce.
More Info: martinoscuba.com or call 908-722-8602
Sammy’s Ye Old Cider Mill
Opened as a speakeasy in the 1920s by Samuel Fornaro, Sammy’s is now run by Fornaro’s grandchildren. Known for its dry-aged steaks and its unique service style (guests order when they enter and wait for their food at the downstairs bar), Sammy’s is a favorite among those looking to take a step back in time and enjoy delicious food while they’re at it. Stop in to experience it for yourself!
Location: 353 Mendham Road West (Route 24), Mendham
Hours: Tuesday – Thursday 6:00 pm to 9:30 pm, Friday 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm, Saturday 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm, Sunday 4:30 pm to 9:00 pm
Must-Have Menu Item: You can’t go wrong with any of Sammy’s steak options, but the double-cut lamb chops (served with apple sauce or vinegar peppers or potatoes) and Shrimp Scampi Sammy’s Style are favorites among Sammy’s guests.
BYOB: No — but Sammy’s offers half-price bottles of wine on Tuesday nights!
More Info: www.sammyscidermill.com or call 973-543-7675
The Star Tavern
Serving arguably the best pizza in New Jersey (and that’s a bold statement for any Jersey girl to make), the Star Tavern is known for its unbeatable thin-crust pies. Owned and operated by the Vayianos family since 1980, this is the perfect place to take the whole family or to watch the game at the bar with a beer and a pie. From the food to the décor, it’s a true Jersey pizza joint, and not to be missed!
Location: 400 High Street, Orange
Hours: Monday – Wednesday 11:00 am to 10:00 pm, Thursday – Saturday 11:00 am to 11:00 pm and Sunday 12:00 pm to 10:00 pm
Must-Have Menu Item: You can’t stop here without trying the pizza, it really is one-of-a-kind, but The Star Tavern’s buffalo wings are definitely another must-have.
More Info: www.startavern.net or call 973-675-3336
Vital began as a project between brother and sister duo Nataki and Kwame Williams. Nataki joined her financial background with that of her gourmet chef brother and along came Vital. These days, event planner sister Kanika has joined the team, adding a new atmosphere to the spot. Vital serves up fresh Jamaican fare with offerings for those on vegetarian, vegan, paleo or pescatarian diets.
Location: 387 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 11:00 am to 10:00 pm and Sunday 11:00 am to 3:00 pm
Must-Have Menu Item: The jerk chicken is what has most customers talking! It comes in a few different styles, such as wings, a wrap and as an entree so the choice is yours.
More Info: vitaldining.com or call 973-655-9500
Federici’s Family Restaurant
Federici’s has been a New Jersey staple for 93 years and counting. It all began with Frank and Ester Federici in 1921, and it continues today as the business passes from generation to generation of the family. The menu only grows with each new generation, but that old school Italian taste remains – especially when it comes to their famous thin crust pizza pies.
Location: 14 East Main Street, Freehold
Hours: Open every day from 11:30 am to 10:30 pm
Must-Have Menu Item: Federici’s thin crust pizza is their claim to fame, but the cheese lasagna here is still made with Ester’s original recipe, making it a must-try for anyone craving a real, homemade Italian dinner.
More Info: www.federicis.com or call 732-462-1312
- Hero (Top) Feature Image: Courtesy Chapala Grill