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Mar 23, 2007 04:05 PM

NJ Chows - Standbys vs. the List

Having young children, I don't get the opportunity to go out for dinner as often as I would like. So when the DW advises we have a babysitter, I debate between going to the "tried and true" restaurant or taking a chance on one of the places on my wanting to try list. Lately I've been kind of wimpy and have chosen my usual old haunts as I'd rather not be disappointed. Are many of you more adventurous or are just as comfortable with your old standby? What 3 restaurants would you classify as your standbys and what 3 are on your must try list? Here are mine:
Standbys: 1. Dish (my casual place); 2. Blu (my fancy but not over the top place), 3. Nicholas (my over the top place)
Want to try: 1. Drew's Bayshore Bistro, 2. Mahogany Grill, 3. Fascino.

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  1. Standbys: WestLake, Le Fandy, David Drake, Thai Chili, Frankie Fed's

    Want to try: Cafe Amerigo (may go tomorrow night), ???

    Truth is I eat out far too often, and I have tried most of the local choices.

    1 Reply
    1. re: seal

      Hey Seal - No argument with West Lake or DD. Le Fandy didn't do it for me when I went a month back. Where is Thai Chili? Please let us know about Cafe Amerigo.

    2. We have quite a few standbys. Where we go depends on whether we want to be very close to home or are willing to travel; whether we want extremely casual or a bit dressier; and even the time of year. We rarely go out on a Friday or Saturday in NJ. So, it's mainly during the week and not only for dinner, but often for lunch. All that said....

      Casual standbys/very close: Thai Chili*, SamVera, El Meson (summer only and usually for lunch), Drew's Bayshore Bistro Note: I Cavallini was on this list until Chef Toni left.

      Casual standbys/travel: Pete & Elda's (for pizza), Thompson's Fish 'n' Chips (summer only and for lunch)

      During the warm weather months, we usually take the long drive to Lambertville at least once, sometimes more often. The casual bistro Manon is our favorite there. Been there many times, so I think it belongs on my standby list.

      Dressier standbys/fairly close: Nicholas, dining in the bar and in the dining room; Frog and the Peach, mainly for lunch, but occasionally for dinner.

      Dressier standbys/travel: Lorena's, David Drake's, Chez Catherine

      As for my "go to" list... Navesink Fishery in the casual/fairly close category. Blu in the travel category. I've considered Fascino, but we're not usually inclined to travel for Italian food.

      Maybe we should add another category: places we've been to once and would like to get back to. Years ago, we tried Anton at the Swan, in Lambertville. A recent discussion on another thread led me to discover there's a relatively new chef/owner, so I've put it on the list. Probably for the more formal dining room though they do have a casual pub room.

      *Note re: Thai Chili. It's in Spotswood.

      Edited to correct Thai Chili's url. Thanks, bgut1.

      27 Replies
      1. re: RGR

        RGR - Thanks for your list. Interesting about SamVera. A number of other posters have commented how they like this place. Regrettably, I never choose to eat out Italian for some reason. I guess to me its not special enough for a dinner out. The exception was Sogno in Red Bank when the Espositos owned it. Also, from what I understand, Fascino is more gourmet/Nouveau Italian and is therefore another exception to my no Italian rule. Maybe I have to give SamVera a try. As for Thai Chili, how does it compare with Far East Taste (another of my standbys)? I see the decor is at least a large bump up. BTW, your link takes me to a Thai Chili in California. I think the correct link is Lorena's is another one I want to try. Do please give Blu a shot. You will not be disappointed. Although the space is quite small and loud, the food is nothing less than stellar. Dollar for dollar, it is the best restaurant in the state. Again thanks for your comments.

        1. re: bgut1

          Oops! Thanks for pointing out the url error. I've corrected it.

          Comparing Thai Chili and Far East Taste. The former is strictly Thai food while the menu at the latter encompasses Thai, Malaysian and Chinese. And, as you mentioned, Thai Chili has charming decor while Far East Taste is seriously wanting in that area.

          We've only been to Far East Taste twice, and I liked most of the dishes we tried. It's been a while since we were there last, but I recall having some fried dumplings that were absolutely sensational.

          We've been to Thai Chili many times. As it happens, we were just there on Wednesday. These days, our favorite thing to order is the whole fish in a seriously delicious mango/Thai chili sauce. We usually have no trouble sharing one fish between us, along with some appetizers to start. This time, there was a major problem. Though the fish was of good size, there was barely enough "meat" for one person, let alone two. We were there very late and were the only ones in the place, so we didn't send it back. We picked through it as best we could and filled up with the ample vegetables that came with it, along with the rice. We had started with their perfectly prepared spring rolls and chicken satay, so we didn't go away hungry. We chalked it up as a one-time fluke. (Pun intended. lol)

          Blu was originally recommended to us by the owners of Lorena's, so it's definitely a place we want to try though I have to admit that I'm a bit leery about the noise factor. Lorena's is absolutely our most favorite BYO restaurant in NJ. Echoing your sentiments about Blu, if you try Lorena's, you will not be disappointed. Superb cuisine, stellar service, charming decor, and never a problem with noise.

          1. re: RGR

            RGR - you gotta give Far East Taste another try - and order their whole fish. I prefer mine crispy with the spicy fish sauce they make. They don't always bring out the fish sauce so you gotta ask for it though..

            1. re: joonjoon

              joonjoon, I think you might have misinterpreted my opinion of Far East Taste. Despite the fact that it is severely decor-challenged, I think the food is very good, and I have no problem with going back there. Just haven't had the chance to do so recently. And, yes, I am aware that Richard does excellent things with whole fish, which he often catches himself.

        2. re: RGR

          Hi RGR - nice list, and I totally agree about the specialness of Lorena's. I wanted to note that we've had some very good dinners at Fascino; I think it's worth a try (if you do go, be sure to order a side of polenta "fries"). Two other recent outstanding NJ dinners were one of our periodic visits to Cafe Panche in Ramsey (I had a kobe hanger steak that was meltingly good) and a fine meal in all respects, with service worthy of a special note, at the Washington Inn in Cape May. Usually we prefer BYO's, but the Washington Inn has a broad and deep wine cellar, and their markup is extremely reasonable. If you're in the vicinity, it's well worth a stop.

          1. re: Striver

            Hey, Striver, I'm always glad to hear from someone else who thinks, as we do, that Lorena's is special. :-) Humberto, Lorena, and George are truly lovely people, and we adore Humberto's cuisine.

            We tried once to get a reservation at Fascino when we were going to be in the Montclair area, but they were fully booked. Little doubt that the food is excellent since I don't recall ever reading anything negative about it. We probably will end up trying it at some point.

            Even though we do travel for superior food, Ramsey at the northern most point of NJ and Cape May on its southern tip are not towns we think of shlepping to from our Central NJ location. Ramsay is probably an hour-and-a-half, so Cafe Panache -- which I've heard good things about -- might be worth the trip, especially since we love French cuisine. I am shocked that when I Googled, I could not find a website. For this type of restaurant, that's inexcusable!!

            Cape May is another matter. It's at least a two-hour drive. We have been there, but that was ages ago. We had dinner at the Mad Batter, and I recall finding it disappointing. It's still there: . I don't remember it being connected to a B&B as it is now but, of course, since it was such a long time ago, I could be wrong. I have heard of the Washington Inn, and checking out the menu on their website -- -- I see lots of tempting dishes. So if we do decide to go back to Cape May, it will top my list of places to go.

              1. re: jsfein

                Thanks, jsfein. :-) Sometimes Google is not your friend. :-( lol It did seem odd that there would not be a website, so my apologies, of course, to Cafe Panache. Looking at the menu, I think I would have to revise my thinking and say the cuisine is New American rather than French. Not that that's a bad thing....

              2. re: RGR

                One correction - I meant to say BYO and somehow lurched into B&B (Cape May can do that to you). The food, service, and ambience of Washington Inn - as well as that winelist - were all exceptional. We've been spending part of our summer at Cape May Point (where the lighthouse is) for many years but somehow had never gotten around to the Washington Inn (admittedly, we grill most of our meals on the shore). We won't neglect it any more. The Mad Batter, BTW, is good for brunch and not particularly for anything else.

                Panache is more contemporary American/continental than Fench per se, but we've been consistently happy with our dinners there over a period of several years (and it's only about a half hour from our home in the Bronx!). I see that jsfein has posted their website; be aware that it's a sample menu to give an idea of their usual choices; they always have a duck offerring, which they do very well, and a house ravioli appetizer which is - when stuffed with filet mignon and served in a truffle butter sauce - one of my personal favorite dishes anywhere.

                BTW, for more traditional French, have you tried Latour in Ridgewood (a bit closer than Ramsey)?

                1. re: Striver

                  If you look at the time stamps, you'll see we were cross-posting. I mentioned looking at C.P.'s menu and that it is more New American than French. And, yes, I noticed it's a sample.

                  Even though Ridgewood may be further south than Ramsey, the roads we would have to take to get to each one might make the travel time fairly equal. In any event, I've heard about Latour, but have not tried it. A quick search here shows you have been there and liked it:


                  That was in '04. I recall reading some mixed reviews, probably on another forum. Have you been back since?

                  1. re: RGR

                    No, not recently - the last times we were in Ridgewood we went to Village Green and Zarole; both were good, with Village Green getting the edge for a more interesting meal and presentation. We've also dined at Pourquoi Pas? in Westfield (AFAIR) and Table 8 in Montclair in the past year; both were good - and Pourquoi Pas? is purely French - but neither has moved up on our list.

                    As you can see, most of our dining in NJ - except in summer - is in the northern part of the state. As mentioned, we live in NYC (the Bronx); we get out to NJ often to dine with my BIL and spouse. Since they live in Upper Montclair, we tend to gravitate to that area or meet up north.

                    1. re: Striver

                      Re: Pourquoi Pas? I think your mean Westwood, not Westfield, which is in Central NJ. In fact, one of our favorite French restaurants, Chez Catherine, is in Westfield. Superb in every respect. I've heard of Pourquoi Pas?, but have never been.

                      Epernay, in Montclair, was a favorite of ours. About a 50-minute ride from our house, but worth it every so often because the menu was very French, and the food was delicious. I'm using the past tense because we haven't been there since the Paperas sold it last year. Even though the new owners have kept the menu pretty much status quo, I haven't read any reports about how things are now. Until I do, it's off the rotation.

                2. re: RGR

                  Had to offer a counter-experience. We've stayed at The Mad Batter's B&B and enjoyed their restaurant two years in a row, most recently Thanksgiving week.

                  As a guest of the B&B a large country breakfast is provided free of charge each morning and dinner comes with a $30.00 discount to guests each night. We enjoyed lovely meals during a much quieter travel period for that area. All services, stores and restaurants were open with plenty to choose from and we still decided to take full advance of MB's offers.

              3. re: RGR

                I recently took my mother to Navesink Fishery. She loves seafood. She had the seafood platter and enjoyed the variety. Good-sized portions too. Plenty to take home.
                However, I am not a seafood eater and they only had 1 or 2 chicken and beef options and neither looked appealing to me so I went with the crab cakes. They were too real for my liking. They were freshly pulled from the crab, smashed together and baked with nothing else added. I believe the owner still goes up every morning to SSS (Do they still call it that in Brooklyn?) to buy the fish for that night's dinner. Fresh is the word. Very casual place.

                1. re: tom porc

                  ...and one of my Atl Highlands favorites, tom porc!
                  Next time take her to the Fishery in Fair Haven, River Road for the fresh scallop sandwich, just the best! Or the Keyport Fishery-fantastic platters, amazing coleslaw.

                  1. re: HillJ

                    By the Fishery, in Fair Haven, do you mean Ray's? I'm guessing that would be it. For many years, Ray's in Colts Neck was one of our favorite spots for absolutely delicious fish and seafood in lovely surroundings. Sadly, Ray died, and his wife felt she had to close there. Before that, we had never been to the Fair Haven location, so we made it our business to try it. Though it's much smaller and lacks the ambiance of the Colts Neck location, the casual surroundings are pleasant, and the food was very good. It's about a 40-minute drive for us, so even though I think it's a fine place for fish and seafood, we haven't made it back yet.

                    1. re: RGR

                      I meant:
                      Bayshore Fishery (also known as Bayshore "Charley's)
                      Address: 603 River Rd, Fair Haven, NJ 07704
                      Phone: (732) 842-4212

                      ..Ray's is Markham Place, Little Silver

                      1. re: HillJ

                        Oops! You're right about Ray's being in Little Silver.

                      2. re: RGR

                        Hello my dear RGR!!!

                        We never tried Ray's in Little Silver. Is it worth it? I always wanted to try, but like you a 40 minute drive, so I want to be sure it is good first.

                        1. re: Angelina

                          Hey, Angelina, I was just thinking to myself that I'd haven't seen you around here in quite a long time. Hope all is well. I've missed your perky posts.

                          The fish we had at Ray's was very good and, I think, worth the 40-minute drive. I recall that the waitress we had was especially nice, and the decor, though kind of plain, is still pleasant. At least, try it once and decide for yourself. I guess I should put it on my "go back to again" list....

                          1. re: RGR

                            RGR - Ray's does in fact have solid seafood. However, over the years I've gravitated elsewhere. Instead when I'm hankering for simply prepared seafood I go to Spikes in Point Beach. I truly don't recall why. I guess I just like Spikes better.

                            1. re: bgut1

                              bgut1, We went to Spike's in Pt. Pleasant Beach once, but that was probably 20 years ago or more. You might recall -- or maybe not? -- that they opened a branch in a stand alone "shack" on Route 9 North, in Marlboro, in the late 1990's. There was a fish market in front, and I would occasionally buy stuff there. We also ate there several times, but overall, the food was just so-so. It started out a BYO but then they got a liquor license. That didn't help, and they closed shortly thereafter.

                              Eventually, the building was demolished and in its place, there now stands that architectural monstrosity occupied by Pino's Italian. Just that structure alone was enough to keep me from even considering trying it, but what definitely decided me to stay away were the less than raves about the food.

                              1. re: RGR

                                RGR - I do recall when they had a Spikes on Rt. 9 but was unsure whether they were owned by the same people. I further understood, as you recall, that the food at that location wasn't as good as Pt. Pleasant and therefore I never tried it. I would give Spikes another shot. The food is very fresh, simply prepared and reasonably priced. It does the trick for me when I want seafood. Come June I usually stay away until after Labor Day. I'm sure you know why. :)

                            2. re: RGR

                              I missed all of you so much! I have just been busy and no real time to post here. I had SO much reading to do on this board! I feel like I have been gone a year!

                              Anyway, I will continue with my rants and raves. :)

                        2. re: HillJ

                          Thanks, HillJ, I am always on the lookout for good seafood! For mom, of course :o)
                          Bayshore Fishery is only about 10 mins away. Up 7 Bridges and left on Hance. Is it casual? Reservations? Is it take-out only? Thanks.

                          1. re: tom porc

                            tom porc, You are correct about proximity to Hance. Bayshore is a small place, very casual and can be up to an hours wait on the weekends. No reservations taken but if you can get there during the week its far easier to get a table and for my taste far more relaxing.

                            Bayshore offers take out or dine in plus they have a wonderful fresh fish market.

                            Enjoy and post your experience!

                        3. re: tom porc

                          Besides the fish, I love the cake they have at Navesink. I love lemon desserts and their lemon cake is one of my favorites.

                      3. We don't have kids but often go for the tried and true.

                        Standbys: Charley's, Barnacle Bill's, Pete n Elda's, Far East Taste

                        Want to try: Drew's Bayshore Bistro, Shipwreck Grill, Le Fandy.

                        1. The original comment has been removed
                            1. re: tuxedo

                              La Chalupa is on Bridge Av., in Red Bank.

                              1. re: RGR

                                thanks - think we will try it!

                                1. re: tuxedo

                                  Please come back and report on La Chalupa. I haven't been there in several years. I wasn't impressed, but hopefully it has improved.

                                  The restaurant is across from the train station.

                                  1. re: val ann c

                                    As you know La Chalupa is really casual, I almost only go for lunch. I love the Burrito's, but my favorite menu item is the Mexican Sandwich. I usually get the Carne Enchilada whick is called "Spicy Pork" on the menu. It is one of my favorite sandwiches, it's served on a griddled large soft roll, with avacado, chipotle sauce, Queso Oaxca (sp), and spicy pork. That's it, I'm getting in the car!

                                    1. re: Herm

                                      Herm, can you pick me up en just made my stomach growl!

                                      1. re: HillJ

                                        Wow - That does sound good. I may have to give this place and the spicy pork sandwich a try (and that says a lot since I've pretty much given up eating bread).

                                        1. re: bgut1

                                          Bgut1 7 HillJ - I went to La Chalupa yesterday for 'The Sandwich' and left disapointed!!!!! It was still good, just not AS good. There was definately a new cook behind the line..... Hopefully it will get straightened out!

                                          1. re: Herm

                                            Herm - That's very disappointing news as I was looking forward to trying the sandwich. I'll put it on hold for now and instead move on to try the pozole at Acapulquenos.

                                            1. re: bgut1

                                              bgut1, the pozole from Asporto Cafe in Red Bank is excellent. It freezes well. Our Vermont friends say it travels well too.

                                              1. re: fershore

                                                Thanks fershore. I'll try Asporto first. I'll let you know what I think.

                                            2. re: Herm

                                              Oh no! Sorry to hear that Herm, but thank you for sharing your recent cook.....hmmmmmmmmm

                            2. Keeping in mind that I have 3 young kids, my standbys are pretty much places where I can take the youngsters which often makes finding a "chowish" destination a challenge and usually results in a pretty casual setting. That being said my standbys include El Meson (of which I'm actually starting to tire), Crowne Palace in Marlboro for Dim Sum only, Pete and Elda's (of which I never seem to tire), Gaetano's in Red Bank, and the various California taco joints that are now up and down the shore (Surf Taco, Fins, 10th Avenue Burrito, etc.).

                              My "to try" list includes Le Fandy, Drew's Bayshore Bistro (not sure if I can get away with bringing the kids here), West Lake for dinner, and Bay Avenue Trattoria.

                              I was able to scratch Copper Canyon off of my "to try" list this weekend. I had a really excellent New York strip steak, but for the most part didn't find the menu too appealing.

                              10 Replies
                              1. re: jsfein

                                Hey, jsfein, I don't see why you couldn't bring the kids along to Drew's. I think the reason I've not seen kids there is that we've only been there during the week and always quite late. But it's a very casual place, all the servers are very friendly, and Drew's a sweetie. If you still have doubts, give Drew a call and ask. I'll be willing to bet on what the answer will be....

                                Btw, we haven't been to Gaetano's in a long time. We've had pretty good food there, but I've heard that things have gone downhill. Have you been there recently? If so, how was it?

                                1. re: RGR

                                  I was part of a large work group that had lunch at Gaetano's last week. I was terribly disappointed by the salads. We ordered several and shared. Over dressed, tiny salad plates..what happened to this place??!!

                                  1. re: RGR

                                    Uh oh, didn't realize Gaetano's may have hit the downhill alert. I actually haven't been there since late last Summer (after having had several solid meals over the course of the Summer). I was planning on returning in the next couple of weeks, but may need to rethink in light of these recent reports.

                                    1. re: RGR

                                      I will give Drew's a call. We usually dine out on Fri or Sat, but almost always very early before the kids have a chance to disturb other diners.

                                      1. re: RGR

                                        I agree... I think Drew's would be fine for kids. Especially on a weeknight, or early on a weekend night. Really good food.

                                      2. re: jsfein

                                        jsfein - I had the same reaction to Copper Canyon when I ate there several months back. The steak was fabulous but the rest was so-so. As a result I haven't been rushing to go back. Its also funny that we all have Drew's on our short list. Group dinner?

                                        1. re: bgut1

                                          When I told the server that it was my first time, he insisted that I try the steak and I was glad for the recommendation. I don't usually eat steak out as its one of the few things that I can make fairly well on the grill, but this was one well seasoned piece of meat. As for Drew's, its one of the few places that consistently gets favorable reviews. I'm looking forward to trying it.

                                          1. re: jsfein

                                            Too funny ... I got the same shpeel about the steak. Did you have occasion to try the magaritas? I was expecting more from mine. I would go back to have the steak again however.

                                            1. re: bgut1

                                              I love the steak at Copper Canyon. I love the rub, Guajillo Chile rub, although I definately tasted sugar. I also think they have one of the best crabcakes around. Salsa's and Guacamole, good but expensive. I don't care for the pressure from the servers for 'another drink' or for $6 worth of 'more chips?', and while the Steak is great the wait staff suggest it to pump up the check. With that all being said , I still enjoy going there, although not very often.

                                              1. re: Herm

                                                bgut1 -- sounds like we had very similar experiences. I did have the Copper Canyon Margarita and found it pretty lame.

                                                Herm -- I agree with your observation concerning chips and guac. We must have spent around $15 on this alone. And, yes, we were repeatedly asked if wanted more chips and another drink.