MONTCLAIR — While many recognize Montclair as New Jersey’s foodie haven, there’s plenty more to see in this bustling downtown just a 45-minute train ride from Manhattan.
A swath of eclectic shops, gorgeous galleries and indie theaters are great for a day trip, and surely contributed to Montclair’s Great American Main Street Award win, from the National Trust for Historic Preservation last year.
Dubbed the Upper West Side of New Jersey by New York Magazine, Montclair navigates the tightrope between city and suburb, offering a bustling Main Street, U.S.A. vibe while still harnessing a cozy, small-town aura. And due to its embrace of its own colonial history, plus an enticing amount of art and incredibly popular restaurants, the town cements itself as one the state’s preeminent cultural hubs.
We recently spent a breezy Friday exploring Montclair’s streets to see some of the sites that put the six-square-mile town on the map.
MONTCLAIR BREAD COMPANY
113 Walnut St., to satisfy a morning sweet tooth
The day began at Montclair Bread Company, a shop that lives up to its name with artisan breads, but owner Rachel Crampsey is a self-proclaimed donut addict. Montclair Bread’s funky flavors are what earned the shop recognition from the New York Times — maple bacon, fruity pebbles and monthly specials, like sangria and margarita. Hearty and fresh, even their staple flavors, like glazed, stand out. We ate ours at the cute, turquoise tables outside the shop.
- A Glazed donut (perfection doesn’t have to be complicated), $2
- A Maple Bacon donut, $3
MONTCLAIR BOOK CENTER
221 Glenridge Ave., to browse a massive indie bookstore
Next on the schedule was another spot labeled with a misnomer, as Montclair Book Center offers much more than just reading material. You could spend hours exploring this shop’s 10,000 square feet of new and used books, vinyl, CDs and apparel. It has a classic bookstore feel, and smell — who doesn’t love the scent of old books? Ladders alongside bookshelves scrape the ceiling, amid a maze of shelves ranging from sci-fi to contemporary romance. The selection of vinyl is expansive, but you probably won’t find that new record you’ve been pining for here — their collection skews more Bee Gees than Beyonce.
- Flipping through the vinyl in the bins in the basement. Maybe you’ll find that old record you’ve been searching for
28 Church St., for a superior brunch
We darted across busy Bloomfield Avenue and headed to Raymond’s, a beloved brunch spot for locals. The Montclair mainstay touts a classic diner atmosphere with post-modern decor — brightly-colored vintage seltzer bottles stand out against the stark, white tile wall. We snagged one of the last inside seats, but dozens of other hungry patrons had opted to sit at the red tables outside. The quinoa breakfast bowl ($12) is a healthier option to start the day, complete with sunny side up eggs, slices of fresh avocado and Napa cabbage. One of Raymond’s most coveted menu items is its famous Belgian hot chocolate. It only costs an extra 50 cents for a huge homemade marshmallow that adds a creamy component to the rich drink.
- Raymond’s (secret recipe) French toast, $11
- Belgian hot chocolate with a homemade marshmallow, $4.50
VAN VLECK ESTATE
21 Van Vleck St., for a stroll through the gardens
Celebrating 100 years, the Mediterranean-inspired Van Vleck Estate was the perfect spot to walk off our huge brunch. The Van Vleck family first claimed the 5.8-acre property more than 140 years ago and over the last century has developed the grounds, which features a greenhouse, tennis court and an array of gardens — print out a map of the gardens and get lost in the rows of foxglove, irises and azaleas. It’s free to walk around and open all year long.
- Wandering through the butterfly garden — the hummingbirds enjoy it, too
- Take a stroll down the azalea walk
SIMIT HOUSE BAKERY & CO.
2 Church St., for traditional Turkish goods
On Church Street, a stone’s throw from Raymond’s, sits Simit House Bakery & Co., a Turkish corner store with wicker table tops and gorgeous ceramic bowls hanging from the wall. If its colorful, Middle-Eastern flair isn’t enough to get you to walk through the door, the delicious smells that waft from the bakery should do the trick. Its namesake, the simit, is a circular Turkish bread encrusted with sesame seeds, reminiscent of a classic bagel. Simit House’s version of the treat is hard and crunchy on the outside yet lusciously soft on the inside. Luckily, it’s not too filling — we felt safe trying one before lunch.
- Simit with cream cheese, $3
- Baklava, $5
6 South Fullerton Ave., for tasty tacos
Next up we checked out Villalobos, a little Latino joint tucked away on a side street. The tortillas are homemade on-site every day, and it’s obvious from the first bite. We ordered tacos, which can be stuffed with everything from chicken and chorizo to beef tongue or sea scallops. The queso fresco is unbelievably fresh and the chicken is tender. Tacos cost $6 each, but you’ll probably need two to get your fill. Fun-flavored Mexican sodas (like mango Jarritos and Squirt) paired well with our salty snacks.
- Chicken and chorizo tinga (both meats are braised together with spices), $6
- Esquites, $11
MONTCLAIR ART MUSEUM
3 South Mountain Ave., for a striking bit of culture
After messy tacos, we craved some culture and headed for the Montclair Art Museum, where Andy Warhol’s personal polaroids and a Native American feathered headdress taller than us are just a few of the items on display. The nationally recognized institution, which is more than a century old, hosts more than 65,000 visitors annually, many of whom come to see the George Inness Gallery, one of the only galleries in the world dedicated to America’s revered landscape painter (Inness spent the last nine years of his life in Montclair). But no exhibit is as powerful as MAM’s collection of New Jersey Native American art. Dozens of samples of Native American jewelry and pottery are on display. Admission is $12 for non-members and grants you access to all of the exhibits.
- Undaunted Spirit: Native American Art, included with $12 admission
- Dannielle Tegeder: Infrastructure, included with $12 admission
TREND COFFEE & TEA HOUSE
411 Bloomfield Ave., for dozens of tea options
We opted for a window seat at the front of Trend Coffee & Tea House, a circa 1860 joint that supplies comfort food and creative drinks in a quaint, living room setting. While we waited for our tea (more than a dozen flavors on call), we noticed the cozy corner stage, which hosts live music nights near an array of guitars hanging on the wall and a vintage red Fender stool. As its name implies, Jasmine Blossom tea tastes just like flowers — a surprisingly pleasant flavor — while the Mandarin Orange Spice tea is tangy and sweet.
- Jasmine Blossom iced tea, $2.50
- Mandarin Orange Spice hot tea, $2.50
7 North Willow St., for authentic Neapolitan pizza
Just around the corner from Trend is Ah’ Pizz, a pizzeria that follows strict standards while handcrafting its neapolitan pizzas. The dough is made with only finely ground Italian wheat flour, natural neapolitan yeast, sea salt and water. Then, the dough is kneaded by hand and baked for less than 90 seconds in a 905-degree, oak-wood fire oven. The results are mouthwatering; the crust is flavorful and crispy, and the cheese on our bianco pizza ($17) was melted to perfection.
- Margherita pizza, $12
- Pizze di Montclair (for the mushroom lover), $18
616 Grove St., for homemade ice cream
For dessert, we headed to the home to New Jersey’s largest sundae (made with 16 scoops, according to a sign behind the counter). Applegate Farm has provided Montclair residents with homemade ice cream since 1929. The trademark red barn has operated since 1848 and, according to the parlor’s website, saw many slaves to freedom during the Civil War. The line of customers weaved all the way down the parking lot, but it was worth the wait. The ice cream itself is wonderfully fresh and creamy and there is no shortage of topping choices — we went with a mint chocolate chip cone ($4) and banana ice cream with coconut shavings ($4).
- One scoop of banana ice cream in a waffle cone, $4
- Coconut ice cream with M&Ms, $4
428 Bloomfield Ave., for delicious Cuban food in a fun atmosphere
A short walk up a Caribbean-inspired sidewalk lined with palm trees led us toCuban Pete’s, where we stumbled upon the best food we had all day — yes, we were still eating. We sat outside near a small waterfall built into the stone wall and enjoyed a mariachi band that complemented the lively, carefree atmosphere. The tapas (we ordered empanadas, which had a nice spice to them, and queso frito, a superior version of mozzarella sticks) are spectacular, and the pollo con mango — thinly sliced, boneless chicken with a “rico suave” mango salsa — and toasted coconut shrimp ($16.95) are perfect combinations of salty, sweet and savory. Cuban Pete’s is a BYO joint, so we brought red wine to pair with the Cuban Pete’s virtually non-alcoholic sangria, with apples and oranges.
- Cuban Pete’s red sangria, $12 for a small pitcher (BYO)
- Pollo con mango, $12.95
TURTLE + THE WOLF
622 Valley Rd., for elevated bistro fare
The new locale Turtle + The Wolf impressed with its high-end eats and industrial-chic setting. It’s more upscale than Cuban Pete’s, but it’s also BYO (there’s a liquor store across the street). Chef and owner Lauren Hirschberg was formerly culinary director of the posh New York City restaurant Craft, which earned three of four stars from the New York Times. Now, Hirschberg flaunts his cooking finesse in Montclair with locally sourced ingredients. The pecorino aranchini (deep-fried rice balls with cheese) is warm and gooey on the inside and perfectly portioned as an appetizer, and the brisket is expertly tenderized and comes with a side of velvety pommes puree (a creamier mashed potato).
- Pecorino aranchini with arugula pesto, $6
- Braised brisket, pommes puree, radish, black garlic jus, $27
30 Park St., for drinks and imaginative bar food
With a rustic wooden interior and a patio illuminated by string lights, we decided on Just Jake’s for after-dinner drinks, and an end to the day. The menu features elevated tavern fare, like Tokyo fries (bacon, sautéed onions and fries in soy butter, $7) and Cajun BBQ wings with remoulade sauce ($10). This evening was a bit slow, but the place gets wild on live music nights — beware of a cover charge some weekends. Our bartender recommended the pomegranate margarita, which proved to be a refreshing sip while relaxing out on the patio.
- Pomegranate margarita, $10
- Sriracha sesame and soy wings with cilantro mayo, $10
*This story was originally published on NJ.com.