by Matthew Morra, reprinted courtesy of Montclair Life & Leisure.
The nice thing about being a self-appointed culinary expert is that I get to hang out in swank Montclair eateries and learn all the ins and outs of the restaurant biz. After countless conversations with numerous servers, chefs, and owners, I’ve learned a lot about how to maximize my enjoyment of eating out in Montclair. In no particular order, I now share my wisdom.
Many of Montclair’s finest eateries are not only open for lunch, but serve some of the same delicious delicacies they do for dinner at special reduced prices. Taro, Al Di La, Déjà Vu and Leone’s are just a few of the terrific places you can enjoy great food at great prices and without the crowds. For frugal foodaholics like me, it’s a terrific way to eat well on a budget, not to mention a wonderful opportunity to check out a place and see if it’s where you want to spend an evening with your spouse or sweetheart (separately, of course). A side benefit of eating well for lunch is that frequently the owner/head chef is on the premises and preparing the dishes personally. I like that. It doesn’t necessarily mean that lunch food is better than dinner food, but it makes me feel like I’m getting something special. Don’t settle for McDonald’s lunch. You only get three meals a day, make them count.
Shsssh! This is a secret, so don’t tell anyone, but almost every restaurant in town is a take-out restaurant. No, really. Call up your favorite eatery for lunch or dinner and order your best loved entrée for pick up. Don’t worry, they won’t laugh in your face, invite you to jump in a lake, or stick their noses in the air and suggest, snobbishly, that you dine at Le Golden Arches. Most restaraunts will be flattered by your thoughtful request and gladly oblige. And why not? Let’s face it, these people make their money one customer at a time, and on a busy night, take out frees up valuable table space. Best of all, it saves you, smart consumer, time and money. The only drawback is you don’t get to enjoy their ambience and service, but there’s always next time.
Ever been to a catered affair where the food was so delectable it could have been served in a fine restaurant? Of course you haven’t. That’s because most people hire cutrate caterers who lacked the skill to compete in the competitive dog-cook-dog world of food service. Even worse, sometimes party-throwers really cheap out and buy supermarket deli platters, but the ultimate nightmare is a "pot luck" affair catered by your very own relatives. Do you really want mom’s tuna casserole or aunt Gizelda’s macaroni pineapple surprise to celebrate your birthday? Certainly not, not when you could be savoring the same great food and masterful preparation you enjoy while eating out.
Many restaurants love to cater on or off premises. It’s a unique opportunity for them to do what they do best in a new and different way. Also, having a group of potential customers eating their food at no cost is perhaps the greatest form of advertisement ever invented (second only to Montclair Eats, of course. Sorry, I had to do that).
Most restaraunt owners will cheerfully sit down with you and work up a customized menu that fits within your budget and dietary restrictions. Give it a go the next time you have a birthday, anniversary, or successful parole hearing. Aunt Grizelda won’t mind.
Very few restaurants in Montclair serve alcohol, but many allow customers to bring their own. However, due to an archaic, prohibition-era law, restaurants are not allowed to publicize that fact. (Towns clean up on the fees for liquor licenses and don’t want to discourage people from going to bars. As if that could ever happen.) If you’re not sure if your favorite eating place is a BYOB, phone ahead to confirm.
Nothing compliments an elegant meal better than cerveza with enchiladas, chardonnay with sea bass, or saki with sashimi (I recently had a bottle of Merlot with Chinese take-out food and swear I had a religious experience. Beef with broccoli and Lo Mein noodels never tasted so good). And talk about cheap! A bottle of wine purchased at your friendly neighborhood liquor store costs a fraction of what some restaurants charge and their selection is infinitely better.
Want to save even more money? Buy a case of your favorite vino. Most merchants offer substantial discounts. Along and around Bloomfield Avenue, I count five liquor stores all within walking distance to most restaurants, plus, there are two wine/liquor stores in Upper Montclair center and one on Watchung Plaza. So stop whining and start wining, but BYO-ers please remember that although you didn’t buy the wine in the restaurant, it’s being served to you at the restaurant. Your server chills it, opens it, and pours it. The owner pays for the glass, the corkscrew, and the liquor insurance. Don’t forget all that when it comes time to calculate the gratuity. It’s only fair.
This one is tough. Unless your Mom is old enough to predate the inception of Mother’s Day, or your wife recently immigrated from Uranus and is the only woman on the planet who doesn’t know what February 14th signifies, it’s a little tricky to dance you way around these grin-and-buy-it holidays (especially when our beloved restaurants go out of their way to offer glorious price fixe dinners. On Valentine’s Day a certain Upper Montclair eatery served mouthwatering heart shaped raviolis’s that patrons are still talking about), but if it’s at all possible to take your loved one out the day before or the day after the holiday, you will have a far more memorable dining experience—no crowds, no noise, same great restaurant, same great food. But just in case your spouse isn’t so forgiving for missing Valentine’s Day, think of all the money you’ll save by eating alone from now on.
In the food service industry (like any other), location is everything. Sure it’s great strolling down Bloomfield Ave., eyeing restaurant after restaurant, but the next time you eat out don’t forget about the rest of the town. It sounds silly, but people do. There are terrific places all over our fair hamlet: Corso 98, Café Sultan, Trumpets, and Okayama Japanese Steak House, just to name a few. Their food is every bit as good as the guys across town and their parking is less stressful. And speaking of the "P" word…
Okay, parking in this town is a problem and everyone knows it. With the construction, movies, theater companies, and eateries along Bloomfield Avenue, finding a parking space on the weekend is harder than finding sushi in Montana. Aside from suggesting you take up bicycling or reminding you of the many health benefits associated with walking, I offer only these meager suggestions: carpool if going with family or friends, leave the house early to find parking. Metered parking is enforced until 7pm Monday through Saturdays. Parking is free on Sundays. Unless you have the appropriate permit, don't park in Permit Only spaces anytime.
I hate crowds. I hate noise. I hate waiting for a table. I also lack the gift of foresight so I rarely call ahead to make reservations. I’ve actually spent Saturday nights wandering, mindlessly, around town with a bottle of Bordeaux in hand in search of sanctuary. So what’s a meandering, myopic, misanthrope like me to do on the weekends? Order in, of course.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights are usually slow for most restaurants and almost always the best time to go. The owner of one of Montclair’s most trendy eateries confided in me that on a recent Wednesday night he had only five tables filled. Can you imagine sauntering in to one of the best restaurants in North Jersey, being seated, immediately, and eating a great meal with all the peace and quiet of your own home (assuming you don’t have kids)? If that’s not the Holy Grail of fine dining I don’t know what is.
Better customers get better service. Being a better customer is largely a matter of common sense and common courtesy. Here’s what works for me:
This is a more of a life philosophy than a dining out tip, but this is my article and I can do whatever I want. Americans (and especially Montclairians) are blessed with a surfeit of gastronomical riches. You owe it to your family, your friends, and especially to yourselves to sample all that life has to offer. It’s your planet. Don’t be afraid to eat it. Remember, no one ever died regretting they ate too well.