It almost goes without saying that Raymond’s, with its colorful seltzer bottles and famous French toast, is the north star of dining on Montclair’s Church Street. Even restauranteur Greg Spinelli, who’s been competing under various brands from 12 Church Street for the past seven years, acknowledges Raymond’s dominance. “It’s a self-perpetuating momentum,” says Spinelli, whose latest entrant is the tapas restaurant Tapastry. “They did a fabulous job. A lot of people wait. In the rain.”
Tapastry is just one of several new restaurants trying to get some of those Raymond’s customers to come out from the rain. On summer weekend nights, with live music playing down near the South Fullerton corner of Church Street, Tapastry has done a brisk business. Musician John Finnegan, who passed away suddenly last week, was a major force in attracting musicians to the venue, and he organized them to play for food — rather than money — as a way of helping Greg and Cheryl Spinelli in their first summer running Tapastries. The two were unexpectedly thrown into the day-to-day of running a restaurant when their tenant The Honest Dog, formerly Market, packed up and left.
A diner we spoke to last night, who lives on Church Street, says she was disappointed with the food at first, but has been back four more times and is now a big fan. I had a similar experience, finding Chef Gonzalo Fernandez’s tapas a little meager in June. But at a return visit recently, the restaurant’s Cesar salad was unexpectedly bright and fresh, the mussels were tasty, and paella, which was just added to the menu 10 days ago ($39 for two) dazzled: a feast for the eyes as well as the palate.
In a few weeks, Tapastry will have to attract diners who are not out for al fresco dining, but music remains a big part of the Spinellis’ strategy, with flamenco dancing every Friday night and open mic nights during the week. Tapastry offers small and large plates, ranging from $3 to $27.
Down the street, at 32 Church Street, another space that has seen concepts come and go (most recently 32 Church, and before that Taro), a new entrant called Cafe Amici is taking up some of the Raymond’s overflow. This past Saturday, meeting out-of-town family who had specifically requested Raymond’s for lunch, we moved down to Amici, where there wasn’t a wait. Cafe Amici eventually filled all its outdoor tables. There was a baby shower going on inside the modern space indoors.
Cafe Amici offered a bistro lunch menu somewhat similar to Raymond’s, but larger, with lots of salads, sandwiches, artisan, artisan pizzas, pasta and burgers. The star of our lunch was the Fig & Proscuitto pizza ($14), which substituted a fig spread for tomato sauce and balanced the prosciutto with enough arugula to make a diner feel like they were eating a salad.
The Ahi Tuna salad ($16), with seared tuna, white beans, shaved fennel, picked red onion and lemon vinaigrette, was another winner — especially when a bit of the pickled onion was on the fork.
The newest entrant to the Church Street food scene is Go Lightly, just around the corner at 4. So. Fullerton, which began serving vegan ice cream earlier this year and is now turning its store into a tiny cafe. Today is the restaurant’s first real day — even though it debuted with some outdoor service at the Puppy Mill Awareness concert in Brookdale Park last weekend — with a menu that will change depending on availability of ingredients.
Go Lightly owner Jen Chaky said her chef, Denise White, who is doing an externship with the Food Bank of Elizabeth, came to her at the suggestion of a stranger who happened to stop while attending Gordon Ramsey’s short tenure at Leone’s. Chaky had talked to the man about a vague idea to open a restaurant. When White came in a few weeks later asking about the chef job, Chaky said, “I had forgotten the conversation even took place.”
The menu will include salads, sandwiches and soups catering to vegans and avoiders of gluten products. A freshly-painted mural depicting fish, forests and rainbows states “eating plants saves lives.” But some raw gluten-free, almond, goji and cacao cookies ($3 for 3) looked tempting on their own merits.