Everyone Loves Raymond’s, But There Are Other Choices on Church Street

BY  |  Tuesday, Sep 13, 2011 12:11pm  |  COMMENTS (17)

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 wait staff was genial, if a little confused about how we wanted to share our food, with two of our plates coming out late.

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.

17 Comments

  1. POSTED BY Gastro Travels  |  September 13, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

    I adore tapas – it’s my most favorite food/experience, I even traveled to Barcelona to immerse myself in it (other areas of Spain may be better for tapas but that’s another subject). I also LOVED Xunta in the East Village when it was there so I was soooo ecstatic when Tapestry opened…but when I walked by to check it out I noticed that it was all table dining which doesn’t work for me – the tapas experience is about eating at a counter/bar where you can see the options on display and socialize with others near you (and you don’t need a liquor license to have bar seating). I’m longing for the authentic tapas experience and I’m afraid Tapastry isn’t it, for the record – I didn’t eat there so I can’t comment on the food but a friend of mine did and he said it was good. I know not all restaurant concepts work everywhere and the owners need to offer what the people of Montclair would respond well too – but after wanting a Spanish/tapas style eatery to open in the area for so long I’m just disappointed. I wish Tapestry all the best but will continue to hold out for a more authentic place closer to home. I love Spanish food so much, I wrote an article on it http://tinyurl.com/64knndz – can’t wait to go back to Spain!!!

  2. POSTED BY Right of Center  |  September 13, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

    I excited to read your article Gastro, but I didn’t. I could tell it wouldn’t be any good because I don’t like your handle, “Gastro” .

  3. POSTED BY herbeverschmel  |  September 13, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

    I miss Taro.

    Two good ones that are gone, Taro and Joe Bartonis.

  4. POSTED BY Right of Center  |  September 13, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

    I was excited to read your article Gastro, but I didn’t. I could tell it wouldn’t be any good because I don’t like your handle, “Gastro” .

  5. POSTED BY profwilliams  |  September 13, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

    We took a decade break from Raymonds, but have come back and really love the place. I liked Taro a lot, too. And 32 Church.

    But I won’t be excited about a new Church St. restaurant until they bring back the Mid-Town Diner!!

    Certainly that place that serves throw-up tasting yogurt- Red Mango- won’t do.

  6. POSTED BY yougottalovehim  |  September 13, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

    There’s not a person in town who would be more happy for a good tapas place to open than me, but our meal at Tapestry over the summer was weak all around. Food was remarkably tasteless. We just sampled one dish after another in disbelief. It all looked good. It tasted like someone had confiscated the cook’s spice rack. Maybe we’ll try again, but for now still driving into Newark.

  7. POSTED BY agideon  |  September 13, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

    I’ve had food brought to me from Tapastry a few times (my wife gets out more than I do, but at least I get the left-over *laugh*), but I finally had a chance to try it myself a couple of days ago.

    It was quite good. I’ll certainly be back.

    I’m not much for loud music (or loud anything), though. I typically want my dining experiences to be social, so an ability to speak to and hear my meal partners w/o yelling is fairly important to me. This was possible when we ate outside at Tapastry this past weekend, but I expect I’ll be avoiding the dancing music on Fridays during the “indoors only” weather. The “open mic” may also be something to avoid.

    That’s something of an issue at Raymonds too, at least indoors. The place is loud, though this may be less an issue of “entertainment” and more a matter of wall and ceiling coverings. I quite enjoy the food there, but I go far less than I otherwise would because of the volume.

    I’ve yet to try Cafe Amici. Is that a more quiet place?

    …Andrew

  8. POSTED BY johnny5  |  September 13, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

    We tried Tapastry when it opened and I for one am glad to hear it’s gotten better. We will have to give it another try.

    I believe I may be the only person in the area who really has no desire to go to Raymond’s.

    We recently had a great dinner/experience with Tosca (where Cianci used to be). The pizza was delicious and the manager went out of his way to make sure we had a great night.

  9. POSTED BY shallot  |  September 13, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

    I had a great lunch at Blu Next Door a few Saturdays ago — that’s just right around the corner. Try the pulled duck confit sandwich with caramelized onions.

  10. POSTED BY zephyrus  |  September 13, 2011 @ 5:17 pm

    the open mic is not in the lower part of the reataurant though.

  11. POSTED BY sheepy  |  September 14, 2011 @ 2:25 am

    I had a bad experience at Tosca’s and will not be going back. I will gladly wait in the rain for Raymond’s instead. Great to see the Professor back, what happened?

  12. POSTED BY wellnesswoman  |  September 14, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    I am not impressed with Church Street, although I do frequent the area out of convenience. Raymond’s is more legend than substance; the noise sometimes precludes conversation (unless you are just there to be there) and flies are frequent, unwanted companions. The food is good; particularly the soups. I will not enter any Spinelli establishments after getting extremely sick in Tapastrie’s earlier incarnation. I did call the Board of Health at the time.

    It could be a marker of the space, particularly remembering Mid Town Diner who could boast the biggest cockroaches that I have encountered.

    Well, Stockpot still stands and although the atmosphere is a bit reminiscent of long ago restaurants and cafeterias, the soups are excellent and quiches are too. Sure, their coffee is weak and they are only open a few hours a day–however, to escape the Church Street lunch madness, I will gladly go.

  13. POSTED BY Annette Batson  |  September 14, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    Ah, Joe Bartoni’s, I do miss that roasted duck in blueberry sauce, and all their seafood specialties. However, we may soon have something similar in Upper Montclair. Little Phil’s is planning to open for family style dinners on Friday and Saturday. Big platters, a few nightly specials, one or two seatings.

  14. POSTED BY dierdreh  |  September 15, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

    Was there last week …Tapas good….but don’t make the mistake of ordering their Paella….awful dish of WHITE gloppy-gooey rice with some weird Green herbs fused into it.. sitting in a pool of water…no safron (or seafood like in the pic on their website)…just a few sea food items….not a traditional Paella whatsoever….cost us $39 to have a few clams and shrimp

  15. POSTED BY lostnewyorker  |  September 16, 2011 @ 6:54 pm

    yougottalovehim
    Where would you recommend in Newark for tapas?

  16. POSTED BY raxxx  |  September 21, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

    i enjoyed tapestry – not the best tapas i’ve ever had in my life (that was in miami) but a welcome addition to the montclair restaurant scene (lighter fare, inexpensive, option to dine outdoors, AND tasty – all 3 are hard to come by in one place in this town).

    lost new yorker – mompou tapas in newark is fabulous!

    as for raymonds – i think part of the appeal is that it’s so consistent. never ever had a bad meal there. the service sometimes sucks, and yes, flies might visit your table, and yes, it’s LOUD, but overall you know you will always have a good meal for a decent price.

    32 church is no loss – wondering what cafe amici will be like? doesn’t sound too creative or interesting. a shame if that’s the case, because that is a great space (although it does seem to be one of those “cursed” spaces” in which nothing ever succeeds).

  17. POSTED BY maddingo  |  September 22, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    Just curious why you are always targeting Raymond’s. Can’t we write a review of these other places on their own merit?

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I will really miss their store. It was always so easy and fun to find a fun gift there. Walking into their store made me feel like I was transported into a faraway happy place!

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