In the bright basement of Raymond’s restaurant, on Church Street in Montclair, resides Raymond Badach’s makeshift office, a smallish, rumpled area that echoes with the clattering of dishes being washed.
Fit and rangy, bearing a slight resemblance to Jeremy Irons, Badach sits at his desk with a tall cup of coffee and talks about his diner-bistro, which, beloved by locals since its 2004 opening, is renown for its long lines during breakfast and brunch on weekends. (Two words: French toast.)
The Jersey City native is open and loquacious, just as he is when he’s on the floor mingling with customers, something he does often and eagerly at both Raymond’s locations (which he co-owns with Joanna Ricci), including the nearly year-old spot in Ridgewood.
As a young man Badach came to the area for a cooking job at the now-gone Evergreen restaurant in Upper Montclair. In 1989 he opened his own place on Church Street, a coffee shop named Raymond’s. That led to the fine dining restaurant 28 at the current Raymond’s location (28 Church St.), which led to the Raymond’s that’s so popular today.
Baristanet: Where does your passion for food come from?
Badach: I learned about it from my mother and grandmother. My grandparents came from Sicily. There was always food in the house. Growing up in Jersey City we didn’t go out to restaurants often. I was around it and I loved the food my mother and grandmother cooked. We lived in a two-family house — my grandparents lived downstairs, we lived upstairs — and I would eat dinner with them, then eat dinner with my family.
Was it all Italian food?
Yeah. But the availability of goods was an eye-opener for my grandparents, because Sicily was working-class, poor, and they did not have all the resources, like a lot of meat. So they would improvise with a lot of vegetables. Much of what they cooked was vegetables and things like that. But meat and proteins, especially something like steak, were a luxury.
Considering your background, how come you don’t do Italian food at Raymond’s?
I don’t think this is the right stage for that. There are guys in town — Fascino and Giotto — that do it really, really well. We do food that is more basic, more comfort, more American.
When you first set out, what was your vision for Raymond’s?
Raymond’s was about trying to take the experiences that I’d had when I was starting in New York, places that I would go to that I loved, and recreate them. Florent is probably the biggest influence on me. He did a bistro-diner mash-up, a menu that would incorporate French bistro items with a club sandwich and things like that. His restaurant is where I had my epiphany when I was 23.
Have you seen Montclair’s food savvy and restaurant culture evolve over the years?
Yes. One of the reasons I wanted to start doing this is because there wasn’t much here at the time that really reflected the demographic. Somebody once said that if you grow up in a place, you don’t always see the value of that place the way an outsider will. As an outsider coming to Montclair I saw an opening. I saw all these people who were ex-New Yorkers and the like who were, in terms of food and retail, really underserved. And that’s why I would continue to reference New York for ideas. But things began to change. We had 28, and when we first opened we got a lot of great press and notoriety. And I guess that other people who were interested in cheffing and opening their own places began to see Montclair as a good place to open something.
Raymond’s décor is noted for its diner-esque character. I’ve heard it called “Depression-era,” “bobby-soxer” and “neo-retro.” What are you going for?
I loved the work of the design team (Christian Garnett and Ian McPheely) that designed and built Balthazar and Pastis. I felt that they were able to create restaurants that had a very authentic feel, like they had been there forever. I really admired the detail. So when we decided to work with them they nailed it from the get-go. I didn’t want to do something very bistro. But real authentic bistros are very similar to our diners in the way that they function, and a lot of the elements you see in old, classic American diners are very similar to what you see in bistros. So you’ll see the old tiles and enamel, the mahogany and the counter. There is a certain diner-y aspect to it. But I just wanted to do a restaurant. People always want to label things. They have this need to identify, label and file. I just want to be a restaurant.
Yet you can’t deny how striking the interior is and what it says.
Right. But I want to be just a restaurant, because I think it should be up to the person to decide. I don’t come out and say that I’m a diner or a comfort food restaurant. I hear the label “diner” most often and that’s not something that necessarily disappoints me, because I love diners. But I’d like to think that we fill a niche beyond a label.
Besides the famed French toast, what are your most popular dishes?
I’d say it’s not so much the dishes but the service. The brunch services on Saturday and Sunday, huge lines. And it’s really anything off those menus — omelets, pancakes, French toast, breakfast burritos. People love those things. They love breakfast and they love brunch. And they come here and they reward themselves (laughs). They’re not skimping. They’re really sitting down and they want to eat and be with their friends and eat food. Know what I mean? It’s not like they’re worrying about their cholesterol. During the summer we’ll sometimes serve up to a thousand people in one service, which is between eight and four o’clock. It’s busy. If you’ve ever been here, it’s like the United Nations, meaning demographically, meaning everything, which I’m very proud of.
What’s next for Raymond’s? Any more expansion?
The Ridgewood restaurant is very time-consuming. It’s rough. I think my wife would kill me if I proposed the idea of a third restaurant.
Is it a possibility?
I don’t — maybe. Um … you know, I get about 15 ideas a day. I read a lot of crime fiction, especially James Ellroy. I’ve read everything by him. And in one of his books is the name of a restaurant that I loved, a name I don’t want to repeat here. But I loved it! And I thought, I would love to open a restaurant with that name! But I don’t know. We’ll see. I feel like I still have a lot of energy. I always feel that I haven’t done my best work yet, that all these things are still in front of me.
Raymond’s is at 28 Church St. in Montclair. www.raymondsnj.com.