Tell people you’re from New Jersey, and they’ll picture—and possibly remark on—heavy traffic and congestion. But away from the Turnpike, there’s another side of Jersey waiting to be explored. Sprawled across 56 municipalities in seven South Jersey counties sits more than a million acres of forest known for three things: sandy soil, water the color of iced tea, and the Jersey Devil.
History of the Pine Barrens
When Swedish and Dutch immigrants arrived in the 1600s, the crops they were accustomed to growing couldn’t thrive in South Jersey’s sandy soil. Thinking the soil barren, these settlers dubbed the area the Pine Barrens—also known today as the Pinelands National Reserve. Often described as “iced tea,” the dark brown water in South Jersey’s lakes and streams gets its color from the area’s abundant cedar trees and naturally occuring iron.
Legend and Lore
Hidden in the shadows of pine trees and sandy river beds lurks one of the Pine Barrens’ most famous tall tales: the Jersey Devil. According to legend, a pregnant 18th-century woman known as Mother Leeds cursed her 13th child. After his birth, the infant transformed into a monstrous creature who sprouted wings before flying away to haunt South Jersey for centuries to come. While many people claim to have seen the infamous monster, some historians believe a religious conflict involving Benjamin Franklin precipitated the legend.
Eating in the Pine Barrens
If you’re brave enough to risk a run-in with the Jersey Devil, you’ll discover a bucolic landscape, home to a variety of unique places to eat and drink. Wander off New Jersey’s beaten path and stop at one of the Pine Barrens’ many noteworthy eateries. Here’s a look.
Diners & Luncheonettes
Lucille’s Country Cooking (Warren Grove): In 2015, Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of Parts Unknown in New Jersey. The episode features a segment at Lucille’s Country Cooking, an old-fashioned diner that first opened in 1975 in Warren Grove. Although Lucille died in 2016, visitors still flock to the restaurant for the homemade food she made famous. If you come on a weekend, expect to wait. Jersey favorites like fried pork roll abound on Lucille’s menu. The restaurant offers indoor and outdoor seating and also sells homemade pies and souvenirs, including an “I saw the Jersey Devil at Lucille’s” bumper sticker and t-shirts that read “I ate with the Jersey Devil.”
1496 Route 539
Warren Grove, NJ
7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
7 days a week
Angie’s Country Cafe (Hammonton): Angie’s Country Cafe is set within two miles of four Pine Barrens attractions: Atsion Lake, Atsion Mansion, Wharton State forest camping sites, and Pinelands Adventures, where you can rent a kayak or canoe. Housed in a small brick building along Route 206, Angie’s serves breakfast and lunch and also caters events. Because the Pine Barrens is home to a number of gun clubs, Angie’s menu boasts a “Hunter’s Big Buck Breakfast” that includes eggs, potatoes, bacon, and toast. Fans rave about the cafe’s breakfast potatoes and French toast on Angie’s Facebook page.
750 Route 206
7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Wednesday – Monday (closed Tuesdays)
Maurice River Diner (Port Elizabeth): Located to the south in Cumberland County, the Maurice River Diner offers down-home favorites like chicken pot pie as well as seasonal desserts like pumpkin cheesecake. Come hungry: reviewers on Google report that the portion sizes at this diner are “MASSIVE!” After you eat, take a 15-minute drive to the Glades Wildlife Refuge on the Delaware Bay. Alternatively, you can swim, boat, or fish in nearby Lake Nummy at Belleplain State Forest, which also offers camping and hiking.
Port Elizabeth, NJ
6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday
6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday through Sunday
Oyster Creek Inn (Leeds Point): Ask locals about off-the-beaten-path restaurants in the Pine Barrens, and someone will undoubtedly mention the Oyster Creek Inn, known for its fresh seafood, sushi bar, and spectacular views of the bay. Drive through miles of dense pine forest to arrive at this hidden gem in Leeds Point, a remote area that is also the purported birthplace of the Jersey Devil—according to local legend.
41 Oyster Creek Rd
Leeds Point, NJ
4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday
12 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday
12 p.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday
Sushi bar: 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday
Early bird specials: 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday
Closed Mondays and Tuesdays
Nixon’s General Store (Tabernacle): When Henry Peters opened Nixon’s General Store in 1850, it was a hotspot for political discussion and local gossip. Today, owners Jigna and Ashwin Patel continue to serve up deli meats, ice cream, and other takeout favorites like hoagies and cheesesteaks. The quaint colonial-style store, which also offers outdoor seating, is just a short drive from Chatsworth’s cranberry bogs, home to Ocean Spray’s receiving facility and the annual Chatsworth Cranberry Festival. Up the street from Nixon’s sits Russo’s Fruit and Vegetable Farm, a family-owned farm market and bakery since 1940. Russo’s also hosts family-fun activities like hayrides and apple picking.
540 Chatsworth Rd
7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday
7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday
7: 30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday
D&J’s Atco Deli (Atco): At D&J’s on Jackson Road, you’ll experience Atco’s small-town feel where everyone seems to know everyone else. Debra and James Grace opened the small luncheonette in 1984. Just four miles away is New Jersey’s oldest drag strip: the Atco Dragway. Although D&J’s only accepts cash, an ATM is located at the Atco Convenience Mart across the street.
294 Jackson Rd
6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday (closed Sundays)
Christine’s House of Kingfish BBQ (Shamong): In 2004, Towanda Price opened Christine’s House of Kingfish BBQ in a roadside stand near Atsion Lake on Route 206. Visitors rave about the stand’s smoked chicken and ribs. Before you visit, plan ahead: Christine’s is a seasonal operation open only half the year – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – from Memorial Day to Super Bowl Sunday.
926 Route 206
Shamong, New Jersey
from Memorial Day to Super Bowl Sunday, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., Friday and Sunday
12 p.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday
Nesco Liquors (Nesco): Step back in time as you drive down Nesco Road, a rural area in Atlantic County where a wooden sign at an old church reads, “Live Bluegrass Music.” Besides forest and farmland, you won’t find much else. Nesco Liquors, which opened in 1960, is one of the only businesses along this stretch of the Pine Barrens. The liquor store is located just a couple miles from Batsto Village, a historic colonial village and state park featuring a museum, lake, gift shop, mansion, nature center, and hiking trails.
3180 Nesco Rd
9 a.m. to 10 p.m., 7 days a week
Penza’s Pies at the Red Barn Cafe (Hammonton): Over the years, both the New York Times and the Food Network have featured Penza’s Pies, an old-world-style cafe and bakery housed in a red barn. Penza’s Pies, pictured at top, is located on Route 206 in Hammonton amidst farmland and forest, just a few miles away from Batsto Village. The granddaughter of a Sicilian immigrant farmer, Evelyn Penza opened the bakery in the mid-1980’s with the help of her two sons. You’ll know you’re there when you see the trademark windmill and charming rustic decor. Purchase a pie baked with locally-grown fruit or stay for breakfast or lunch. Although they only accept cash, Penza’s provides an on-premise ATM. Read my full review of Penza’s here.
51 S Myrtle St
8 a.m. to 6 p.m., 7 days a week (bakery)
8 a.m. to 2 p.m., 7 days a week (cafe)
Budd’s KnP Farms and Country Market (Pemberton): Talk about family owned. In 1649, William Budd bought thousands of acres of land in what is now Burlington County. The land is still in the Budd family, and Budd’s country store in rural Pemberton sells local and imported produce, dairy products, homemade baked goods, pet food, flowers and plants, and even some products from Amish Country. The store also carries Jersey Fresh seafood. Budd’s offers takeout and Mexican cuisine to enjoy at home, or you can BYOB and eat outside at one of their picnic tables.
132 Pemberton Vincentown Rd
10 a.m. to 7 p.m., 7 days a week
Apron Cafe (Hammonton): The community’s welcome sign reads, “Blueberry Capital of the World” for good reason: blueberries fuel the town’s economy. Take a relaxing drive through miles of blueberry fields to enjoy a scenic lunch at Hammonton Municipal Airport. In the center of the airport terminal sits Apron Cafe with a spectacular view of the runway, an ideal spot for families who love airplanes. The back side of the diner-style eatery is all glass, so when the airport is busiest (usually in the warmer months), visitors can enjoy their breakfast and lunch as they watch small planes take off and land.
75 Academy Rd
7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday (closed Mondays)
Shamong Diner (Shamong): Locals enjoy authentic Indian cuisine in rural Shamong, where it shares the same menu as brick-oven pizza, soft-serve ice cream, and traditional diner fare made with locally-grown produce. The former chef at Camp Ocknanikon in nearby Medford, owner Manny Manteiro purchased the diner in Shamong because he already knew so many of the locals from working at the camp. The Shamong Diner’s menu also includes vegetarian options and specials for senior citizens. Adjacent to the Shamong Diner is Manteiro’s Pine Barrens Store, which sells convenience items as well as Pine Barrens-themed gifts and books.
7 Willow Grove Rd
8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday
8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Thursday
6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Saturday, Sunday
Merrill’s Colonial Inn (Mays Landing): Merrill’s Colonial Inn, set in a green and white building on Route 50, has been serving up Italian and American dinner specialties since 1959. Customers love Merrill’s spaghetti with white clam sauce, which is one of their most popular menu items. Family recipes for the inn’s made-to-order signature dishes—including their meatballs, fried chicken, and homemade desserts – have been passed down through generations. The inn’s owner, Angel Merrill, says their pasta fagioli soup comes from a family recipe that her father enjoyed when he was a child. Today, Merrill is proud to carry on her parents’ legacy of homemade food and a neighborly atmosphere. If you go, expect a warm welcome. “Everyone that goes in Merrill’s is always treated like family,” raves one fan on Facebook.
1309 Boulevard Route 50
Mays Landing, NJ
5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday (closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
Whitesbog General Store (Browns Mills): Whitesbog Village is a historical site in the Brendan T. Byrne forest. In the early 20th century, Joseph J. White founded the largest cranberry farm in New Jersey at Whitesbog. The Whitesbog Preservation Trust hosts a number of events and tours throughout the year, including an annual blueberry festival. The General Store at Whitesbog began as a post office when it was built in 1924 and stayed in operation dispensing mail until 1957. Today, it is a volunteer-run shop selling handmade, Pine Barrens-themed gifts, including candies, jams, and sodas. Note that the General Store is open only on the weekends.
120 W Whites Bogs Rd #34
Browns Mills, NJ
Rastelli Market Fresh at Hill Creek Farms (Mullica Hill): Located on Hill Creek Farms in rural Mullica Hill, Rastelli Market Fresh’s newest location serves up gourmet meals crafted from ingredients grown on the farm. Rastelli is committed to the farm-to-table concept, right down to the wood that smokes their meats, which comes from the farm’s trees. Inside, you’ll find a small store selling baked goods and prepared foods. Head upstairs to Rastelli’s cozy, farmhouse-style lounge where you’ll discover a coffee shop, leather couches, and a large television. While you’re there, relax with friends over a bottle of Auburn Road wine. Or bring the whole family: Rastelli’s menu features meals for kids a step above the usual bland hot dogs and chicken tenders most restaurants offer children. Have your kids try their organic short rib beef burger or Farmer Fred’s apple dippers. Hill Creek Farms also offers hayrides, pick-your-own fruit, and other seasonal activities. Note that the farm, cafe, and lounge all have separate hours. Read my full review of Rastelli Mullica Hill here.
1631 State Highway 45
Mullica Hill, NJ
8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday through Thursday
8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday
Loft Cafe Hours
8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday
8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday through Thursday
Pic-a-Lilli Inn (Shamong): No tour of the Pine Barrens would be complete without a sampling of the Pic-a-Lilli Inn’s famous wings. Set in a rustic log-cabin style building, the Pic-a-Lilli bar and restaurant is a hotspot for motorcyclists located just two miles from Atsion Lake on Route 206. When Thomas Snyder of Evans Soap Company built the Inn in 1927 under the name “Snyder’s Luncheonette,” Route 206 was a dirt road called State Highway 39. After opening the restaurant, Snyder asked his daughter Lillian and her husband Pickett Russell to help manage it (hence the name ‘Pic-a-Lilli’). The inn, which frequently hosts musical guests, offers indoor seating as well as an outdoor bar. Be sure to try Pic-a-Lilli’s “tails” and “ears”—crispy, breaded boneless chicken breast smothered in the Inn’s signature wing sauce.
866 Route 206
10:00 a.m. to 12:00 a.m., Sunday through Thursday
10:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., Friday and Saturday