In the beginning of the movie Fargo, a disclaimer flashed on the screen that read “This is a true story…” only it was not really a true story. The entire thing was a work of fiction by the Coen brothers, but those few seconds of faux information enhanced the viewers’ enjoyment.
For me, any restaurant that states that they have been in business for 50 years or more delivers that same psychological effect. I cannot help to think that if something has been in business for longer than I’ve been alive, it must be great. The problem is that is not always the case. I think we have all experienced an occasion when a once-great establishment rested on its laurels more than on the quality of its food. This is not one of those occasions.
A Look Back
The following is a throwback to the first time I visited Belmont Tavern, in 2018.
The Belmont was established in 1967 and is a classic red sauce joint with one M. Night Shyamalan twist; there is no red sauce. OK, I lied. Of course there is red sauce. Still, that’s not the reason you go to the Belmont Tavern. You go for Stretch’s Chicken Savoy. You go for the Shrimp Beeps. You go to feel part of a different era.
When you open the front door, be prepared to be smacked in the face with the pleasant aroma of roasted poultry and Acqua Di Gio—and just about every Italian American stereotype you could think of. Vertical, wood-panel walls are plastered with photos of the Rat Pack, Forza Azzurri, and practically every Jersey athlete or extra who ever appeared on the Sopranos. Frank Sinatra—or was it Dino—crooned from a well-used jukebox near the bar. I popped the top button of my dress shirt, channeled my inner Tony Manero and walked in like this wasn’t my first time.
The waitress was sassy and no nonsense; think Judge Jeanine Pirro mixed with a little Flo from Mel’s Diner. I thought maybe it was an act, but she was 100% authentic. I particularly enjoyed the way she shut down my friend when he started to ask for a specific glass of Cabernet. “No,” she stopped him, her palm out/index and pinky fingers pointing up, “we have a house red.” House red it was, a decent room-temperature Burgundy.
What’s for Dinner?
I already knew what to order. We started with the Shrimp Beeps: a lightly battered shrimp dish in a spicy, but not quite fra diavolo sauce, which was excellent. For the entrée we ordered the Chicken Savoy, chicken Murphy and ziti with pot cheese. Chicken Savoy is a legendary dish within a 15-mile radius of Belleville, NJ, and a true example of a micro-indigenous food. Stretch was the name of the chef that created the dish in 1967 and it consists of six breasts and thighs cooked with Italian herbs, garlic and cut with red wine vinegar.
The recipe spread throughout the area and overtime started popping up on menus in neighboring towns, all slightly different but true to the vinegary essence. The Savoy lived up to the hype but the Murphy was excellent. The bone-in chicken was succulent, steamed beneath a heaping pile of herb-roasted potatoes, onions, and hot peppers that added a little moisture to my upper lip with each bite.
The Belmont does not do dessert, so after you enjoy an espresso and pay the bill, consider venturing down the road to grab a cannoli nightcap at Calandra’s Bakery in Newark.
It’s a Must-Do
The Belmont Tavern had been on my Jersey culinary bucket list for years. If you are a foodie and from the Garden State, it is a necessary rite of passage—no different than seeing Bruce or Bon Jovi. It was almost exactly what I expected. It was a little good, a little mediocre, and a lot great. I recommend anyone with an appreciation for old-school, classic Italian food—or anyone who enjoys food history—to give it a try. Be sure to bring cash—they’re cash only—and get there early as they don’t take reservations.
Editor’s Note: As of the publish date (August 2020), The Belmont Tavern is open for takeout from 4:00 to 7:45 p.m. The restaurant is closed on Tuesdays.
The Belmont Tavern
12 Bloomfield Avenue
Belleville, NJ 07109