30 hours in Newark
Long-ignored city is about to get the respect it deserves
NEWARK, N.J.— Friends shook their heads in mock despair when I confessed I was ditching New York City to explore New Jersey for two days. Jersey, you see, doesn’t get any respect. But I figured if Newark is about to get a Marcus Samuelsson restaurant and Grammy Museum, then this is a city on the verge of happening.
“A lot of culture. A little bit of grit,” is how one civic booster sold Newark to me. Vogue magazine just declared it “one of the most unexpected locales to be considered a travel destination.” It took about a minute for Newark to charm me, but here’s how I made the most of a 30-hour visit:
9:30 a.m.: Hotel Indigo, a branded boutique hotel chain I first experienced in San Diego, has reclaimed a 1912 Newark bank building and arted things up with a Thomas Edison theme. The Hotel Indigo Newark Downtown gave me an early check-in at a front desk made from reclaimed teller desks.
Sun-splashed rooms boast exposed brick and gritty, urban views (that’s a good thing in my books). It’s a short walk to great food, Newark Museum, the Prudential Center and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. 10 a.m.: With no sales tax on clothes or shoes in New Jersey, I got a crash course in Century 21 Department Store, a New York retail icon (named well before the real-estate company). The Newark branch is at the Mills at Jersey Gardens, an outlet shopping destination with 200-plus stores and deals of up to 70 per cent off.
The mall has shuttles from Newark Liberty International Airport every half hour and apparently draws substantially more visitors each year than the Statue of Liberty. 11:30 a.m.: Newark’s culinary crown jewel is the Ironbound, a booming Portuguese neighbourhood that’s a melting pot of Brazilian, Spanish, Salvadoran, Ecuadorean and other influences. The Ironbound boasts nearly 200 places to eat, so start at Caseiro e Bom, a small “gourmet house” where butcher/charcuterie master Rodrigo Duarte makes ham, chorizo and sausage. He’s famous for his pata negra, ham made from black Iberian pigs, currently selling for $799/pound.
“I don’t chase the money,” he stresses about the pretty price his pata negra fetches. “I chase the pleasure of the old-fashioned flavours.”
Nasto’s Ice Cream is worth a stop in the Ironbound, as is Oporto Wines & Liquors. On the non-food front, CS Cork sells handbags and accessories made from Portuguese cork. What you must do here, though, is a pasteis de nata crawl. Some swear by the Portuguese egg custard tarts at Teixeira’s Bakery, others love the ones at Alvaro’s Pastry Shop & Deli. Decide for yourself. 2 p.m.: I hooked up with Nom Nom Newark, a walking food tour run by Have You Met Newark, at Hobby’s Deli. We washed down corned beef and pastrami sandwiches with Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Soda before cofounder Antonio Valla swept us away to “eat clean” at Grabbagreen and to down Indian-inspired burgers at Burger Walla.
We walked by a brand new Halal Guys (I returned the next morning for a taste) and eyeballed the spot where Black Swan Espresso was poised to open, using beans from Propeller Coffee in Toronto. Small world.
Before I ducked out of the Nom Nom tour two stops early, I discovered Halsey St. is home to the Hahne & Co. building, which is bringing in Whole Foods Market, Barnes & Noble and the new restaurant by Harlem restaurateur and cookbook author Marcus Samuelsson. I bet I won’t recognize Newark next time I visit. 4 p.m.: The highlight of the Newark Museum was seeing a Tibetan Buddhist altar consecrated by the 14th Dalai Lama. The museum started having Tibetan art exhibitions in1911, and boasts what it calls “an unparalleled collection of sacred and secular objects.” Actor Richard Gere, a Buddhist, narrates the museum’s audio tour. 6:30 p.m.: The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) draws nine million people a year to its Chase Room, Victoria Theater and Prudential Hall. In the intimate Chase Room, I saw part of a concert by James Monroe Iglehart, who played Genie in Disney’s Broadway musical, Aladdin. I also caught a few minutes of Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy, music from a video-game series performed by a symphony orchestra, choir and various soloists. 9 p.m.: It feels like a neighbourhood tavern, but Casa d’Paco serves Spanish tapas, not burgers and wings.
Owner Angel Leston built the restaurant with his dad, the head chef, and convinced his mom to oversee the desserts. The family is from Muros, a fishing town in Galicia, Spain. Don’t miss the patatas bravas, crisp potatoes with spicy aioli. Sunday: 10 a.m.: A busload of artists drove me on a private arts crawl emceed by Rodney Gilbert of Yendor Productions. We looked at outdoor murals, such as the Mayor’s Mural, part of an initiative to clean up neglected neighbourhoods. We saw some of the Gateways to Newark, a half-mile mural that’s the second largest in the U.S. Our last stop was Lisa Conrad’s Newark Print Shop, which has a Wednesday night drop-in print club.
As for mural tours, Newark Arts hosts a Murals & Martini public arts tour every October. 1 p.m.: Step outside your comfort zones and do what the locals do. On this particular Sunday in January, that meant checking out Monster Jam at the Prudential Center. It’s a hoot to watch named and decorated monster trucks race and do freestyle competitions. I also said hello to Damon Severson, a New Jersey Devils hockey player from Melville, Sask., who was in fan mode a few rows ahead of me. The Grammy Museum Experience Prudential Center is slated to open at this sports and entertainment venue in the fall. 3:30 p.m.: This quick trip ended with a 10-minute Uber to Newark Liberty International Airport for an equally painless Porter Airlines flight to Billy Bishop Airport in downtown Toronto. I missed Newark’s legendary cherry blossoms — the city claims to have more cherry trees than Washington, D.C., and an April festival in Branch Brook Park — but that’s good incentive to return. Jennifer Bain was hosted by the Greater Newark Convention & Visitors Bureau, which didn’t review or approve this story.