When I moved to my new home in the historic and bustling New Jersey city of Morristown, I knew I was in for a real culinary delight.
From previous visits from my former home located about 45 minutes away, I already knew that I could head to Nagano for quality sushi in an authentic atmosphere, Guerriero’s Ristorante for Neapolitan-style dishes with unique flavors and Origin Thai for scrumptious Thai food in an elegant setting.
What I didn’t know was that the iconic Vail Mansion in downtown Morristown, built in 1917 and formerly the home of first AT&T president Theodore N. Vail, had recently become the home of one of the city’s newest and most interesting restaurants after it was restored to its original grandeur by Roseland, a wholly owned subsidiary of Mack-Cali Realty Corporation and Woodmont Properties.
Jockey Hollow Bar and Kitchen, which opened its Vail Mansion doors on Oct. 21 of 2014, isn’t exactly one bar and restaurant. Actually, it’s four.
“When I came into the space, I realized that the building is very segmented and a lot of people looked at it and said, ‘How can we do something here?’” said Chris Cannon, owner and founder of Jockey Hollow. “However, I looked at it as allowing me to create different venues to cater to different markets. Some people want to eat at bars directly next to their neighbor, while others want fine dining or a more casual experience.”
Ron Morgan, general manager of Jockey Hollow, said that from his perspective, it was the space that took the lead and the team let the “mansion do the talking,” which created a restaurant different from any other Morristown eateries, or even any others in the state.
“At Jockey Hollow, you can come in a t-shirt or you can celebrate your anniversary,” said Morgan.
This also allows the restaurant to cater to different types of clientele, including a formal, older demographic who are looking for a white-tablecloth environment to a younger crowd who enjoy eating at bar-restaurants. Each week, about 1,300 to 1,800 guests come through Jockey Hollow’s 100-year-old doors, myself included.
The Vail Bar, my favorite Jockey Hollow venue, is located in the back of the mansion on the first floor and originally served as the property’s library and still exudes an aura of warmth and welcome. Up the grand staircase is the Dining Room, which was formerly the living quarters of Theodore Vail and his family and now radiates grace and sophistication with its high-quality menu and selection of over 400 wines.
The Oyster Bar, lively yet elegant, was once the mansion’s art gallery and is bisected by a zinc bar with two Enomatic wine machines offering rare wines by the glass and half glass. Finally, in the basement is the Rathskeller, which was formerly the Morristown jail cell but now serves as an events space for corporate events and celebrations as well as home to a rotating calendar of live music, wine dinners, sports and cooking and wine classes.
“The building is a totally unique space and we pay a lot of homage to its origins in the fact that we have museum quality art and different menus throughout the restaurant,” said Cannon.
Although today Vail Mansion’s position as an eatery seems to be a perfect, yet innovative, fit, it wasn’t always this way. When Cannon, a well-known restauranteur who was a principal in Manhattan restaurants Palio, Remi, L’Impero, Convivio, Alto, the James Beard Award-winner Marea and the recently opened All’Onda, was introduced to the space by a friend who works in Morristown and fell in love with it immediately, his business partners didn’t see it as a potential restaurant.
“I thought it was a really unique, striking and interesting building when I saw it in 2010, but my partners weren’t interested because they weren’t interested in New Jersey,” he said. “The workmanship behind it was amazing and it kind of haunted me for a few years.”
Surrounded by cafes, bistros and shops, the towering Vail Mansion, set back a little from South Street, certainly is striking and when I point it out as a restaurant to visitors, they often have a hard time believing that it serves as an eatery rather than a museum.
“A year in, however, people are starting to get it,” said Cannon.
Part of the reason that people are making their way into Jockey Hollow is because the food and drink is making its name; among other awards, New Jersey Monthly named it as one of their top 20 new restaurants in the state of 2015, Esquire Magazine named it as one of their best new restaurants in America for 2015 and Wine Enthusiast named it as one of America’s 100 best wine restaurants in 2015.
“At its core, we are an amazing bar with great food, wine and cocktails,” said Morgan. “We made an upscale-casual restaurant that is really resonating with people.”
Morgan said that an ideal customer is simply someone who loves good food and wine, since the restaurant offers a lot for that person to be excited about. Bar director Chris James has created seasonally-inspired specialty cocktails, and an extensive menu of classic cocktails are available from the 200 spirits ,ranging from everyday favorites to rare bottles, served at the bar .
In the Dining Room of Jockey Hollow, guests can enjoy Chef Kevin Sippel’s four-course $82 prix fixe experience and select three savory courses and finish with one sweet course from pastry chef Erica Leahy. A six-course, seasonal $98 chef’s tasting menu for the entire table is also available.
On the menu of the Oyster Bar is a wide variety of raw bar items, house-made charcuterie, cheese and small plates for the table and traditional entrées.
The Rathskeller, which is the German term for ‘council’s cellar,’ or a room in the basement of a civil building, transforms from an event space to a beer hall on Friday and Saturday nights. Larger groups of nine to 14 can reserve tables for the large format menu, a family-style feast drawn from the German Beer Hall menu and the Oyster Bar menu.
Some of the most popular dishes served at Jockey Hollow are the braised octopus with asopao and gremolata, the CC burger with raclette, bacon and salt and vinegar fries, sirloin with au poivre sauce and brussel sprouts, yellowtail with chicken skin and scallions and the duck liver terrine with kimchi cabbage and rice crackers.
Some of the most popular drinks served at the bar are the Cranble, the Game of Thrones (inspired by a Game of Thrones character doppelganger who works at the restaurant), the South Street Smash and the Jockey Hollow Cobbler.
The selection of food and drink offered at Jockey Hollow fits in well with the lively mix of people living and working in Morristown, too.
“There is an interesting cross-section of business people and families,” said Morgan. “It’s a good mix of people and we can offer an experience where customers can cater to their own design within these four distinct experiences.”
The town of Morristown also serves as Jockey Hollow’s namesake, as the actual Jockey Hollow, now a unit of the Morristown National Historic Park, served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Continental army’s winter encampment from December 1779 to June 1780.
Cannon said, “I believe that places grow organically from where they are and we need to pay homage to where they came from, and I wanted to do that as well in my naming of Jockey Hollow.”