These days, Chris Gethard is practically a media brand unto himself. Former host of the wildly inventive Chris Gethard Show, he’s also a stand-up comic (currently playing a residency in Edinburgh, Scotland until August 28), the host of the very lovely and human Beautiful/Anonymous podcast, and also hosts the hilarious and wonderful New Jersey Is The World podcast.
As that last title might indicate, Gethard is Jersey to the core, stealing the Class Action Park doc about the infamous Vernon theme park and showing unquestionable loyalty for his Essex County roots whenever he gets the chance. That’s why we were dying to talk to him for this article exclusively about New Jersey food.
But to be honest, the deck was always going to be stacked toward the Oranges — Newark, Montclair, and other points North Jersey, of which I was a resident for 20+ years before going into exile in South Jersey in 2020. Cry about it, Burlington County. Truth is, the North half of the state is unbeatable when it comes to pizza, hot dogs, ice cream, and diners, as Gethard’s picks (and my co-signs) reveal.
This chat didn’t just make me homesick, it made me hungry. So if you find yourself caught between Philly and New York City and need a bite, head north on the Parkway toward Gethard’s neighborhood and check out all of these amazing places to eat.
On Three Questions with Andy Richter, I think you said something like people spoke 40 different languages in your high school and how where you grew up in West Orange, New Jersey was a cultural melting pot. Did that influence you with regard to food when you were a kid?
I think growing up where I did meant that I had very little hesitation to just dive in and try eating stuff I’ve never encountered before. It’s like, here’s all your Irish Catholic friends, and then you’ve got all your Italian friends and your Jewish friends, and then here’s your Hispanic friends and your Haitian friends and your Black friends. And in my school, I was just around all different types of people. So you’re eating at people’s houses and you’re walking through neighborhoods that have restaurants that are serving all different types of communities. I don’t know if it was a melting pot so much as just a lot of different cultures smashing into each other, and I’m really glad that I grew up that way.
Have you ever worked in a restaurant?
No, I knew from the start that, with my anxiety issues, if I tried to work in a restaurant, it would’ve been a disaster. I can’t take the feeling that someone would be mad at me and I’ve seen too many people get mad at waiters and waitresses over the years, so I never did that side of things. I would’ve had a nervous breakdown on day one. In high school, all my friends got jobs at the same Applebee’s at the Livingston Mall and it seemed really fun to hang out. There was a part of me that was tempted, but I was like, I just know it’ll just be somebody in a mall yelling at me about how I didn’t get them their Jack Daniels-smothered onion tower in time and I’ll be crying in the back because I can’t handle it.
There used to be a guy who worked at that Applebee’s that looked like Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons.
There’s a high-percentage chance I went to high school with this individual you’re describing. I wouldn’t be shocked if that was a graduate of West Orange High.
I’ve been down in South Jersey for two years and the food does not compare to North Jersey food. Why do you think that is?
Well, I haven’t spent as much time in South Jersey, although I love it. I think, in general, South Jersey’s just a little bit more spread out, just a little bit more rural. So you think in North Jersey, I grew up in a neighborhood right on the border of West Orange and Orange, where I grew up down the block from Jimmy Buff’s, which is the inventor of the Italian hot dog.
Then you’ve got Dickie Dee’s, a number of other places that do that really well. Then you got Rutt’s Hut, which is legendary. You got all the Texas Wiener places out near Patterson. Just right there you have three distinct types of hot dogs that are uniquely New Jersey. It’s not a very large state to have three innovative takes on the hot dog. That’s pretty miraculous.
Everything’s compact. There are a lot of towns where you’re going to get world-class pizza, you’re going to get a hot dog place that puts other hot dog places to shame, you’re going to not be more than a few minutes away from a bagel that would blow people’s minds in the Midwest.
I will tell you, I have recently been introduced to the soft drink Boost.
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Yeah. It’s everywhere down here. I haven’t had it. They sell it in like a moonshine jug.
It’s like non-carbonated Coke with lemon mixed in. But if you get it as a slushie, it’s delicious, but it’s only popular in like a handful of towns in South Jersey. That stuff is delicious. I mean, the first time I had it, I felt like I had chugged four Red Bulls. But it’s really delicious. You’ve got to be careful when you trifle with the mighty powers of Boost, but that is a South Jersey food item that I could give a huge thumbs up to for sure.
What’s your go-to diner?
My go-to diner all time, it’s changed its name. It used to be called the Versailles Diner. In Fairfield on 46. I haven’t been by in a while. But the Versailles was really a great diner that I went to for many, many years when my family lived in the area. What is it now? Is it West Essex?
West Essex. That was our breakfast spot every Sunday when I was growing up, and then later on with friends and everything. Yeah. That or The Tick Tock, Tick Tock gets a lot of love and I think it’s great, but I’ve never eaten at the Tick Tock sober, so…
There was that stretch of Clifton where you had the Tick Tock, then you had the Park West right up the road, and then another really great diner was once it crossed over from Route 3 into Route 46, it was the Six Brothers Diner. Between those three diners in that small stretch, that must have been the pound-for-pound best diner-to-human ratio you were going to find anywhere in the country when all three of those were up and running.
What about pizza places? What are some of the best ones?
I mean, there’s a whole bunch of pizza places that I love, but I am an Essex County guy and I am from down the hill, West Orange, New Jersey, and I always will be. The Star Tavern is a real point of pride, and every time I go back, it holds up. They recently redid it and remodeled it during the pandemic, and they used to have an old phone booth in the back. That’s gone. I miss the phone booth, but the good news is that the pizza is just as good as it’s always been.
Santillo’s in Elizabeth is incredible and it’s an experience. You walk down someone’s driveway and go through the side door of their house, the guy’s in there cooking pizzas. It’s absolutely incredible. I love the Reservoir Tavern up in Boonton. I think that that’s a great spot.
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Oh, that’s a really good question. I tell you what, there’s a place in Morristown called Beenie’s. And I was just up there, they had a honey lavender flavor. That was incredible. But again, as an Essex County guy, I got to say, all of Essex county has a very layered relationship with Montclair. Montclair was always the place that felt fancy to us and felt like it was trying to be like baby New York. There was a lot of Montclair resentment growing up in Essex County. But that being said, Applegate Farms in Montclair, that ice cream is delicious. And they have a flavor called Graham Central Station, which again, why are you trying to be New York? We don’t need the Grand Central Station pun. Just call it graham cracker ice cream. But once you get over that, try it. Graham Central Station ice cream from Applegate Farms in Montclair. That’s probably the most delicious ice cream I’ve ever had.
So I listened to the episode of the Jersey Is The World pod with the mall food court fantasy draft, which I thought was awesome. But I’m curious, what’s the best North Jersey mall food court, based on selection, geography in the mall, and stores around it?
That’s a really good question. I mean, I have not been hitting up mall food courts too much.
No, I mean like back in the day.
Let’s make sure that caveat is on record, that as a man in my forties, I don’t spend as many meal times eating at mall food courts. But I’ll tell you, The Livingston Mall was kind of the go-to mall, but that was a smaller mall. And if we were hanging out and you were going to have a meal, we’d make our way out to Willowbrook. The Willowbrook Mall in Wayne had a pretty good food court there. They had an Arby’s and a Nathan’s, Panda Express, and they had a bunch of good stuff. And that mall also had the arcade, Fun and Games, so there were a lot of reasons to drive the extra couple miles to get out to the Willowbrook Mall.
I want to push back on that, because Willowbrook is good. I will give that credit. But I was a Rockaway Mall kid. Now, you’ve got me on the arcade. The arcade in Rockaway was all the way at the other side of the mall next to the movie theater. But you had KB Toys right there. You had Foot Locker. I think Babbage’s was downstairs (for video game shoplifting needs). They had the sample guy with the teriyaki chicken, which I don’t remember ever seeing a sample guy in Willowbrook. And they had the Orange Julius.
Listen, you’re not going to find me sneezing at the Rockaway Mall. That was very far from my house and I still went there a bunch of times, which speaks to the fact that it was a mall worth driving to. So at the end of the day, if I’m looking to go to the movie theater or the Border’s Books or the arcade, there’s no reason for me to drive beyond Willowbrook. But Rockaway is no joke either. And I certainly think all the people out in Paramus are going to take issue with us not mentioning them, because they got some great malls out that way too.
I don’t care about them. I’m sticking with Rockaway. And I’ll tell you what, I’ll win the battle right here because you had the pet store right directly downstairs, so you go see a puppy after you get an Orange Julius. That’s perfect right there. You can’t beat that.
Yeah. I mean, there are some simple joys in life that you really can’t argue with.
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Most important question, what’s the perfect Jersey Shore food?
Ooh, that is a really good one. That is a really good one. If we’re talking boardwalk food, you got to get yourself a bucket of the popcorn that’s out there. You get yourself some soft serve. You get yourself a nice glass of lemonade. I’ve talked with my friend Don Finelli when we do the food episodes of New Jersey Is The World, and he and I both have great memories. If you’re on the beach, one thing that’s a classic is you get a meatball sub the night before and you put it in a cooler with ice and you just eat it cold out there on the beach. That’s pretty classic. You also go on the boardwalk, you get a slice of pizza that’s wider than your face. You get a sausage and pepper sandwich. Maybe you get some zeppoles. Those are the boardwalk classics.
I’ve been hanging out in Asbury Park a bunch after its resurgence lately, and I do shows down there every month, and you got places like Talula’s serving up the same pizza and torta. And Mutiny BBQ is down there. There’s a lot happening down the Shore when it comes to food, and it’s really just a cavalcade of joy when it comes to your food options down the Jersey Shore these days.