A hidden gem lies tucked away in the heart of Jersey City, NJ, waiting to enthuse those who venture to find it. At 143 Newark Avenue lies one of NJ’s flagship Bareburger locations, but what awaits beneath (literally) is a truly captivating cocktail experience. If you know where to look, you’ll step foot into a world of mind-bending cocktails, tasty small bites, wine, beer and even an impressive selection of mocktails. All of these factors add up to what is unequivocally New Jersey’s best new bar. This is 143 Social.
Getting to 143 Social
Entering the storefront, you might be tempted to take a seat at the Bareburger bar for a drink and a Wagyu burger, but at 143 Newark Ave, it’s important to keep focused. As you venture to the back of the restaurant—to the right—you’ll find a hidden stairway. And as you descend, you’ll find exactly what you came searching for.
Designed by Vanessa Deleon, entering 143 Social, you’ll find a dimly lit room with a wood-top bar at the forefront. Behind it, a low-key, candlelit lounge with tan-backed leather seats, granite tabletops and velvet-padded, c-shaped booths lures you in. The floor is a mix of dark wood and art deco tile. Depending on the evening, you might even find a DJ spinning a custom-mixed track list of genre-spanning tunes.
NJ’s Best New Cocktail Bar Is Hidden in Plain Sight
143 Social is the brainchild of Gabriel Rieben—perhaps NJ’s most storied bartender. Originally from Paris, France, Rieben’s impressive resume includes spearheading the cocktail menu at Jersey City’s Dullboy and Madame, bringing inventive and playful cocktails to the heart of the city. Previously, Rieben flexed his bartending prowess at Low Fidelity Bar and Cellar 335—two of the city’s other cocktail powerhouses.
It was earlier this year when Arto Ozgun—owner of the Jersey City Bareburger—decided that he wanted to open a cocktail bar. And not just any cocktail bar, but the best one that NJ had ever seen. Eventually, he linked up with Rieben, giving the accomplished bartender full control over the up-and-coming Jersey City bar. Along with head bartender Dan LoDrago—who has an impressive resume of his own—the drink-slinging duo aimed to explore the world of cocktails, constantly looking for ways to reinvent the wheel and bring guests concepts the likes of which they’ve never seen.
An Impressive Drink List
When looking at the 143 Social menu, the very first thing you’ll notice is that everything is numbered. Number One, Number Two and so on. The days of poorly named cocktails, which usually include song names, puns, or simply translating a drink’s ingredients to another language, are long gone here. “I was tired of coming up with cocktail names.” Rieben chuckled, as LoDrago nodded in agreement behind him. “It’s 10 signature cocktails, [plus] three low ABV and three mocktails.” He went on to explain that when the menu is changed, the numbers will continue where they left off. So, with the highest cocktail currently being the Number 17, the next one added will simply be called Number 18. “Eventually, we’ll hit Number 143. Then it will be a big party,” Rieben said. Simple enough. I was sold.
And though the names are straightforward, the drinks are anything but.
The Number Six
The Number Six is a lesson in the flavors of Spring. Rieben infuses Fords gin with snap peas. Along with Cachaca—a Brazilian liquor derived from sugar cane—the two spirits become the base for the drink. Green Chartreuse, coconut milk, lemon and sesame are added to the tin before being vigorously shaken and poured over ice in a highball glass. The drink is appropriately finished off with a vibrant green snap pea and a fragrant bunch of mint.
The opaque, white drink is jam-packed with the vegetal flavor of peas, which is the perfect companion for a botanically-rich yet adaptable gin like Fords. The sesame dives you deeper into the world of savory flavors, but this drink is not savory. With the cachaca and coconut, I found the drink rides the line of a few different styles—teasing themes of tropical, herbaceous and so on. It tastes as if peak-season peas took a vacation to the Caribbean—well-balanced and easy to drink. Above all, the Number Six explores a flavor profile unlike any drink I have ever tried.
What’s more is that the Number Six, like a majority of the cocktails on the list, is hyper seasonal. “We go with the seasonal flavors. You see it now with lots of mezcal and floral flavors on the menu. You see [seasonality] in the snap pea, saffron… We definitely try to stay in the season,” Rieben told me.
The Number Ten
The Number Ten is equally as explorative. Rieben combines bourbon with Xicaru 102 mezcal, corn, a lemon poppy seed shrub and chili, but it doesn’t stop there. The drink is then milk washed, a technique growing in popularity that involves batching a cocktail out, before pouring milk directly into the mix and allowing it to curdle. It sounds odd to say the least, but this process filters the cocktail of impurities and rounds out the texture. The next day, the mixture is fine strained, and the curds are discarded. From there, it’s as simple as pouring the resulting clear drink over a large cube of ice and anointing it with a charred piece of baby corn.
This was a surprisingly balanced cocktail that drank more reserved than I would have expected. Both mezcal and bourbon carry strong flavors on their own that can often clash with one another, but through trial and error, Rieben found a balance between the two that works harmoniously. And though the milk washing does wonders to improve the aesthetics of the drink, its functionality extends far beyond that. The creamy mouth feel the method provides is a crucial piece of this drink’s identity. Mezcal—which can be incredibly polarizing to some—is scaled back in a way that makes it more approachable. If you are convinced you’ll never like mezcal, consider giving the Number Ten a try.
The Number Nine
143 Social’s Number Nine puts their obsession with experimentation on full display. Rieben explained the drink to me as if a White Negroni and an Aperol spritz had a baby. Fair enough. It starts with a crystal clear base—the White Negroni aspect of the cocktail. Bimini, a coconut-distilled gin, is stirred along with gentian liqueur, elderflower and a grapefruit vanilla oleo saccharum. Oleo saccharum is an old-timey drink ingredient that has made a resurgence in the last decade. It is made by peeling citrus and tossing the peels with sugar, allowing the oils from the peels to seep out and combine with the sugar. This liquid can then be added to a variety of drinks, both with and without alcohol. Though most commonly done with lemon peels, Rieben found that grapefruit and vanilla work wonders for the Number Nine.
So far, the drink on its own is already pretty remarkable. The White Negroni riff drinks a tad sweeter than the classic iteration, but still with a noticeable bitterness from the gentian. If you thought the drink ended there, you’d be mistaken. The cocktail is poured over a large cube of ice and topped with a coral-pink Aperol foam. This sends the drink to another dimension—adding an herbal and orange-forward punch to the mix. The foam is made by adding a small amount of soy lecithin to Aperol and then agitating the mix with a foam generator to produce air, thus lending you a vibrant foam without any loss of flavor. When you sip the Number Nine, you are hit right away with a deep, orange aroma (and a pink Aperol mustache), but that aroma is quickly married with a hint of coconut, vanilla and, of course, a definitively bitter identity. It is cocktails like the Number Nine that will put 143 Social on the map.
The Number Eight
For martini lovers, the Number Eight is a must-try. Please, if just for a night, venture away from your go-to martini order and try something a bit different. The Number Eight takes olive oil and citrus-infused vodka and stirs it along with a melon cordial, a chardonnay shrub and dry vermouth. The drink is finished with a garnish of melon caviar made from freshly juiced cantaloupe, which sinks to the bottom and becomes the prize at the end of the drink.
This drink is special. It is incredibly complex, with a light sweetness on the back end, defined by the central theme around which it revolves: melon. By all means, it is a martini riff, but not one that simply replaces vermouth for some other aromatized wine. Instead, Rieben takes the formula for a classic vodka martini and improves upon it with technique rather than makeup. It is a cocktail that would impress the martini’s biggest fans but also its most vocal haters. Rieben’s display of careful distinction and finesse within the Number Eight is what one could expect to find across the entirety of 143 Social’s offerings.
Rieben and LoDrago made sure I understood that mocktails at 143 are in no way an afterthought. Like with any of their prodigious cocktails, the non-alcoholic options are balanced, inventive and advanced in their techniques and flavor-building. Take the Number Twelve, for example. The alcohol-free concoction boasts a base of Seedlip Garden 108—an herbal-distilled, non-alcoholic spirit—fresh blueberry, celery syrup, ube (a Southeast Asian purple yam) and egg white.
The vivacious, purple cocktail is equally balanced between tart and sweet, with an herbal backing that smooths out the drink. A fluffy texture from the addition of egg white makes for a shaken beverage that is enjoyable to drink whether you enjoy alcohol or not. With a growing crowd of people opting for alcohol-free options, it is refreshing to see so much thought put into a spot’s non-alcoholic offerings. In a bar of this caliber, it is of utmost importance, in my opinion, for mocktails and cocktails to coexist seamlessly—no one has to be left out of the fun.
Though 143 Social is a place for drinks first and foremost, the food menu can not be overlooked. Owner Arto Ozgun—a graduate of the French Culinary Institute—conceptualized the menu himself. Though Ozgun owns several Bareburgers in New Jersey, it was always his dream to open an independent restaurant. So, he was adamant that when 143 Social opened, not only would there be food, but the quality of the food would match that of the drinks. Spearheading the effort, Ozgun put together what is a rather impressive display of small plates and bar snacks.
If you’re like me and need something to pick on while you drink, marinated olives, Sichuan popcorn and house-spiced nuts are a welcome addition to the menu. And It’s not just snacks that are up for grabs. The Wagyu sliders with crispy onions, brie and black garlic aioli are a best-seller for good reason. The juicy, miniature burgers are improved by the creamy cheese and sharp aioli, with a squishy brioche bun to send it home. On the other end of the menu, jerk lamb dumplings are well-spiced and infused with plenty of Caribbean flare. The island-inspired dish is complemented by marinated cucumber and a miso pineapple dipping sauce.
Blistered shishito peppers with dijon and charred octopus with truffled potatoes are just some of the other beckoning food options. So, maybe you’re just planning on drinking, but I implore you to explore the diverse food offerings yielded by the 143 Social team. It doesn’t have to be a place you simply go to after dinner. Instead, 143 proves it can provide the whole experience, too.
New Jersey’s Best New Bar
With the team’s collective vision and total dedication to hospitality, it should be no surprise that 143 Social is packed nearly every night.
And while the bar seems to have a refined model, I came to discover that as far as an actual concept goes, there really isn’t one. Instead, Rieben and LoDrago are focused on simply making the best drinks possible, and they stay far away from boxing themselves into a concept. “It’s not like we have to follow a concept. It’s more, like, craft cocktails—done well. A bar where you can have signature cocktails, but also have the classics,” Rieben stated, “This is a cocktail bar. There is no box.”
Gabriel Rieben came out guns blazing with his newest project, which aims to bring guests an unrivaled cocktail experience by combining technical prowess with a breathtaking atmosphere—and he delivered. 143 Social is the best new cocktail bar in New Jersey.
About the Author/s
Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for writing midway through school and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. In addition to food, Peter enjoys politics, music, sports and anything New Jersey.