Inside NJ’s Most Legendary Dive Bar

by Peter Candia
The Dive Cranford

New Jersey is home to a diverse array of bars—from craft cocktail joints and old-school taverns to hidden lounges and sleek distilleries. But in Cranford, there’s one bar so famed, it’s seldom called by its real name. “The Dive” (or, “Da Dive” according to its owner). So, how did a seemingly normal dive bar become The Dive? Is it the perfect pours of Guinness or the ice-cold PBR cans? How about the fresh-griddled hamburgers or the French dip sandwiches? Is it the walls plastered in decades of artwork or the peppered dart board? The Riverside Inn in Cranford, NJ is many things: it’s a place to hang out, somewhere to drink and eat, a bar to gather at, or somewhere to be alone—but above it all, it’s just… The Dive. To fully understand it, you have to experience it yourself.

bar cranford

Have fun, relax, play darts | Photography by Emma Garibian

I remember my first time at The Dive vividly. I had moved to the area semi-recently and kept driving past the stucco facade with a sign that reads, “Riverside Inn.” On warmer days, the front windows would be opened like doors and people would spill out the sides like sardines. “I have to go,” I thought to myself. Still, it would be months before I ever stepped foot inside. Months that I will never get back.

When I finally did go inside, I was met with what is essentially my ideal place: hundreds of trinkets scattered across the walls, PBR cans, The Strokes playing over the jukebox, signs reading “THE DIVE. DON’T BE A JERK OFF,” RC Cola on the gun and a shockingly great food menu. I was hooked before ever sitting down at the darkwood bar top. Behind the stick, are bartenders who are as much a part of The Dive as The Dive is a part of them. “What’s up guys, what can I get for you? Need menus?” The rest is history.

To discover what The Riverside Inn, AKA Da Dive, AKA The Dive, really means to its patrons, you have to go back in time. 

The Pride and Joy of The Dive: Peter “Jake” Jacobs

From cheap beer to cocktails, The Riverside Inn | Photography by Emma Garibian

If you’re lucky, you might walk into the bar on a day that Peter Jacobs—Riverside Inn’s owner who goes by Jake—is sitting there drinking his signature vodka soda with slices of orange, lime and lemon, which he playfully calls “salad.” He’ll probably have a Grateful Dead t-shirt on and a Yankees cap. Jake is the unofficial historian of not only the bar itself but the entire property. 

Long before he took over, the building was used as a flower shop in the 1920s, with the family who owned it living upstairs. Sure, the flowers sold, but the real money maker? Well, that would be the illegal speakeasy that was in the basement. When Congress passed the 18th Amendment in 1918, the manufacturing, distribution and sale of alcohol was made illegal in an act known as Prohibition. Almost instantly, thousands of bars began to sprout below the depths of the streets. They became known as speakeasies. If you had a connection, you could once again purchase alcohol. 

According to Jake, the basement of Riverside Inn was used for just that, but it isn’t hearsay—there’s proof right on the property. He shows me etchings of bottles and bar keeps on the concrete walls of the basement, which is now used for storage. 

The Dive speakeasy drawings

The basement of The Dive was used as a speakeasy during Prohibition | Photography by Emma Garibian

Eventually, Prohibition ends and sometime down the line, the building turns into what it was seemingly always destined to be: a bar. 

Jake’s late brother Jocco eventually bought the bar and together, it became “Jake and Jocco’s Riverside Inn” in 1995. Both lifelong Cranford residents—a natural fit. Any given night you might have seen Jake pouring beers from the tap and Jocco dishing out sandwiches from the kitchen. Tragically, Jocco passed away after a battle with lupus in 1998, but Jake took The Dive over fully soon after. Look around the crowded bar and you’ll find tributes to the legendary Jocco in each and every corner. “My brother was a great chef,” Jake tells me, stressing the importance for the bar to have great food. In his absence, it was crucial for the offerings to once again reach great heights. The search ended when Jake found Chef John McCarthy. 

“This Food Is Coming From a Dive Bar?”

The Riverside Inn Food

The Dive offers excellent food options | Photography by Emma Garibian

McCarthy is a trained chef who spent years working his way through the restaurant industry. In 2010, he brought his talents to The Dive—he too a lifelong Cranford resident. “I’m from Cranford. I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” says McCarthy. It was a perfect match. When he came in, The Dive was known for quick bar bites like burgers, wings and fries, but slowly over time, McCarthy started putting more and more on the menu. 

Almost as long as the regular menu is the list of daily specials—which are written on paper plates with cartoon drawings to match and plastered behind the bar. Drawn on plates, you’ll often see bacon-wrapped scallops, split pea soup or fried clam strips, with a drawing of a stoned cartoon clam beside it. Come on Thursdays, which is when McCarthy flexes his full entree chops, and you might enjoy a prime rib or grilled branzino dinner. In the summer, he lugs his smoker out back and slowly cooks ribs or pork butts over charcoal. House corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day, seafood platters for Fridays in Lent and soft-shell crab when it’s in season (it’s almost here) also make appearances on the menu. The menu has always shocked me to say the least. Every time I try something new, I’m left with that sort of disbelief: “This food is coming from a dive bar?

The Dive Burger

The Old Time Dive Burger | Photography by Emma Garibian

And though the full dinners are excellent, the bar classics remain some of the best around. Riverside Inn serves what is not just my favorite burger in Union County, but my favorite in all of NJ. The beef is fresh and hand-formed into patties—seared on the flat top. Most importantly, it is seasoned well with salt. You get a burger that is neither thick or thin and cooked precisely to your liking with a deep, brown crust on the exterior. Served on a kaiser roll with coleslaw and a pickle spear. It’s an incredibly simple burger, and The Dive allows you to customize as you see fit. Some days I do bacon and American cheese with grilled onions, while others I go for the Old Time Dive Burger, which comes with a smear of old-school cheddar spread. It’s a staple at The Dive. 

best wings in nj at the dive

Buffalo wings should be simple. So, why do so many places get them wrong? | Photography by Emma Garibian

You’ll also find the platonic ideal of a buffalo wing. No dredge or batter, just straight-fried chicken wings, tossed in the best wing sauce known to mankind: Frank’s Red Hot and butter. Seriously, there is no improving a classic buffalo wing and when done right, it’s one of life’s great pleasures. They come steaming hot and well spiced, the skin slightly crispy. 

Fresh roast beef is a big part of the menu, too. The French Dip sandwich is classic, but McCarthy himself is partial to The Hoboken, which comes with sliced roast beef, grilled onions, Swiss cheese and horseradish sauce sandwiched between two slices of butter-griddled rye bread. On the side is a cup of steaming-hot beef jus for dipping. 

The Dive Cranford NJ. Hoboken sandwich.

The Hoboken | Photography by Emma Garibian

McCarthy even pickles eggs in-house for a bar snack—a food popularized in bars before refrigeration due to their extended shelf life and uncanny ability to make patrons more thirsty, thus increasing the sale of beverages. “They sell out instantly when I put them on [the menu],” he chuckled. It’s Chef McCarthy’s ability to pay tribute to classic bar food while simultaneously flexing his culinary poise that sets The Dive apart from other bars. 

Crafting the Perfect Bar 

best dive bar in NJ

It’s more than just a bar. It’s The Dive. | Photography by Emma Garibian

The rest of Riverside Inn is a similar story, and it’s all part of owner Jake’s vision. “I went to school for art,” he tells me, “you know… before computers did it all and you actually had to draw things with a pencil.” It makes sense. The Dive is sort of like Jake’s lifelong work of art. But, he was clear about one thing: he doesn’t have to work too hard anymore to make the space look as effortlessly cool as it does. “People like to show off their artwork. They just drop it off and tell me to hang it up,” he says pointing to an abstract painting of The Dive that hangs on the wall.

“THE DIVE. DON’T BE A JERK OFF” | Photography by Emma Garibian

Look around and you’ll keep finding new things, a majority of them gifted by patrons. Union Local stickers plaster a beer fridge. In the bathroom, a picture of Lou Gherig hangs on the wall, written in sharpie right on the picture: “Babe Ruth f****d his wife!”  It’s the little details that make the place so special. Jake points to a taxidermied deer head on the wall. “Yeah the deer… A regular shot it and hung it up in his house. His wife made him take it down. She told him to hang it up at the bar if he wanted to show it off. So, he did.”  An old church pew placed against the wall used as bench seating for tables, a cigarette machine (remember those?) sits at the back entrance and a picture of the bar filled with four feet of water following hurricane Irene hangs on the wall. “When it storms, it’s not the Riverside Inn… It’s The River Inside,” Jake jokes to me. 

One of his favorite pieces in The Dive lives behind the bar—a wooden sculpture of Kiefer Sutherland kicking down the bathroom door. Jake tells me the Canadian actor frequented the bar some time ago and one fateful night he had a bit too many. He kicked the bathroom door down because he couldn’t get it to open. Turns out he was pushing a pull door the whole time.

Find something new every time you look around | Photography by Emma Garibian

This charm extends beyond the decor. The bartenders at The Dive have all been around for some years. “We have the best boss there is,” bartender Amanda tells me, who has been at The Dive for over a decade. This sentiment extends to all of the bartenders, who you will get to know pretty quickly once you start hanging out there. Whether it’s Amanda, Paige, Lou, Nick, Mo, Heather or Erin pouring your beer, they come as a package deal with The Dive. They are a crucial part of the experience. There’s no need to line up your visits with your favorite bartender’s shift because they’ll all become your favorite. And good luck trying, there’s no set schedule. 

The Dive Is a Sum of Its Parts 

Jake and Jocco's riverside inn

Chef John McCarthy (left) and Peter “Jake” Jacobs (right) | Photgraphy by Emma Garibian

The Riverside Inn is more than just a bar, it’s an experience. Families bring their kids to The Dive for lunch because their parents bought them there for lunch when they were growing up. It’s generational—a place you pass off as if it’s sacred knowledge to those not in the know. I find it impossible to be disappointed at The Dive because it never fails to meet my expectations. Its consistency and charm go well beyond the service and food, which are reliably great. It’s always there for me, and that’s what I can never get enough of.  

It’s all thanks to Jake, who has committed the last three decades to crafting The Dive into exactly what it was always meant to be. It’s a place to hang out and grab a beer and a bite—start your night, or end it. And as much as it changes, it stays the same. 

It’s not just a dive. It’s The Dive. Get with the program. 

About the Author/s

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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.

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1 comment

Maureen Finn Forrester April 3, 2024 - 9:57 pm

The Riverside Inn, AKA Da Dive, AKA The Dive, is a wonderful story . I had no idea it existed . Sounds fascinating and delicious all in one. A real interesting piece of Americana, looking forward to stopping in. Thank youto the interesting writer Peter Candia for this great story.


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