Cold beers, crisp house salads, vinegar-laced bone-in chicken, pasta with red sauce, clams oreganata and pork chops have flowed through the quaint Belmont Tavern dining room since they opened their doors back in 1967. The Belleville fan-favorite spot sits on the borders of Bloomfield and Newark on a hectic Bloomfield Avenue. If you don’t know what to look for, you’ll drive right past the Belmont, but for fans of the no-frills red sauce joint, the glowing, yellow sign and unassuming brick facade can be spotted from a mile away. Even more important than the building itself is the poster outside that reads: “Stretch’s Chicken Savoy” in an iconic red font.
Step through the doors and you’ll instantly travel back in time to a simpler era where the bartender knew you by name, families shared dishes of pasta, the tables were blanketed in red checkerboard and cash was king (seriously, Belmont Tavern is cash only). Pictures of actors, musicians, athletes and other celebrities adorn the walls, along with timeless pieces of decor like vintage Budweiser trinkets and baseball pennants.
Any given night and Belmont Tavern is packed from 5 p.m. onward and they don’t take reservations. That’s because Belmont Tavern is a relic of the past, and they do it better than anyone. Over the years, not much has changed and that’s the way Belmont Tavern likes to do things. No frills, just a good time.
The Belmont is deeply entrenched in NJ food lore and often comes up in conversations of some of Jersey’s best, most classic spots. But does the dining experience itself match the remarkable aesthetic?
The Belmont Tavern Experience
The moment you walk inside Belmont Tavern, it’s go time. Find the host, put your name down and expect to wait—an experience like this doesn’t come without some obstacles. So, sit down at the bar and grab a drink while they find you a table. Talk to a regular at the bar and you’ll soon discover that for many, Belmont Tavern is not just a restaurant, but it’s a deeply-rooted part of the community. Many of the patrons have been coming here since it opened and much of the staff are seasoned veterans.
The menu is straightforward and features several dishes that have put Belmont Tavern on the map, but none more famous than Stretch’s Chicken Savoy—an herby, unctuous roasted chicken complete with a punchy vinegar jus. Other dishes like the shrimp beeps—battered shrimp in a spicy tomato sauce—and cavatelli with pot cheese serve as fan favorites.
No matter the entree, the meal always starts with salad. Belmont Tavern’s simple house salad has no business being as good as it is. Served in timeless wooden salad bowls, it is made up of chopped escarole, radish and a simple vinaigrette. Along with a loaf of semolina bread and butter, this is, to me, the most “New Jersey” way to start a meal. It is something so trivial but simultaneously so nostalgic and comforting. From the moment the salad hits the table, everything else melts away—you’re at Belmont Tavern and nothing else matters.
It is hard to put into words just how perfectly Belmont Tavern encapsulates New Jersey dining culture. The cavatelli with pot cheese is a perfect example, though. The server drops it off and announces: “Gavadeel with pot cheese.” Yeah, you’re in Jersey alright.
To translate for those unfamiliar, “pot cheese” is really just slang for ricotta and “gavadeel” is the fucked up way some of us New Jerseyeans pronounce cavatelli. The chewy pasta is tossed with a simple red sauce and a dollop of pot cheese, combining to create a romantically evocative plate of pasta. I feel like I’m six years old—discovering my love for food all over again—when I eat this simple, but incredibly impactful dish. There is perhaps not a dish in the state that better encapsulates what New Jersey food really is.
And while the pastas and appetizers are wholly worth an order, it is a disservice to dine at the Belmont and forego their signature dish: Stretch’s Chicken Savoy. There are many like it, but none as good as the OG, served right here at Belmont Tavern. Charles “Stretch” Verdicchio brought the family recipe to Belmont Tavern when he took over as chef in 1967 (the tavern portion of the Belmont opened two years prior in 1965).
The simple dish features roasted parts of chicken (breast, thigh, leg and wing) rubbed with a garlic, herb and cheese mixture. When the chicken is done cooking, the fond at the bottom of the pan is splashed with red wine vinegar, forming one of the most intoxicating sauces you will ever have. This technique boasts a flavorful chicken that shreds off the bone to bathe in its vinegar-laced jus. The aroma wafts through the air, pulling guests in from a block away.
It sounds simple, but no one outside of the Belmont staff knows exactly how it’s done and you’ll be hard-pressed even to get a hint from the restaurant. It’s a total secret, but that’s what makes it so good. In a world where you can learn how to replicate thousands of iconic dishes online, Stretch’s Chicken Savoy remains unsolved. Copycat recipes exist, but none come close to the enigma that is the original. It’s so God damn simple, which makes it so complex. A total food paradox. One of those “I could tell you how it’s done, but I’d have to kill you” type of dishes. Besides, not knowing is half the fun.
Stretch’s Chicken Savoy is one of the most iconic dishes in New Jersey. It is the reason thousands of people a year travel to the Belmont.
It is not just the food that makes Belmont Tavern so perfect to me. It’s the seasoned staff, the tables of regulars, the friendly bar patrons, the mechanical cash register, the jukebox, and, yes, the ability to transport you back in time. Look around the packed dining room and you’ll find something new to obsess over every single time: “Is that a signed picture of Steve Van Zandt?” Yup. “Is that Stretch with THE Joe DiMaggio?” You bet. They even have signed posters of the Japanese production of Jersey Boys, because of course they do.
Whether you grew up eating it, or are new to the cuisine, Belmont Tavern is a relic worthy of your patronage. It is a reminder of how dining used to be and as we progress further into the culinary future every single day, the Belmont Taverns of the world become that much more important. Without them, New Jersey loses a piece of what makes our little state so special. This thing of ours… it means something.
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.