Everything Is Better at Jersey City’s Hottest New Restaurant

by Peter Candia
better days in jersey city

Last year, I wrote about an underground cocktail bar called 143 Social that was making waves in Jersey City for its innovative and boundary-pushing bar program, spearheaded by partners Gabriel Rieben and Chef Arto Ozgun. 

You can read that article here.

The duo is back again and their most recent project looks to peel back the exclusivity-driven curtain of its sister bar and offer a more approachable and comfortable setting fit for all occasions. Better Days is located on the street level of Newark Avenue in Jersey City, right above 143 Social. 

Better Days is many things, depending on how you decide to look at it: it’s a neighborhood restaurant, cocktail bar, craft beer and wine bar, some of NJ’s best brunch and a place to watch the big game all wrapped up in one, expertly-designed space.

Music is central to Better Days, too. Some nights, a DJ spins records live on a turntable right behind the bar, while other times, a band might play right in the dining room. There’s always something happening to cap off the vibe. 

Newark Ave’s Newest Heavy Hitter

“The name ‘Better Days’ is because we are looking to make a better version of everything,” says Rieben. “A better Manhattan, a better French dip sandwich. It’s a better day when you’re here.” The concept is simple: wow guests with simple ideas, taken to the next level. We’ve all seen it claimed before, but Better Days is actually doing it. 

Gabriel Rieben Muddles Fruit for a Cocktail | Photography by Peter Bonacci

You see it first and foremost in the food. The menu features the best ingredients that the team can get their hands on. “We use all local produce, Pat LaFrieda beef… all of our sauces are made from scratch,” Ozgun tells me while pointing to different items on the menu. Downstairs at 143 Social, they live and die by the small plate, but upstairs at Better Days, the menu expands, covering appetizers, sandwiches, entrees, side dishes and more. 

Better Days, Better Food

For starters, it might look something like this: crispy french fries, lathered in rich gravy, Wisconsin cheese curds, confit duck, cherry gastrique and a duck fat aioli. Ozgun takes a dish as comforting and sacred as poutine and catapults it up a level. Classically, poutine lacks depth. I said it. It’s a delicious, unctuous food—albeit overtly rich. By adding a cherry gastrique to the mix, Better Days’ version cuts through the fat of the dish, bringing a much-needed layer of acidity to the party. It’s these small touches that stand out. Garnished with some crispy duck skin and there’s not much more I’d ask for in a starter. 

best restaurants jersey city

Duck Poutine | Photography by Peter Bonacci

Maybe you want something fresh. Perhaps a kale salad that doesn’t fall flat on its face? Better Days has you covered with their cleverly-put, Better Kale—which comes packed with re-hydrated cranberries, candied pistachios and a vibrant yuzu vinaigrette. It’s balanced and texturally contrasting.

And as you traverse through the menu, you’ll see this commitment to the best quality become abundantly clear. I asked Rieben and Ozgun which pasta I should try. Before I could even finish my question, they interjected in unison: “Lasagna pinwheels.” Okay then, I’m sold. 

Fresh sheets of pasta are rolled into pinwheels with hearty bolognese and creamy bechamel. Each rose-shaped bundle of lasagna is placed atop a bed of tomato sauce and baked off with mozzarella cheese. It comes to the table piping hot—its irresistible scent wafting through the dining room, turning heads in the process. 

Cut into it and you reveal a center oozing with cheese and savory meat ragu. The crispy bits on the edge of the pasta sheets become prized treasures. Its simplicity is enticing. Taking common ingredients and foods and combining them with ease.

Lasagna Pinwheels | Photography by Peter Bonacci

The sandwich list might be Better Days’ best category. The section is packed with heavy hitters: pork belly banh mi, lamb burgers, chicken sandwiches featuring both the light and dark meat and the house-favorite, the Wagyu French Dip. 

Before we get into the Better Days version, let’s break down what a French dip traditionally is. Thin-sliced roast beef, maybe some Swiss, on crusty bread with a bowl of beef jus for dipping on the side. Ozgun looks at this tried-and-true format and asks himself: “How can we make it better?”  Simple, really. Pat LaFrieda Wagyu top round, sliced thicker than traditional versions and left a beautifully rosy medium to medium-rare. A crackly baguette from Balthazar Bakery. Funky Gruyere cheese, sweet caramelized onions and an in-your-face dijon aioli. But, what ties it together is the beef tallow jus—salty and mouth-coating, making the sandwich virtually impossible to put down. It’s one of the best beef sandwiches I have had in quite some time. 

better days

The Already-Famous Wagyu French Dip | Photography by Peter Bonacci

If you’re looking to share food with the table, the large plates should not be overlooked. MFC—AKA Moroccan Fried Chicken—is what’s for dinner. It starts with half a chicken, broken down into parts and brined. The meat is then dredged and fried to order, dusted with a Moroccan spice mix containing the likes of cumin, garlic and some other secrets. The crispy pieces of chicken come served over the top of grilled pita bread, their juices soaking into the pita. Herbed yogurt and pickled onions come on the side. 

This is a dish you have to get personal with—tearing pieces of meat and skin off and rolling it into the pita with its accompaniments for the perfect bite. Succulent, savory and extremely complex in flavor. This isn’t your average fried chicken, showing the versatility of Ozgun’s culinary arsenal. 

best restaurants nj

MFC | Photography by Peter Bonacci

Better Days also shows off daily specials and a lengthy offering of vegan options for those interested. “It’s something the community wanted,” Ozgun says. “So, we delivered.” Black bean burgers, mafaldine with mushrooms, a dairy-free hot fudge skillet cake and more can be found for vegan options. 

Jersey City’s Best Bar Program Since 143 Social

We can’t talk about Better Days without talking about the cocktail program. It comes at the hands of Gabriel Rieben, who is one of the most accomplished bartenders in New Jersey. Originally from Paris, France, Rieben has curated some of NJ’s best bar programs during his career from Dullboy to Madame and plenty more.

Downstairs at 143 Social, his menu is built to wow, with plenty of advanced techniques that outpace some of the best bars in NYC and the US as a whole. Upstairs at Better Days, Rieben scales the menu back a tad.

best bars in jersey city

Hibiscus Prickly Pear Margarita | Photography by Peter Bonacci

Sure, everything is still made in house and each drink is thoughtfully curated, but it’s simpler and therefore, easier to enjoy. This is my favorite way to drink—with fool-proof cocktails created by a true master in bartending. There’s room for simplicity and complexity, but using the best ingredients in thoughtful ways is non-negotiable. And Rieben is sure to do that no matter where he sets up shop.

“I like to take classic cocktails and just figure out how to improve them, or make them more interesting,” Rieben says while talking about the process of writing the Better Days cocktail menu. Rather than reinvent the wheel, he takes drinks that have stood the test of time and riffs off of them. This isn’t revolutionary in any way, but when it’s done right, it always impresses me. 

The Hibiscus Prickly Pear Margarita takes Lunazul Tequila and combines it with fresh-pressed prickly pear juice, house-made agave and hibiscus syrup and lime. Shaken and poured over rocks in a glass adorned with hibiscus salt, it’s refreshing and perfect for a hot summer day. The cocktail is familiar enough to please a margarita drinker, while standing out enough to leave its mark. That’s what Better Days is about.

best drinks in jersey city

Hibiscus Salt Rim | Photography by Peter Bonacci

Rieben also whips up a damn-good rum punch, which is tropical and well-balanced. It features Plantation 3 Star, Aperol, Falernum, house-made orgeat, coconut milk, lime and the quintessential dash or two of Angostura bitters. It’s a fun play on a rum punch, joining the current trend of “AperTiki” drinks that can be seen across some of the best bars in the world. By combining tropical flavors and ingredients with bitter, Italian aperitifs like Aperol, you see a merging of two of the most popular styles in modern bartending. It’s fruity and bitter—with a complexity that’s masked by its easy-drinking nature. I’ll take four. 

better days jersey city

Rum Punch | Photography by Peter Bonacci

The Biscotti Pecan Manhattan is stupidly good. The typical Rye is swapped out in favor of Monkey Shoulder blended scotch, and the normal sweet vermouth banished for a split of Brandy de Jerez and Faretti Biscotti Liqueur, which Rieben tells me is one of his favorite secret weapons behind the bar. Chicory pecan bitters are added to the mix and the whole thing is stirred and served up. This drink is booze-forward, yet incredibly balanced. Before trying it, I thought Scotch might drown out the subtleties of the brandy and biscotti liqueur, but it drank easily and the flavors made perfect sense. Over the years, I’ve come to learn that it’s foolish to doubt a Rieben cocktail. 

best cocktails in nj

The Biscotti Manhattan | Photography by Peter Bonacci

You can’t do a cocktail list without a spicy beverage and Better Days understands the assignment. Picture this: fresh passionfruit, chili liqueur, Cholula hot sauce, smoky mezcal, lime and egg white. The drink is shaken until it’s whipped and fluffy—double strained into a coupe. It’s spicy, yes, but not overbearing. Each ingredient is apparent and contributes to the final result. It’s a cocktail you could have several of—maybe on the Better Days Newark Avenue patio? Sounds good to me.

It’s 2024 and non-alcoholic cocktails are nothing to scoff at. With a growing number of non-drinkers, some of the best bartenders in the world have committed copious amounts of research and development into N/A drinks—Rieben is no different. “It’s important to have a really good selection of non-alcoholic options,” he tells me while shaking up the Better Days “False Gimlet,” which features zero-proof gin from Lyre’s with lime, grapefruit and sage. It makes for a citrus-forward sour that leaves you missing nothing. It’s not difficult to sell me on N/A cocktails as I think it’s an incredible trend that we should continue to promote. Along with a passionfruit virgin colada and rosemary and blackberry creation deemed “The Garden Cup,” non-alcoholic cocktails are anything but an afterthought for Better Days. 

spicy margarita in nj

Mezcal + Spicy Passionfruit = Heaven | Photography by Peter Bonacci

If cocktails aren’t your thing, then Better Days has you covered with a varied wine list that pours from regions across the world. With an emphasis on organic wines, Better Days proves to be just as much a wine bar as it is a cocktail bar. Or, if craft beer is more your style then you’ll be pleased to find a draft list that features some of the best local brews NJ has to offer. 

Better Days, Better Brunch

Beyond the normal operation, brunch is another distinguishing feature of Better Days. Snack on house-made ricotta with wild honey and flaky biscuits or fresh corn bread with whipped chipotle and honey butter. 

Egg lovers can enjoy chorizo and egg sandwiches, shakshuka, duck confit hash and more. Caramelized apple pancakes, skillet brownies and ube-spiked cream cheese brioche French toast are on the menu for the sweet tooths. Want a mix of savory and sweet? Chicken and waffles is a no brainer. 

Brunch Spread | Photography by Peter Bonacci

The Better Days Bloody Mary comes with a choice of vodka, tequila or mezcal and a house-made bloody mix, which Rieben tells me is fresh and “not disgusting like most Bloody Marys.” Mimosas and Bellinis with fresh juices flow from table to table, but it’s the house-favorite Coffee and Cream which brunch-goers should not leave without trying. A split base of Evan Williams 16 and Rittenhouse Rye, Mr. Black coffee liqueur, homemade vanilla syrup, almond milk and a dash of cardamom bitters,  It’s a coffee cocktail that puts the overdone (and often terrible) espresso martini to shame. 

Better Days Perfects the Neighborhood Restaurant

When Arto Ozgun and Gabriel Rieben teamed up for their second concept, they knew that they wanted to take it in a different direction. Better Days is extremely approachable and that’s what makes it so great. 

spicy margarita in nj

A Dried Chile To Finish It Off | Photography by Peter Bonacci

Whether it’s the hand-made lasagna pinwheels, or the savory Wagyu sandwiches—the biscotti-flavored Manhattans, or the cold pours of Orange wine, Better Days promises one thing: simplicity highlighted by skill. It’s this formula that diners (and myself) cannot get enough of. What it makes for is a restaurant that is perfect for a family outing, date night, a precursor into cocktails downstairs, watching the game and so much more. Better Days is malleable—it wears many hats. And that’s why when you’re there, it’s a better day. Plain and simple. 

About the Author/s

All posts

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.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Yes, I would like to receive emails from The Digest Online. Sign me up!

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: New Jersey Digest. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact