Garden State Grandeur
By any measure, the debut of Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen was a major restaurant opening in Morristown, New Jersey—perhaps the biggest the New York–metro commuter town had ever witnessed.
Located in the historic and palatial Vail Mansion, the landmark building took three and a half years and upward of $5 million to overhaul. With an interior boasting pricey murals, 12-foot glass windows, and marble staircases, Jockey Hollow is sometimes grand and always gracious.
“This is a hot town and to me this was the perfect location,” says Chris Cannon, a New York restaurateur with 36 years of experience who was previously a partner in six Italian restaurants in Manhattan, including two-Michelin-starred Marea. “I had to spend some money to put this place together, but I am paying a tenth of what I would pay in New York.”
Cannon says he pays $240,000 a year with an option to buy after five years. “That’s the kind of rent you would spend in The Bowery (New York City) for a pizza place,” he explains.
Jockey Hollow is a multi-restaurant concept featuring an upscale cocktail lounge, the Vail Bar; The Oyster & Wine Bar; The Rathskeller, an underground German beer hall that is also used for corporate events; and the highly acclaimed fine-dining option simply named The Dining Room.
“When I first saw the building, it totally dictated what to do with each space,” Cannon says.
Recently named by Esquire Magazine as one of the Best New Restaurants in America in 2015, Jockey Hollow overlooks a 150-foot-long reflecting pool. Before Cannon’s acquisition, Vail Mansion housed Morristown’s police, fire, and municipal offices.
Despite challenges that included a long and arduous effort to acquire a concessionaire’s permit that would allow the sale of alcohol, Cannon says the end result was well worth it.
“Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen is one of a kind. It’s big, beautiful, and elegant,” he says.
Cannon named the property in honor of the surrounding Jockey Hollow area, a unit of Morristown National Historical Park, which was twice used as a winter camp by the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
“I came across the Jockey Hollow Park and I really liked that name,” Cannon says. “I also wanted to pay homage to the area’s history.”
Under the direction of executive chef Kevin Sippel, who formerly worked with Cannon at Alto and L’Impero in New York City, Jockey Hollow’s kitchen is turning heads for its inventive, tantalizing, and locally sourced cuisine.
“Kevin is a quiet guy and a hard worker,” Cannon adds. “He is a highly trained cook and he really enjoys what he does.”
Chef Sippel is charged with creating menus for the multiple restaurants that can seat up to 300 people when the patio is open. He relies heavily on local produce and seafood sourced from New Jersey partners Forty North Oyster Farms and Ralston Farm.
“We are trying to show that Jersey isn’t what people think of it,” Cannon says. “This is the Garden State after all, and it’s gorgeous here—farmland and horse country everywhere.”
Popular dishes in The Dining Room include Grilled Spanish Octopus, Scrambled Hen Egg, Squid Ink Angel Hair, Red Kuri Squash Casoncelli, Seared Barnegat Bay Scallops, and Dry-Aged Prime Sirloin.
A four-course prix fixe menu is offered for $75, while a six-course tasting menu with wine pairings is $170, and $98 without vino. The cuisine is American fare with marked Italian influences.
The Dining Room can serve up to 500 covers on a Saturday night, with a $115 ticket average. Ticket averages range between $60 and $65 in The Oyster & Wine Bar, where the atmosphere is boisterous, energized, and more bar-like than the restaurant.
Jockey Hollow employs about 75 people and food costs run about 32 percent.
The four operations feature a wide range of craft cocktails and mixed drinks that rotate on the menu, all overseen by head bartender Chris James. “All of our drinks are done by hand, and we even carve our own ice cubes,” offers Cannon.
Opened in October 2014, Jockey Hollow immediately plunged into the all-important holiday season.
“It was a very difficult beginning,” Cannon says. “We should have opened in July or August and ramped it up more slowly, but when you have people demanding to come in—you want to answer them.”
Cannon says because the space wasn’t designed as a restaurant, serving logistics are challenging. “This is a very tough space to work. It’s like orchestrating a Broadway play every night.”
While service issues have been largely mitigated, there still are problems with parking, or lack thereof.
To that end, Cannon now offers a 5 percent deduction off the entire bill for any guests who travel to Jockey Hollow via Uber.
“Parking has been a challenge since day one,” Cannon says. “We are probably about 5 percent below where I thought we would be after one year, and a lot of that has to do with a lack of parking. We spend an awful lot of time thinking about it.”