When Ryan German, on the cusp of graduating for the University of Delaware, decided to start a small restaurant specializing in gelato, he looked no farther than his old stomping grounds for a location. German knew gelato was an untapped niche, and he certainly knew Newark.
His restaurant, Caffé Gelato, opened in 2000 on Main Street. Since then, the restaurant has expanded—both indoors and out—and it has received the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. The wine and food offerings have also expanded. There are 25 wines by the glass and 162 wines by the bottle, and the menu features such dishes as peppered seared tuna with a butter-brandy sauce and caramelized red radish risotto, and a 9-ounce veal chop wrapped in prosciutto.
“Students and kids buy gelato up front, and people in the back dine with a nice bottle of wine,” German says.
The comfortable mixture of the casual and the upscale characterizes Main Street perfectly. Whether you’re wearing fancy clothes or shorts, walking with students or business colleagues, you’re right at home. There are great restaurants and unique retailers to serve every taste.
“Main Street is going through an incredible evolution,” says Mayor Vance Funk, an attorney with an office on Main Street. “The businesses have created an upgraded atmosphere, and the events downtown are bringing in people from 25 to 30 miles away.”
Credit in part goes to the Downtown Newark Partnership, accredited as a 2009 National Main Street Program for meeting the commercial district revitalization performance standards set by the National Trust Main Street Center.
A walk down the street takes you past a movie theater, two full-service bicycle shops and a ski and surf shop. There are gift and novelty stores, a pottery studio and gallery, florists and boutiques. Restaurants range from Vietnamese, Middle Eastern and Mexican, to upscale places with diverse menus and winelists. That’s just a start. And everywhere, people are dining outdoors or strolling the sidewalks.
German says Main Street has a “vibrant energy,” especially in warm weather, when diners flock to sidewalk tables and cars cruise down the road. “People seem to know everyone, and they stop to talk,” Funk says. “You don’t see that a lot on the East Coast.”
Caffé Gelato is one of the many restaurants and treat shops along the Main Street corridor. Like Caffé Gelato, Home Grown Café—which also opened in 2000—has been so successful that it expanded and, in 2003, moved into a larger space.
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Sasha Aber, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Eric, allowed Home Grown to consume her jewelry shop during the growth spurt, but she still sells her work in the front of the restaurant.
Indeed, Homegrown displays no ordinary decor. “It looks more like Philly and New York, with orange and blue booths and funky chandeliers,” Aber says. “Even though it’s Newark, a small town, we wanted Home Grown to be a full experience, with great food and a great environment. It’s like stepping into a mini vacation when you enter the restaurant.”
Home Grown touts its local flavor. Not only is this evident in its seasonal menu, which is heavy on products from the region, but it’s also evident in its ownership. Aber has lived in Newark since she was 1. The restaurant has plenty of vegan and vegetarian options, and guests can substitute soy products for the meat or chicken in many of the conventional dishes. Sauces, dressings and most items are made from scratch.
SAS Cupcakes is also a family affair. Tara and Mike Voigt started the bakery in 2007 as Sweet-n-Sassy Cupcakes, but recently shortened it to a more Web-friendly name.
The couple picked Main Street because of the student population, yet the customer demographics now include businesspeople and, of course, mothers and children. The bakery often provides food for catered events—even those at other restaurants. “Other businesses on Main Street are friendly and supportive,” Mike Voigt says. “It’s a group of people who pour their heart and soul into their business.”
Jim Baeurle is pouring his heart into a wineglass. Baeurle is the owner of the brand new Stone Balloon Winehouse, named after the nightclub that once stood on the site. The new Balloon, tucked under condos, is no nightclub. It’s an elegant, 3,800-square-foot restaurant with a Tuscan-inspired decor, 19-foot ceilings and 250 bottles of wine. “Since opening night, we’ve been going nonstop,” Baeurle says.
Another Main Street mainstay is Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant, the first location in what has become a popular tri-state chain, which opened in 1996.
The Deer Park Tavern is a landmark for generations of college students. Bob Ashby purchased the Deer Park in 2001, transforming it from a dilapidated building into an attractive hotspot. His improvements were initially met with mixed opinions. Old-timers—even if they weren’t that old—protested change. “I questioned whether it was the flooded bathrooms or the rotted floors that they preferred,” Ashby jokes.
Now the majority of people are happy to see the Main Street icon in its new glory. “Alumni love the fact that they’re coming to a clean, redone place that still has the old Deer Park feel,” Ashby says.
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The vibe on Main Street is “terrific,” says Ashby, who owned Ashby’s Oyster House on Main Street 20 years ago. “Back then you could take a bowling ball and roll it up the street and not hit anyone after graduation. The city has done a terrific job of letting entrepreneurs come in and take chances.”
Chris Locke also has witnessed the growth. Locke’s store, Formal Affairs, has had a Main Street address for 37 years. “When we first came, we were one of the few retail stores other than the Five and Dime,” says Locke, who offers men’s formalwear for sale and rental. “Now there’s a beautiful mix of restaurants and retail.”
Many stores stock unusual and eclectic offerings. “That’s exactly what we specialize in,” says Mimi Sullivan-Sparks, who opened Bloom in 2004. The shop sells accessories, clothing, candles, body care and jewelry primarily made by U.S. manufacturers and artists.
Shoppers include students, professors, businesspeople and families. “I’ve been invited to move my business, but I’d rather consider a second location,” she says. “We’ve had some great years here, and sales are still strong despite the economy.”
The district’s hipness factor attracted Kay Snelling to Main Street. “You can walk in and out of all these little shops,” says Snelling, who in 2006 opened Gecko Fashions. “I wanted to be a part of that.”
Her store offers hard-to-find brands that possess a buzz for women and juniors. Take, for instance, ta-tas Brand Clothing, which benefits breast cancer research; Beads of Hope jewelry, which benefits women in Uganda; and Zulugrass eco-fashion jewelry, made by Maasai artisans. “My window attracts people, and they get drawn in,” Snelling says.
Having a business on Main Street is convenient, she says. It’s easy to zip over to the bank or head down the street for lunch. It’s easy to get to the doctor and dentist, she says.
Parking, meanwhile, has increased 55 percent since 1998, says Maureen Feeney Roser, assistant director of planning and development for the city and administrator of the Downtown Newark Partnership. A recent study found that parking was adequate. The city, however, is keeping the topic on the front burner. “We need to look toward the future,” Roser says.
In the past three years, the area has benefited from $1.3 million in public money and $2.3 million in private money. Last year, 10 new businesses opened, and the city completed a two-year project that included new pedestrian crosswalks, lighting and bump-outs.
The cosmetic improvements, the crowed sidewalks and the busy stores are all good signs. “Main Street continues to thrive,” Roser says. “It’s vibrant, diverse and economically healthy.”