How Collingswood became a hotspot for restaurants

Foodies, rejoice. Restaurant Week kicks off Sunday, October 14 in Collingswood, one of South Jersey’s premier dining destinations.

During the week, a wide variety of culinary delights will entice even the pickiest of food critics in Collingswood as restaurant patrons experience multi-course dinners at discounted prices. Though Collingswood’s downtown is considered one of South Jersey’s trendiest dining destinations, it has not always had such a respectable reputation.

How Collingswood made it happen

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When someone suggested Collingswood as a potential location for Mark Smith’s and Lydia Cipriani’s new restaurant venture over ten years ago, the pair “blew it off” because they had always viewed Collingswood as a “dumpy little town.”

Around the same time, longtime Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said the borough felt that one thing was missing from its downtown that was needed to complete the town’s redevelopment effort. “We needed a driver to complete the Haddon Avenue strip,” he said.

A survey of the town revealed that residents were tired of hair and nail salons and did not want to see any more “beat up thrift stores” on Haddon Avenue, the main street through town, said Smith. They wanted good food.But Maley explained that “restaurants are one of the few businesses who like to be with a whole lot of other restaurants,” so it is pretty difficult to convince one restaurant to isolate itself and open in a town with no other restaurants.

Collingswood was determined to revitalize its downtown though so it hosted a restaurant conference where they tried to sell why the borough would be a good fit for new businesses. They had to work really hard, said Maley and “the first couple were really difficult” to persuade.

Eventually, the effort paid off as Italian restaurant Villa Barone moved in, followed shortly by Smith and Cipriani’s Mexican-influenced restaurant, The Tortilla Press. After the first two restaurants opened, it was easier to entice other restaurants to Collingswood.

The Tortilla Press recently celebrated its 10th anniversary in business and while Smith said they feel “really fortunate” to be a part of the Collingswood dining scene, the decision to open a restaurant in Collingswood was not an easy one because they did not know what to expect.

Smith said they were pretty surprised when they “opened our doors to masses of people.” They quickly expanded into the adjacent storefront as well.

Because so many of the restaurants that followed The Tortilla Press into Collingswood were of a high quality, people began to view it as a dining destination, Smith explained. Its restaurants offered food that previously could only be found in Philadelphia but without the parking nightmare.

The many “unique, different cuisines” have helped build the community together, said Smith. Collingswood is “such a tight community,” and support goes back and forth between the restaurants. The borough also does a lot of integral marketing through town wide ventures such as Restaurant Week, Collingswood’s award winning Farmer’s Market and seasonal events like the May Fair.

“All the events are integral to the success of the restaurants because they bring new people into town,” said Smith. They see main street and its restaurants and they come in. The Tortilla Press operates a second location in Merchantville and they “do not get the influx of people who walk by, see the restaurant and come in.”

Maley said it used to be that when he would visit one of the Collingswood’s restaurants, he would know almost everyone in the building. Now, however, he rarely recognizes anyone. At a recent conference, acquaintances from as far as Bristol, Pa. and Lafayette Hills, Pa. mentioned traveling to Collingswood for the dining experience.

The good news continues to roll in for Collingswood’s dining scene. This August, new restaurant Zeppoli was named to Bon Appetit’s 2012 Top 50 Best New Restaurant Nominees list. 

See restaurant boom for yourself

Restaurant Week is a “chance to let everyone take sample of all the restaurants,” explained Maley.Reflecting Collingswood’s diverse human population, the borough’s dining options boast an appealing blend of cultural options. Sicilian twists on traditional Italian cuisine, Ecuadorian and Cuban options, Asian Fusion and even a barbeque restaurant are available in Collingswood’s dining district, with new ones opening up frequently. Akira, a new Japanese restaurant, is scheduled to open this fall.

Prix fixe menus for Restaurant Week offering 3-4 courses for around $30 a person are available for the participating restaurants on Collingswood’s website. The borough recommends making reservations early as seats tend to fill up quickly.

At The Tortilla Press, their philosophy is simple. Smith said, “We want everybody to feel welcome and be served a good meal at a reasonable price. There’s no magic, we just try to make each person feel important.”That philosophy carries over to every aspect of the dining district. “We have a lot of crazy people working really hard on a lot of different fronts that makes it work,” said Maley. Collingswood does not have “just a lot of restaurants, but a lot of really great restaurants.”

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