Talk to most any foodie in the Philadelphia or South Jersey region, and there’s a good chance they know of Collingswood. The restaurants that line Haddon Avenue and the chefs that steer the menus have become regional rock stars.
The story of “restaurant row” in Collingswood is a relatively new phenomenon and now it is the talk of South Jersey as other towns are looking to make a restaurant row a key to their revivals.
The young child: Woodbury’s Broad Street
Before the Italian eatery Marlene Mangia Bene opened last fall, Woodbury wasn’t generating much interest about its dining scene.
Like many of the older towns in South Jersey that have been in a steady decline economically, Gloucester had been struggling to find its identity. The opening of Marlene Mangia Bene, with its hip and urban look, generated plenty of excitement.
Since the opening, the restaurant received very positive reviews, generated some legitimate buzz in regional publications.
“Marlene Mangia Bene is showing the area that Woodbury can support fine and unique restaurants, and that we have a loyal and appreciative fan base with which to grow,” Larry Geiger, executive director of Main Street Woodbury said.
But only one restaurant creating excitement isn’t enough to create a successful restaurant row.
So, when the County Seat Diner opened this year, taking over a location where restaurants had come and gone for years, the hope was that something would take hold and grow.
The maturing adolescent: Vineland’s Landis Avenue
Unlike Collingswood, Vineland actually has a history in food. Thomas Bramwell Welch harvested the fruit of the concord grape vines in Vineland in the 1860s and became an industry leader that is still well-known today.
The Vineland Produce Auction helps to set prices of produce throughout the Northeast. And yet, history alone could not stop the decline suffered all along Landis Avenue.
In 2008, Vineland made the decision to tap into its food background and recreate itself as a food destination.
The plan was to create a restaurant row and bring an indoor specialty food and produce market to Landis Avenue.
Landis Market Place opened its doors in May 2011, offering an Amish market as well as a Mexican eatery and a New Orleans-styled seafood kitchen to customers. Thus far, the market seems to have had a positive impact on the area.
“The market has just been another positive aspect of [Vineland’s] downtown growth, and so I hear far fewer comments about the avenue being dangerous or seedy like we did when we opened five years ago,” Stephen Wilson, co-owner and chef at Sweet Life Bakery said.
“In fact, I can’t even remember the last time I heard that. The market has been a very bright spot for downtown Vineland, and the light has flowed up and down Landis Avenue.”
Sweet Life Bakery has done its part to keep that light flowing. Wilson and his wife Jill McClennan have made their little bakery, which opened in 2007, into one of the best in South Jersey.
Originally just off the avenue, the couple expanded their business on the avenue by taking over an old bank location. Now, the business is part of a mixture of upscale places and mom and pop Mexican, Puerto Rican and Jamaican eateries that constitute a restaurant row that, in Wilson’s words, is “in a maturing phase.”
It had a lot of growth in the beginning and has leveled off for the moment. Some weaker restaurants have closed or tweaked things, but the stronger places are growing,” Wilson said.
The quiet adult: Bordentown’s Farnsworth Avenue
Woodbury traces its beginning back to 1683. Bordentown does one better; its history begins in 1682. The town is chock full of history: from Francis and Joseph Hopkinson to Thomas Paine to Joseph Bonaparte to Clara Barton. And yet, the town doesn’t seem to make a lot of noise about its rich history. So, it makes sense that its restaurant row, which grew alongside Collingswood’s and is arguably a close second, does not get nearly as much attention.
The location that held the fort on Farnsworth Avenue until reinforcements arrived this past decade was The Farnsworth House, a local institution. Not resting on its laurels as a local yokel staple, owners have expanded their menu craft beers to help bring in a wider audience.
The reinforcements that have come to Bordentown’s restaurant row include a steady collection of well-regarded dining destinations: Jester’s Café (which opened in 2001), Marcello’s Restaurant & Tomato Pie (current management took over location 2004), Under The Moon Café (2005), and Oliver — A bistro and Toscano Ristorante (both opened in 2006).
More recently, Beanwood Coffee and Latin Bistro added an interesting ethnic shade to Farnsworth Avenue, showing that a good restaurant row continues to find new ways to entice diners to come, take a stroll, and explore.
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