The Walla, formerly known as Burger Walla, owned by Kai Campbell, survived the rough days of quarantine that forced Newark to close most of its businesses for a year. The city was one of the major hotspots during the height of the COVID-19 crisis. Photo credit: The Wall's website.

Restaurant week takeover in Newark. Go get you some food

With dozens of food places to try out in Newark, the New Jersey gem backs the re-opening of businesses after a rough time during closure.

In 2007, I landed in Newark, New Jersey as a fresh face to a well-worn city receiving another round of media attention from its then mayor, Cory Booker, who is now U.S. Senator Booker (D-NJ).

I’d been introduced to Newark through hip hop, through Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill, and via films like, New Jersey Drive. My ideas were narrow, but I came with a hunger to be part of a city with immense potential to blossom into all of its Black power energy of 1967.

A Los Angeleno who’d come to Jersey by way of Atlanta, I was raised on burritos, grits, okra chicken and gumbo. So I always traveled with an undying love of good food and fresh produce. That stopped short when I landed in “the Bricks,” and smack dab into a food desert.

I remember clearly when Sen. Booker broke down on some news station in his attempts to save the only Starbucks on Broad Street. Eventually, his pleas fell on deaf ears because it shuttered soon after. For years, you would have to go to Rutgers to get a cup of Starbucks’ java and sometimes get sweated by the university cops. Funny thing is, I was a student, but I guess I looked too local.

Speed up 14 years and on the other side of a now sputtering pandemic, it is good to see eateries and restaurants that made it. To add to the restaurant rows, it brings more joy to count food spots that have opened in spite of almost insurmountable challenges. The sweet testimony of survival and re-imagining the food scene in the City shows even more in Newark’s restaurant week, hosted by Invest Newark.

The event started on August 12, and ends this Sunday, August 22. With “Eight Days of Deals,” restaurants are offering prix fixe lunch and dinner menus. This event “serves as an opportunity to support local businesses, try new restaurants, and savor old favorites,” stated Invest Newark.

Travel with food

Uncle Willie’s Wings is a Newark-based food truck. Photo credit: Uncle Willie’s Wings Facebook

With over 60 eating houses and even some cafes and tea-centric spots, participants can taste the range of cultural and ethnic representations of the city. From soul food to Thai, to Portuguese to West African and back to the Mediterranean, you can nation-hop with every tasting. All the while, explore the history of cultures in the range of spices and culinary foodways and traditions. Moreover, the range of atmospheres of participating businesses go from casual to fine dining—so peruse with your palate in flip flops or red bottoms.

To remain afloat was a gravity-defying act for many family-owned food spots. “It’s been close calls, and witnessing the collective struggle and battles of mental stability,” said Kai Campbell who calls himself the “envisionary” of The Yard and The Walla restaurants in downtown Newark.

Known for his innovative twists on American food, Campbell offers a very candid lens into the food industry. Talking about this week leading up to the festival, he admitted to being “super depressed, under a rock, and just searching for the light that my soul needs as a guide to optimism and hope.”

But an introduction to renowned chef and restaurateur, Marcus Samuelsson, who has the highly popular Marcus B&P just steps from Campbell’s, The Walla, was just the right boost he needed to shine during the week.

But, struggle be damned. This week, we have some eating to do. I was taken back to Friday night tacos in my hometown with the menu of birria tacos and fried whole fish at Little Tijuana, a margarita and bar lounge with a great rooftop. Then who could resist a tasty slice of artisanal pizza from Mercato Tomato Pie, or a spicy stew from the longtime dive, The Soup Kitchen.

There were so many other eateries to choose from that all I could do was compose a list for future visits. For now, I had to wash down my savory experience with Blueprint Cafe’s Açaí Lavender Lemonade and one of their buttery pastries during their outdoor brunch hours. For vegans, their options here are excellent too.

Toward a hungrier and better city

Although restaurant week is a new venture in the city, this year is a celebration and a memorial. Because so many places did not survive in spite of  the City’s multiple efforts, it feels good to see doors to establishments gradually open with longer hours. Added, Newark restaurant owners remain resilient with the support of the current mayor, Ras Baraka. Earlier this year in May, the City implemented an idea to support outdoor dining in its “StrEATERY” initiative that allowed outdoor pop-ups, and restaurants to set up small seating areas.

“As we continue to see a decline in Newark’s COVID-19 positivity rate and an increase in residents being vaccinated, it’s important for our restaurants and businesses to be provided with additional opportunity to help stimulate the economy, while having the proper structures in place to ensure our residents’ safety,” Mayor Baraka said. 

The restaurant week is a precursor for Newark just weeks before thousands of students fill K through 12 schools, while others arrive to attend Rutgers University, Seton Hall Law School and Essex Community College, along with faculty and staff.

“We are moving Newark forward safely, economically, and turning this pandemic into a time to excel,” Mayor Baraka mentioned with optimism.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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