America’s third-oldest major city—it predates Philadelphia by nearly 20 years—is also its most unsung. Newark began, in 1666, as the last Puritan utopia in the New World, and 353 years later, it’s full of the kind of minor miracles not taught in Sunday school. In the shadow of New York City, it has found its own light. Its arenas teeter between pro hockey and Korean pop. Presidents have been staying in its hotels since the days of Woodrow Wilson. There are swaths of town you need to understand Portuguese to navigate. Now, buoyed by renaissance and more than $2 billion in development, Newark isn’t even Newark anymore. It’s Nork—which is how the locals say it. If you’re not even pronouncing its name correctly, what else don’t you know about this city?
Diving into Newark's rich history
In the beginning, there was coffee. And it was good. Fragrant roasted beans, piled high in open burlap sacks, exude come-hither aromas at T. M. Ward Coffee. The variety is extraordinary: Lunch With Elvis tastes like peanut butter and banana; World Cup is a mix of Brazilian and French roasts; and the one simply called Wow lives up to the name. I go for a cup of the 1869 Blend, which has been served here on Broad Street since the shop was founded in the blend’s namesake year. It’s smoky and muscular. I picture Thomas Edison starting his mornings with the same brew, when he set up his first workshop in an empty factory here.
But a day of Newark’s history should start even earlier, so I walk up Broad to Market—which was, in the 1920s, the busiest intersection in the country, even more bustling than Times Square—and duck into the Old First Church, where the city began in the mid-17th century. At the time, being a member of the church was synonymous with being a Newarker. Later, Aaron Burr’s father was a pastor, and the college that became Princeton University held its first commencement there. And it’s said that slaves on the Underground Railroad would listen to sermons by creaking open trapdoors in the nave, which is as old as the Constitution.
In that same worship space, alone, I kneel and pray. In the silence I hear a whisper become a shout: my growling stomach. Coffee alone is not a breakfast! So I take a cab to Caffe Espresso Italia, a decades-old mother-and-son Italian operation, to order its famous balsamic mozzarella dish, a bowl of peppers and mozzarella soaked in balsamic vinaigrette. God’s will be done.
“What do you make?” owner Maria Pugliese asks me, as she fields a request for her sauce recipe from a fellow patron. “I’m a writer,” I say. “So I guess I make words.” She tosses me a look only mothers give. “Everyone makes words,” she says. “Me? I make food. I make sauce. Not everyone can do this. What can you make?”
My make-or-break move is GlassRoots, where I join a small class—me and a father and son—as our instructor, Alix Davis, walks us through creating our own paperweights over the course of a few hours. First we sign waivers. Waivers? We’re making paperweights!
The introductory lesson involves spooling 2000°F molten glass onto a white-hot metal rod. “That’s it?” I ask Davis. “Oh, I got this. I used to spool cotton candy at a cart at the state fair.” Two minutes in I realize I most definitely do not have this. “Oh no!” I shriek. “I got too much on the stick!”
Davis is a paragon of calm: “It’s OK. Just pull it out of the furnace and we’ll see what we can do.” I rally. “OK, I’m taking it out now and … Oh no! I made it worse!” My molten globule hits the wall of the furnace hellmouth, sticks to it like gum on a shoe, and then stretches and splashes and lashes everywhere in molten ribbons and blobs and puddles (oh, hi waiver!). Imagine making a smoothie without the blender’s lid—and the blender is full of radioactive lava taffy. After I somehow manage to sculpt my molten glob into a sphere, sparks shooting all the while (“Am I doing it? I can’t tell because I’m blinded by fear!”), I turn to the son—a high school junior who is next up to make a paperweight—and put a swaggering hand on his shoulder. “Heads up,” I tell him. “It’s a lot harder than I made it look.”
As we’re wrapping up, Davis says something thrilling: The best way to recover from sweaty glassmaking is a salty meal, preferably something like… But I’m already out the door. I know the spot.
The corned beef sandwich at Hobby’s Delicatessen & Restaurant is so good that Brendan Byrne, the former New Jersey governor, brought one with him to the White House in 1979 for the signing of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Every little bit helps.
The deli was founded about 100 years ago—long before Newark’s game-changing 1967 riots—and is such a throwback that it has a small bar from the days of three-martini lunches. I ask Marc Brummer, one of two sons who run the family business, what’s good. He pats his belly and says, “This is menu development and quality control.” He sits me down for a No. 5—a half-pastrami, half–corned beef sandwich that is a sumptuous dive into a salty, juicy, blissful abyss. In between lip-licking bites, I ask what it’s like to eat deli food every day for almost 60 years. He says he lost 40 pounds, and when I pause to stare him into honesty, he smiles: “I can put it on ya deliciously, and I can take it off ya deliciously.” (Hobby’s has had a vegetarian menu since 2014.)
I waddle out of Hobby’s and into Dan’s Hats & Caps, an old-school haberdashery selling dozens of varieties of newsboy caps, fedoras, and Panama hats. I continue on to Art & Artifacts of Newark, which is equal parts art gallery and renegade garage sale, showcasing and selling vintage typewriters, a massive dollhouse, a large model of the inner ear, a Chinese parasol, and a life-size plastic zebra. For starters. This hodgepodge belongs to Matthew Gosser, who scavenges from various abandoned or derelict sites across the city. Sometimes he gathers the bits and pieces into sculptures, like one of a massive robot in The Thinker’s pose. I look at his trove, treasures untold, and wonder how many wonders can one storefront hold? Looking around here, I think—wait, haven’t I heard this before? Sure, there’s no silverware-studded candelabra, but in the jungly chaos of his collection’s tribute to the city’s giddy weirdness, Gosser is Newark’s Little Mermaid, celebrating every whozit and whatzit galore.
But there comes a time to put away childish things and pick up an adult beverage, so I take a cab to an unassuming gray door in the side of a plain concrete warehouse near elevated railway tracks and press the buzzer. Shortly, I’m welcomed into the All Points West Distillery, which specializes in pot-still whiskey and has the most mixology-minded bar in Newark—a city that has had alcohol in its veins since at least 1951, when the first Anheuser-Busch plant outside of St. Louis debuted. At the bar, I order a Black Pepper Gibson, which comes in a tumbler, and after just one spicy sip I know it’s going to tumble me.
Sure enough, after that drink the night gets hazy, except for a flash of biting into an incredible bacon cheeseburger at Krug’s Tavern, a divey joint dating to 1932, and of me slapping the bar as I extol its virtues. As I crash onto my bed in a two-story room at Hotel Indigo, a converted 1912 bank tower, I think of Newark’s molten past and how beautifully it has all cooled.
As much as Washington, D.C., is celebrated for its annual cherry blossoms, Newark might out-flower the nation’s capital, with 4,300 cherry trees, some of which were planted as far back as 1927. Bloomfest (April 14), a free, family-friendly event in the North Ward’s Branch Brook Park, is the capstone to festivities that include bike rides, walk-run races, and Japanese cultural demonstrations. Can’t make it? Don’t sweat the timing. Last year, the festival started before the trees fully blossomed, and then the flowers returned in November, after an unseasonably warm first half of October.
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I grab an oat milk cold brew from Black Swan Espresso and stroll as I drink my breakfast. (I know, I never learn.) Up, up, and away to modern Newark! I dip into Fortress of Solitude, a legendary comic book shop, and browse the $1 comics up front and the shelf of comics by local artists—Newarky titles like Salvagers, The Were-Spider, and Nightwasp, “the man who is hardly ever afraid.” I buy a copy, in hopes I can pick up a few pointers.
Newark has the East Coast’s only Grammy Museum Experience, and deservedly so. New Jersey is home to many music icons, from Jon Bon Jovi to Bruce Springsteen, but Newark in particular has been a bountiful garden of talent. Naughty by Nature hip-hop-hoorayed here. When Gloria Gaynor belts out “I will survive,” she might as well be singing about her hometown. The museum, which opened in the fall of 2017 in the Prudential Center (also home to the New Jersey Devils hockey team), is broadly, brilliantly interactive: I play drums with Max Weinberg and rap with Wyclef Jean, but the highlight is sound-mixing Whitney Houston. I drop all the knobs to zero except one, vocals, and set that to maximum. I say a prayer with every heartbeat as I listen to what was first heralded in the nearby New Hope Baptist Church choir as simply The Voice.
Falling in love is so bittersweet/This love is strong, why do I feel weak?
The next best thing to church with Whitney is lunch with Vonda. Chef Vonda McPherson’s restaurant, Vonda’s Kitchen, is a favorite of Newark native Shaquille O’Neal, who made peace with his biological father at a table here and who uses McPherson as his personal chef when he’s in town. Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother, sits at the same table almost every Sunday. McPherson even catered the Super Bowl.
For her part, the chef aims to dispel the notion that all soul food is unhealthy, on behalf of all the souls who have given this cuisine its simultaneous heft and lift. “I wanted to live up to more—to local art, to local pride,” she tells me in the art-filled, sunlit space. “Home cooking isn’t just about the cooking; it’s about the home.”
Tucking a napkin into my collar, I let some of the long-buried North Carolina drawl of my childhood slip out as I am led along the righteous path of buffalo mac ’n’ cheese, crispy fried chicken, and earthy collards. Some meals serve calories; some serve flavor. Vonda’s serve love.
No cab or stroll this time—I just straight-up float on cloud nine back to the Indigo, where I meet Emily Manz, who runs a tour called Have You Met Newark. (Audible, which has its global headquarters here, includes the tour in its employee orientation. The audio entertainment company is fully committed to Newark’s growth and even subsidizes employees living in the city and provides free tickets to concerts and games at NJPAC and the Prudential Center.) Manz, a wide-eyed young convert to Newark, leads me on a brisk downtown stroll, singing various praises about revival and renaissance. We enter a clothing store off Halsey Street called Off the Hanger—although there’s no signage out front—and browse the goods, including shirts that read “Newark Vs. Everybody,” while an on-site tailor stitches vibrant African patterns along the lapels and pockets of a stylish denim trench coat. We then visit the Newark Print Shop—I’m sorely tempted to try my glassblowing hand at silkscreening—and finish up at the cavernous Gallery Aferro, a modern art playground with a residency program upstairs.
There’s no better place to decompress from such a flurry of activity than the rear garden at 27 Mix, where I have a light dinner of salmon tartare with avocado, edamame, and matcha. I wash it all down with a refreshingly sweet-tart Ironbound Hard Cider, made on a farm in the New Jersey Highlands. Breezes and songbirds duet, accompanied by orange trumpet vine blossoms. The subtle symphony gives me an idea: Clement’s Place, a kind of nightclub that’s tucked into the Neoclassical former offices of an insurance company and is affiliated with Rutgers University’s Institute of Jazz Studies, which is home to the world’s largest jazz library. The shows are packed—free food and booze will do that—and the multiethnic audience of young and old and straight-laced and queer feels like an impromptu riff on the city’s creative possibilities. Musical notes flutter across the room like kisses, and I go to sleep at my new hotel, the Tryp by Wyndham, with jazz’s perfume on my pillow.
Discovering a diverse international influence
I wake up at the Tryp, a sleek cosmopolitan hideaway that opened last year in the heart of downtown Newark. As I leave the lobby, I pass one of those signs that tells me Paris is 3,631 miles away and Jerusalem is 5,699 miles away. But it also tells me the Ironbound is 0.1 miles away. “What’s that?” I ask the front desk.
The answer—“It’s basically Portugal”—is intriguing. I recall a Brazilian-American friend (a native Newarker, no less!) who raved about a sandwich here, and I make it my mission to find it. Ten bites and five napkins later, the verdict is in: The Cheese Tudo from Hamburgão is up there with the best sandwiches I’ve ever had. Two slices of potato bread somehow harness hamburger, ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato, corn, mayo, mozzarella, a fried egg, and crisp potato sticks. I chase it down with a Brazilian guaraná soda, which has twice as much caffeine as a cup of coffee.
I walk off breakfast in the neighborhood’s parks, packed with families, and try my hand at bocce with some of the old-timers. It turns out I’m as good at bocce as I am at glassmaking. But afterward I still treat myself to some pineapple sorbet at Nasto’s, an 80-year-old spot that’s famous for its Old World desserts, like tartufos and reginettas.
Along Ferry Street, the Ironbound’s main drag, the small, independent shops offer curiosities: dress shirts at Mel Gambert, tchotchkes at Portugalia, and cork accessories—handbags and wallets—at CS Cork. For the folks back home, I get a box of Brazilian brigadeiros (truffles made with condensed milk and cocoa powder) at Gio Docinhos, the most potent collection of sweets in the city.
Maybe it’s the sense of farawayness I get from exploring Newark’s international side—the African-print shirts and homemade shea-butter lotions at Ancient African Formula are otherworldly—but I find myself pulled toward Burger Walla and its absolutely perfect lamb burger with goat cheese, spicy tomato pickle, and caramelized onions. (It’s great with curried cauliflower and chickpeas, pan-fried to order.) Farther east I go, to the world’s largest Tibetan art collection, at the Newark Museum, which was visited by the Dalai Lama in 1990. The wisdom has clearly accrued over centuries of reincarnation, as the Tibetan display includes a playpen for children to exorcise their museum demons.
As I leave the museum and cross Military Park, I pass a mariachi band in periwinkle outfits. “Where are you going?” I ask. “To a party,” they reply. “Can I come?” “No,” they say kindly. “But if you like this music, maybe try the flamenco at Mompou.” Back to the Ironbound!
Mompou, it turns out, isn’t Portuguese or Brazilian; it’s Spanish, specifically Galician tapas (although the bottled water is from Rioja). It’s a getaway within a getaway that reminds me of the tango show tune “Hernando’s Hideaway.” A glass of wine, a fast embrace!
Everything on stage—the guitar strings, the drums, the clapping hands, the lilting voice, the flurry of ruffled skirts—combines, pitter-patter-style, into the loudest lullaby you’ve ever heard. And the dancer! Such statuesque grace that the only sign she has exerted herself at the end of her incredible routine is the quiver of her clavicle as she holds her triumphant final pose. I nibble on 24-month-aged jamón ibérico until I realize I’m late for dinner.
If there’s one man who will understand how taken I am with Newark’s multi-cultural renaissance, it’s Ethiopian-Swedish celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, who I meet at Marcus B&P, the bistro he opened last year in the Hahne & Co. building, a mammoth former department store that was renovated after 30 years of dereliction.
“As an immigrant, you know how it is to feel neglected,” he says, rapid-fire, as I munch on a salad grown at AeroFarms, a nearby converted steel mill that’s now the world’s largest indoor vertical farm. “There’s a soulful sensibility that you can turn into a sense of place. A kitchen can be poetic justice. I’ve always been a fan of B-sides. Prince. Bob Marley. Grace Jones. David Bowie. They were my style teachers as well as my English teachers. Newark is a B-side city. It’s where all the personal poetry is hidden. It has the energy of emergence, which is the true energy of beauty.” He pauses to take a sip of water. “Don’t come and ask me, ‘Is Newark good now?’ People want credible, predictable travel, and Newark is an incredible, unpredictable place. That’s how you get Queen Latifah.
That’s how you get Redman. Look, Rome is great. But who was the last global artist to come out of it?”
It’s nighttime now, and I’m winding down my last evening at Jimenez Tobacco, an ornate, family-run Cuban cigar speakeasy where the only female master blender in the country oversees a boutique operation that refuses to sell other brands (the shop’s own 23 varieties, aged 10 years, will suffice). It’s the kind of upscale dive where the broke can feel baroque. Smoke curls playfully around me, as if it’s about to pull a quarter out of my ear.
I’m a few daiquiris in and shooting the breeze with Peter, the manager-son, whose Cheshire Cat grin is infectious.
“Why are you Peter and not Pedro?” I ask.
He smiles and shrugs: “I came to this melting pot, and I melted.” He roars with laughter. He’s a true raconteur, with a smidgen of racketeer to him; he makes his Cuban guayabera seem like an open tuxedo shirt, cuff links and all.
“Shhh!” I stage-whisper. “Won’t we wake up your mother?” He waves dismissively at the staircase that rises to her bedroom. “She raised three boys. She can sleep through anything.”
As I saunter home, a flamenco lyric echoes in my mind: “El querer es cuesta arriba, y el olvidar cuesta abajo; quiero subir cuesta arriba aunque me cueste trabajo.” Wanting is uphill, forgetting is downhill; I want to climb uphill despite the work.
Nork, the little utopia that could, is done with its downhill moments. It’s unforgettable now.
Where to Stay
Tryp by Wyndham Newark Downtown
Opened last spring in a 1920s building with Art Deco flourishes, this 101-room hotel is brimming with hometown pride. Look for elevator-landing murals of Newark natives (such as Queen Latifah and Frankie Valli) and a giant acrylic lightbulb in the lobby, a nod to Thomas Edison, who first publicly demonstrated an electric lightbulb in Military Park—about 500 feet from the hotel’s front door.
From $145, wyndhamhotels.com
Hotel Indigo Newark Downtown
Occupying the 1912 former headquarters of the First National State Bank, this 108-room property welcomes guests with a lobby mosaic mural of Edison’s ticker-tape writer, contributed by local glass studio GlassRoots. The bank’s teller desks have been transformed into the check-in counter, while the original vault was incorporated into the design of the on-site restaurant, The Ainsworth.
From $145, hotelindigo.com