New York restaurateur proposes posh restaurant for Morristown’s Vail Mansion
By Sharon Sheridan and Kevin Coughlin
Morristown is poised to welcome another restaurant–but not just any restaurant.
A prominent New York restaurateur seeks permission to open The Jockey Hollow Bar and Kitchen in the historic Vail Mansion on South Street.
Chris Cannon, a Mountain Lakes resident who has been a principal in such well-known Italian restaurants as San Domenico, Remi, L’Impero, Alto, Marea and All’Onda, is behind the proposal, which he presented to the Vail Mansion Redevelopment Agency on Tuesday.
Agency members and Mayor Tim Dougherty responded enthusiastically but delayed voting until March 19 to allow time for mansion residents and the public to be informed about the plan, and for Cannon’s attorney, Lori Grifa of West Orange, and agency attorney John Inglesino to prepare the paperwork required to move forward.
That includes an application for a concessionaire’s permit that will allow Jockey Hollow to serve alcohol.
For the first floor, plans call for an oyster and wine bar with a casual menu and a cocktail lounge in back, designed to “feel the way a cocktail lounge in the 1920s would feel,” Cannon said. “Sophisticated, elegant.”
The second floor would feature farm-to-table fine dining. And the “sub-level” would host private events, he said.
“This is an exceptional use for this facility,” said Kenneth Miller, redevelopment agency vice chair. “We are very supportive.”
Agency Chair Dick Tighe agreed. “It’s what we wished for the whole time.
“The original concept was for a high-end restaurant that the public can enjoy, a public space that everyone can get into and use prior to going to the theater,” he said, referring to the Mayo Performing Arts Center next door. “This will be spot-on with that original plan.”
In December, Cannon told NY.Eater.com that he was thrilled by the idea of opening his restaurant in the 15,000-square-foot space, which was built by AT&T President Theodore Vail between 1916 and 1918:
“It’s going to have a casual dining component to it, an oyster/wine bar, a huge cocktail lounge, a very refined second seat 70-seat fine dining concept, a lot of banqueting, outdoor seating. It’s going to be really great…It’s going to have amazing food, but it’s also going to be very reasonably priced, because I pay a tenth of the rent that I paid in Manhattan.”
On Tuesday, Cannon commented several times about the building’s beauty and said he was consulting with an historical architect, among others, to design a plan that “respects” that beauty. The father of three young children, he said he also looked forward to a shorter commute than traveling into New York.
Vail commissioned the Italian Renaissance palazzo to be his home and a family museum. But he never lived there, and in 1922 the town acquired it and occupied it for decades as the town hall.
In exchange for granting permission for luxury condos at the Vail Mansion, which opened a few years ago, the town required that the original portion of the building remain a public space.
Proposed uses have included a hotel, a cycling museum and a high-end restaurant.
But the two-floor layout and the building’s historic designation have posed challenges for would-be commercial tenants.
The town gave the condo developer, Rosewood, a deadline to find a suitable tenant for the public space; theoretically, the town could have reclaimed ownership of that space if no tenant was secured. The deadline was extended a number of times.
A prior administration contended a restaurant would never work in the Vail Mansion, a stance that prompted most of the redevelopment agency members to quit. Some of them subsequently were reappointed by current mayor Dougherty.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, Dougherty had said he was intrigued by the new proposal and that, if the town’s requirements could be met, the restaurant would be an exciting addition to the downtown.
Tighe also credited the Morristown Partnership with hard work behind the scenes.
“This is just the kind of use that was always envisioned for that space,” said Michael Fabrizio, executive director of the Partnership.
One question was how the restaurant would obtain a town liquor license–because no new ones are available.
On Tuesday, attorney Grifa outlined a proposal to apply to the N.J. Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control in Trenton for a concessionaire’s permit instead. Cannon would pay $500,000 for the permit, in installments during his 10-year lease, she said.
Unlike a liquor license, issued by the town, the permit is issued by the ABC for properties owned by the government, Grifa said.
This type of permit can be used in this case, Inglesino explained, because “the building is in our opinion controlled by a public entity.”
Such permits must be renewed annually and, unlike liquor licenses, are not transferable from person to person, Grifa said. Cannon required consent from the redevelopment agency to apply for the permit and also written proof of an agreement.
Debra Tantleff, Rosewood vice president of development and the landlord’s representative on the condo board, which meets quarterly, said board members and residents had been receiving updates but did not specifically know a restaurant was proposed.
“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. … They’re very excited to see the building occupied.”
With the restaurant plans publicly disclosed at Tuesday’s meeting, Dougherty said: “I think it’s important that the condo association be notified now…We don’t really know what the position is of the people who live there.”
He predicted reaction would be “overwhelmingly positive” but said he thought transparency was important. He also stressed the need for disclosing information including hours of operation to the public.
With the concessionaire’s permit renewed yearly, Cannon commented, “you have so much leverage, I have to be an altar boy.”
Other town concerns included proper disposal of trash and venting of cooking odors. Cannon said he would build two kitchens on different levels to accommodate the various eateries’ needs and would have no trouble properly venting exhaust outdoors. The renovations will not require moving any walls within the building, he said.
According to materials provided by Grifa, “Mr. Cannon is likely to spend an estimated $4.7 million to complete the work needed to open a restaurant there. He has secured the necessary investments to cover the cost of the buildout … Once open, it could create as many as 150 new jobs in Morris County.”
Ideally, Jockey Hollow would open by year’s end, she said during Tuesday’s meeting. She noted that Cannon’s previous ventures included restaurants in historic buildings and in mixed-use ones, sharing space with either residences or other businesses.
“He’s really been in the wars,” she said. “He’s uniquely qualified.”