Finally, the deal is done.
Chris Cannon, a partner in some of New York’s top Italian restaurants, has signed a lease to bring upscale dining to Morristown’s historic Vail Mansion.
The Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen should open next spring, bringing American and Italian-inspired cuisine to the Italian Renaissance palazzo-style mansion built by AT&T President Theodore Vail during World War I.
Wednesday’s announcement culminates months of negotiations with town officials–first reported here--and years of searching by the landlords, who struggled to find the ideal tenant for a challenging space.
“It’s great to get through it and feel like it’s finally going to happen,” said Chris, a Mountain Lakes resident whose past ventures have included such leading Italian restaurants as Palio, Remi, L’Impero, Convivio, Alto, All’Onda and Marea, a James Beard Award winner.
“After years of searching, we were finally able to locate the right New York City restaurateur to make this incredible space work as a four-star dining establishment,” said Stephen Santola of Woodmont Properties, which re-developed the site with Roseland, another realty company.
Several years ago they added 31 luxury condo units to the Vail Mansion, which formerly served as Morristown’s town hall and police headquarters.
As a stipulation of the sale, the town required that the original, historic portion of the site–the mansion itself–remain accessible to the public.
But finding a commercial tenant was difficult because of the mansion’s configuration: 15,000 square feet spanning three floors.
The Bicycling Hall of Fame was courted, to no avail. When Chris Cannon expressed interest, everyone lit up– until the issue of a liquor license was raised.
An upscale restaurant needs to serve alcohol. But no liquor licenses were available for purchase in Morristown.
So, after some tense meetings earlier this year, town officials arranged for Chris to obtain a “concessionaire’s permit” from the state. That agreement calls for him to pay the town $500,000 over a decade, in exchange for permission to serve alcohol.
“This is a great win for the town of Morristown,” said Dick Tighe, chairman of the Vail Mansion Redevelopment Agency, which negotiated with Chris. “This guy is holding nothing back. It’s really going to be a first-class operation. It’s more than we were hoping for.”
During talks with the town, Chris’ lawyer said that the restaurateur intended to invest up to $4 million in the project. Town officials assured Vail condo residents–who raised concerns about potential noisy trash pickups, food odors and alcohol-related problems– that they would deal with any issues that might arise.
Mayor Tim Dougherty predicted the restaurant will be a big plus for that section of South Street, giving visitors another reason to come to town.
“Morristown is on the move. It’s becoming the place to go, whether for the arts, festivals, for living. And it’s not only a great place to live and work–it’s a great place to retire. We’ve got great shops, great entertainment, great medical. We’re moving forward for several generations,” the Mayor said.
Chris plans to bring farm-to-table dining to Morristown, using fresh, locally grown ingredients.
The Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen will include “an oyster and wine bar with a casual menu, a sophisticated 1920’s style cocktail lounge, an upscale dining room and private event space,” according to the developers.
While the quality will be on par with Chris’ New York establishments, “the entrees will be more reasonably priced,” the restaurateur said.
Chris also has commissioned eight artists to create pieces for the restaurant “that will thoughtfully incorporate a contemporary flair into the historic charm of the space.” Seasonal outdoor dining also is envisioned.
“Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen is an exceptional use for this space and a great way to connect the public to Vail Mansion while adding a unique flair to Morristown’s thriving downtown restaurant scene,” Roseland’s Debra Tantleff said in a statement.
Roseland and Woodmont also transformed the former Epstein’s department store into the 40 Park luxury condos and The Metropolitan luxury apartments, and built the “transit village” apartments at the Highlands at Morristown Station.
The Vail Mansion’s location next to the Mayo Performing Arts Center made the site especially appealing to Chris.
“I couldn’t imagine a more ideal location in New Jersey for a restaurant,” he said in a statement. “Physically, it is one of the most beautiful spaces around. There’s no way I could ever find anything remotely like this in New York City, or even in New Jersey.”
In an interview, Chris acknowledged there were times when he wasn’t sure if the project would fly; the mansion’s status as an historic landmark can complicate matters.
Now, he is ready to get down to business.
“There’s a lot of work to do!” he said.