Any proposal involving alcohol in downtown Morristown generates animated discussion these days.
Some residents from nearby luxury condos and historic Victorian homes insist the area already is saturated with bars and liquored-up revelers, who spill into their neighborhoods and onto the police blotter each weekend.
Iron Bar owner Jimmy Cavanaugh, on the other hand, contends that nightlife spells salvation for South Street, as banks retreat and small shops try to persevere in a still-challenging economy.
His latest variation on this theme, which he is preparing to pitch to town officials, is the Iron Bistro and Beer Garden, a proposed 240-seat restaurant and bar with live jazz, aimed at the 30-to-55 crowd.
“People in their late 20s and early 30s are going to grow up, and we feel they’re going to want something a little more sophisticated,” said Paul Viggiano, a chef and saxophonist who is advising Jimmy.
The project may require an extension of Jimmy’s Iron Bar liquor license into approximately 6,000-square-feet that he owns next door on South Street.
For the venture to succeed, he said, the town council must lift an 11 pm alcohol curfew it imposed in October 2012 when it approved a license extension into half of that space, for a Mexican restaurant and bar tentatively dubbed The Gran Cantina.
When the CUPS frozen yogurt shop–Jimmy’s tenant in the other half of that space– pulled out earlier this year, he said his focus shifted. The Gran Cantina plans were scrapped in favor of combining the storefronts–former homes to a Woolworth’s five-and-dime, a Foot Locker store and a cafe called Zebu Forno – into the Iron Bistro.
“I hear rumblings that they won’t let us open beyond 11 pm,” said Jimmy, a former Essex County freeholder. For more than three decades he has owned Morristown nightspots, starting with the Wedgewood Inn, later known as Society Hill, Argyle’s, Phoebe’s and finally, Jimmy’s Haunt.
Mayor Tim Dougherty said he has not yet seen the Iron Bistro plans, and so he refrained from commenting.
Council President Rebecca Feldman, whose First Ward includes the Iron Bar, said she could not comment, either. The council serves as the town’s alcoholic beverage control commission, and hearings are “quasi-judicial” proceedings, she said.
‘DRIVEN BY YOUTH’
The Morristown Partnership says commercial vacancies are just 4 percent, in a downtown with ample municipal parking facilities.
But without the watering holes that draw young people from far and wide, Jimmy claims the picture would not be so rosy.
“The whole economy in Morristown is driven by youth: Bars, restaurants and entertainment,” he said, expressing a desire to serve dinner and drinks to crowds after shows at the Mayo Performing Arts Center.
“This amount of space is more conducive to a late-night business, because that’s when parking is at its best. Parking during the day is very difficult for mom-and-pops, where people want to run in and out,” Jimmy said.
Please click icon below for captions.
He noted that Citibank and PNC Bank both have pulled up stakes from a downtown where the most common complaint for years was the glut of financial institutions. Tomato Pie, Cafe on the Green, CUPS, and Zebu Forno (twice) have come and gone near the Morristown Green; the former Liberty Travel storefront facing the historic square has remained vacant for years.
Jimmy’s Iron Bar, which opened in 2012 with a trendy, early 20th-century industrial look (brick walls, antique-style lighting, chicken-wire-glass in the push doors), seats about 800 patrons on two floors. Zoning laws allow up to 1,200 people if front doors are reconfigured, Jimmy said.
He said he will relinquish his right to boost the Iron Bar’s capacity–if he gets permission to keep the Iron Bistro open as late as the Iron Bar, Sona Thirteen, the Dark Horse Lounge, the Office restaurant, Grasshopper Off the Green and other local establishments with liquor licenses.
“I think the town will embrace this. This Woolworth’s will become a landmark,” Jimmy said. The building’s terrazzo floor, brick walls and tin ceiling will be restored in a project that he anticipates will cost $2 million.
“It will be a really cool space, a nice addition to Morristown,” said the project’s architect, Carolyn Young of Morristown, whose local designs include the F.M. Kirby Foundation carriage house on DeHart Street, renovations to the former GAP store near the Green, and Suzy’s Salon on South Street.
GERMAN BEER HALL MEETS MEAT-PACKING DISTRICT
A cornerstone indicates the structure dates to 1885, when it was an apartment house. Woolworth’s came in 1950, according to Jimmy, who bought the property from owners of the Foot Locker chain in 2008.
“Most storefront places tend to be narrow and deep. This will be wider,” with high ceilings, Carolyn said. Jimmy said he envisions a garage-style entrance, similar to Millie’s Old World Meatballs & Pizza one block away.
The vibe will be a cross between a German beer hall and popular, gritty pubs in New York’s meat-packing district, said Paul Viggiano, 53, co-founder of KC’s Chiffafa House in Mendham and former executive chef there and at Equus Restaurant in Bernardsville.
“This will be so successful, we will have to build a second one,” Paul predicted.
Paul also lists saxophone credits with the Black Crowes, Georgia Satellites and Leon Russell. He said he is working on album with former Spin Doctors guitarist Anthony Krizan, who was a judge this winter at Morristown’s Got Talent!
The Iron Bistro, Paul said, will be the sort of place where guests might catch a set by musicians like his friend, famed drummer Bernard “Pretty Purdie, while savoring craft beer and eating pork schnitzel, suckling pig or house-made pierogi. The menu will be “affordable” and ingredients will be sourced locally whenever possible, Paul said.
“To be part of this would be a thrill,” he said of the project. “It’s something I need in my life, and a lot of people feel the same way.”
Just how many should become clear when Jimmy Cavanaugh returns before the town council.