By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
This is not an argument about why you should live in Jersey City, where the commute to Manhattan takes eight minutes and costs less than subway fare, and an apartment goes for two-thirds of what you pay in the boroughs. Jersey City locals are tired of defending themselves against outdated perceptions that Jersey is a land of big hair and mob bosses, backed by a Springsteen soundtrack. Get over it. If we're always expected to jump on the bandwagon to the next hot spot deep in Brooklyn, the least you can do is cross the Hudson once in a while before Jersey-phobia causes you to completely miss the rapid rise of the gritty sixth borough.
Downtown Jersey City's metamorphosis from downtrodden fringe city to desirable alternative neighborhood has, for the past several years, been bound to Grove Streeta quaint three-block stretch of restaurants and cafés. On the intersecting, aptly named Newark Avenue, something more desolate once greeted those emerging from the PATH. That's changing, though, with recent laws extending drinking hours. The strip of 99-cent stores and discount shoe retailers (and one lone bar) that till now has been referred to almost laughably as "Restaurant Row" is finally beginning to look the part. Hair nets and laundry detergent are still the hottest commodities here, but a sprinkling of high-end establishments is brightening the face of Newark Ave. The newest addition, itself a former shoe store, is Skinner's Loft (146 Newark Avenue), a two-story bar and restaurant. Crowded in the early evenings with commuters, and then with the late-night crowd returning from the city and seeking one last round, Skinner's Loft is a stop-by kind of a bar. But with close to 50 beers on the menu (from $4) and fruity cocktails (from $6), it's no dive. The crisp autumn martini, made with house-infused apple vodka and pear Grey Goose, is insanely strong, while the elderflower Belvedere martini, with sweet, flowery syrup, tastes like spring-flavored candy. Small plates, served until 11 p.m., include baked macaroni and cheese ($8), coconut chicken tenders ($6), and the surprisingly light and fluffy crab-and-corn hush puppies ($7). (Complete lunch and dinner menus are also available at the bar.) As for the décor, gilded mirrors, antique Jersey City maps, and artwork by local painters adorn the exposed brick walls, and scavenged itemsincluding dusty floor tiles, church banisters, and a grand door framelend the look of an old-fashioned brownstone speakeasy.
Iron Monkey: This favorite watering hole's rooftop deck, with its excellent views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty, is closed until spring. Stupid winter! But the views aren't the only draw: The after-work crew can snack on a charcuterie platter or lobster quesadillas from the refreshingly eclectic menu (not an onion ring in sight). The dark, wooden downstairs evokes a pub feel, while the second-floor lounge and art-gallery space has a classier vibe. Tuesday through Saturday. 97 Greene St, 201-435-5756.
The patrons are as diverse as the neighborhoodand the state. Early on a weeknight, an older writer pecked away at his laptop plopped down on the bar while Spanish-speaking sports fans cheered at the two wide-screen TVs. On a weekend, a loud table of dreadlocked drinkers nearly drowned out an argument between two white kids about whose Bon Jovi concert was better. Elsewhere, a couple of prim single gals brushed off a few frat boys, and by last call, frisky lesbians taunted greasy-haired Irishmen and Brazilians with a little boob-play for beer. It may not sound like much, but next to big, bad, segregated NYC, Jersey City's limited offerings actually bring people together. Places like the family-owned Skinner's Loft are gems that quietly make this city the best little neighborhood in New York.