As America’s craft beer revolution continues to move onward and upward at an increasingly fast pace, many fine neighborhood gastropubs have been popping up all over the Garden State. Being one of the latest beer-centric restaurants operating in Northern Jersey, Elmwood Park’s Twisted Elm Tavern couldn’t possibly have a better regional location. Right next door to the popular hot dog and hamburger joint, River View East, at the bustling side-winding corner of River Road just off Routes 4, 46 and 80 (plus the Garden State Parkway), this freestanding pub serves wide-ranging clientele including afternoon businessmen, dinnertime families and nighttime youths.
Celebrating its kitchen-incepted grand opening this past January, but in business as a bar since last August, Twisted Elm is experienced restaurateur Jim Rogers’ latest flourishing endeavor. Retaining a casually elegant upscale charm inside the kitsch-y bygone wagon-wheeled Elmwood Barn, this red brick-based, maroon-paneled, white windowsill-framed space still houses the sturdy oak bar of its previous tenant, but the new wood furnishings, tongue-in-groove plank floor and intimate right side dining sections offer multifarious modernistic aspects. Yet it’s the rustic feel preserved by the crude wood paneled walls that brings a little country comfort to this snug suburban community.
A modest banquet party room features a community table alongside several smaller serving tables while the connected backroom offers a wood-burning stove, high stable ceilings, a few booths and regular seating. The left side 12-stooled U-shaped bar (gathering two TVs, four side tables, pendant lighting, a blackboard beer list, oak-mantled hearth, exposed beams and Touch Tunes jukebox) supports a private 10-seat lounge with four bay windows.
Prior to owning Twisted Elm, Rogers ran Lodi’s Thirsty Toad (formerly the Rusty Nail) for seven years and, beforehand, headed an Englewood bar. But he was eager to diversify a bit and sought the comfort of a homier bistro-like atmosphere.
“Those were strictly drinking bars,” Lodi native Rogers explains as I down a tapped version of Port Brewing’s delectable Mongo Double IPA. “I’m getting older and I wanted to do more food—a gastropub type establishment. When we’re done serving dinner here, if there’s a bar crowd, we stay open. Otherwise, we close by 11 or 12 on weeknights. But weekends, people are here drinking ‘til 1:30 a.m.”
Silent partner, George Kantakis, owner of Rochelle Park’s thriving Associated Wholesale Florist, had the same feel for a beer-centric eatery, so he was brought onboard to help. Then, Rogers approached his good friend, Al Scazafave, to become head chef. A Johnson & Wales alumnus whose love of beer pairing is no secret, Scazafave worked at nearby South City Grill, where Rogers would often stop by for dinner. Both agreed on formulating a creative menu.
The exquisitely prepared food items include pasta dishes and pub classics, but the wood-fired pizzas are just as recommended. Lamb’s Shepherd’s Pie (with cheddar potato crust) and Mustard Horseradish Crusted Salmon sound great, but on my first visit, I settle on the colossal Tavern Custom Blend Burger (with bacon and Irish cheddar). My pal, Fred, decides to nibble on the mouthwatering Lobster Grilled Cheese after we share the equally fine parmesan-cheesed Carolina Hot Crab Dip with toasted baguettes.
On this cold Monday afternoon in March, the exalted tapped beer selection includes a small but representative group going from Lagunitas Czech Pils and Stoudt’s Pilsner on the lighter end to Great Divide Yeti Stout and Defiant O’Defiant Stout on the dark side. Ballast Point Sculpin IPA, Stone Arrogant Bastard and Goose Island Matilda elevate the strong ale sector. Every day the beer selection changes, but a frequent best seller is Allagash White Ale.
“I’d never been a big beer person but I’m growing. I’ve got Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA, Worldwide Stout and Barleywine in the walk-in box downstairs,” Rogers confirms. “Certain beers I think are interesting to hold [on] to. I’ve still got Tröegs Mad Elf Christmas Beer.”
An upscale vino selection from smaller wineries that get ‘closer to the grape’ (as Twisted Elm sommelier Bianca Miraglia claims) saddles a detailed spirits assortment comprising high end whiskeys, vodkas and cognacs.
Rogers admits, “I wanted a relaxing place you could come to once a month where there was simple food with a little twist to go with good beer as well.”
I return the next day for a late Tuesday afternoon ‘pop’ and get to hang out with bartender Aldo during a quieter session. The just-tapped Sixpoint Crisp Pils, with its yellow-fruited pungency, dank-grained mustiness and bread-crusted backbone, retains a stylistically robust nature that semi-counters Ballast Point Sculpin’s dry-wooded hop musk and harsher grapefruit astringency.
Before heading out, Rogers says, “We’re gonna do a Stone Brewing beer dinner, April 24 for $55. It’ll be a five-course affair with a beer to match each course. And we’ll use a nice stout and some ice cream for a fountain-glassed beer float. I think it should be fun.”
Two days later on a sunny Thursday I venture back around 4 p.m. just as the bar is filling up with local teachers looking to blow off some steam. This time, I dig into the mussels in white wine sauce, dipping Italian bread smothered in awesome garlic-herbed butter into the broth. A woman across the bar recommends the Beer Brewed Corn Beef on marble rye with grain mustard. And several customers in the lounge area have ordered more than a few Allagash White’s.
Meanwhile, I decide to contrast the two draught stouts on hand. Today, the just-tapped Yard’s Love Stout brings soy-milked dark chocolate roasting and black coffee bittering to toffee sweetness. The dryer O’Defiant Stout stays mellow and smooth, placing creamed coffee mildness over dark chocolate and wispy nuttiness.
As I leave Twisted Elm to get some rest before leaving on a three-day Virginia-Maryland brewpub tour the following morning, there’s no doubt in my mind that word will continue to spread about this cool new craft beer hangout.