Stone Balloon Restaurant Rises Again
The newest rendition respects the site’s musical past while focusing firmly on its food future.
Photographs by Steve Legato
The spirit of the razed Stone Balloon Tavern in Newark lives on—subtly. The storied property that hosted rockers like Bruce Springsteen, Bad Company and the Dave Matthews Band until 2005 hasn’t forgotten its niche in musical history. Photos of musicians greet visitors in the front dining room of the new Stone Balloon Ale House on Main Street. A drum kit is mounted on a wall, and guitars are placed strategically. Music from past performers wafts through the space. Even the menu showcases a torn ticket from a 1975 Rush concert held on the site. Price tag: $2.50.
But the restaurant isn’t trying to re-create the old days. “The nostalgia is brought by the individuals who come here,” says restaurant manager Philip DiFebo. Indeed, on my first visit, a woman at a neighboring table regaled her younger companions with tales of visits during Stone Balloon’s heyday. But a celebration of the former concert hall only goes so far in entertaining today’s diners. The restaurant’s focus is very much on updated comfort food. “Our spin is on everyday classics,” DiFebo says.
Executive chef Robbie Jester, a holdover from the building’s previous incarnation as 16 Mile Taphouse, certainly brings cooking chops to the kitchen. The Culinary Institute of America grad previously worked at DuPont Country Club and Piccolina Toscana. “He’s a unique talent,” DiFebo says. “And he’s a genuinely happy, good person.” Jester’s playful disposition comes across in appetizers like the beef & bacon lollipops, and calamari. After polishing off the five lollipops, my teacher husband, our 12-year-old and myself wished we had ordered a double portion of the small rounds of house-made meatloaf wrapped in bacon and brushed with a tomato Dijon brown-sugar sauce. Each morsel was stabbed with a toothpick for easy, delectable munching.
The beef-and-bacon lollipop appetizer.
The calamari passed the cuteness factor as well as the taste test. The tender rings were seasoned with sesame and chives and served in a white Chinese-style takeout box with chopsticks. The charred orange chili sauce was a dipping bonus. The multipage menu, clipped on a board, features several pages of libations, including “Mad Men” cocktails like whiskey sours, old fashioneds and Manhattans, and specialty drinks like a bacon Bloody Mary and spiced pear Collins. Given the Ale House moniker, a daily beer list is offered with local brews Twin Lakes, Mispillion and Dogfish Head among other choices. There is a selection of wine, too, though the restaurant is distancing itself from its previous Stone Balloon Winehouse days.
A history recap: After the original tavern was torn down, condominiums were built with a short-lived Winehouse restaurant on the first floor. Then, 16-Mile Taphouse opened briefly before being bought by experienced restaurateurs Bobby Pancake and Steve Wheat. Their vision opened in February. The new, 100-seat restaurant went through a “light remodel,” DiFebo says. Some of the original stonework connects the past with the present. Diners have a choice of tables, booths or high tops. The youthful serving crew, dressed in black, are sweet but unfazed when your entrées come while you’re still eating your appetizers. “The kitchen wasn’t very busy,” our waitress explained with a smile.
On that evening, when our main courses arrived, we were still savoring an excellent black-bean hummus with house-made chips and an impressive hot wing chowder that we’re still raving about. The hot-sauce-laced, creamy chicken soup came with a blue cheese, corn and celery salad that intermingled thoughtful, carefully blended ingredients. We followed up with a duck shepherd’s pie that gave the traditional British dish a boost with a bourbon and ale broth, and with tacos stuffed with meaty Kennett Square mushrooms.
Another time, we bit into perhaps the juiciest beef burger this side of Kansas City, sourced from Crow Farm in Kennedyville, Md. We chose a classic preparation with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and a dill pickle. But you can mix it up with a black-bean burger or grilled chicken breast and additional accoutrements—California style with avocado, southern cordon bleu with tasso ham, “angry Italian” with hot peppers and roasted tomatoes, or loaded and stacked with braised short rib and candied bacon. The burgers are served on a brown-paper-lined tray with a useful tin can as a container for the accompanying fries. We also were tempted by the mac ’n’ cheese “of the moment”—a silky-cheese-tossed pasta with Carolina pork with Brussels sprouts.
Just as Stone Balloon takes creative liberties with traditional pub grub, it also follows suit with desserts. If you think cheesecake is ho-hum, think again. Crystal’s mug cheesecake really comes in a practical cup. This Grand Marnier vanilla version is finished with a white-chocolate sauce. Other standouts were The House Bar, layered with peanut butter, toffee and chocolate mousse encased in a chocolate shell, and a sticky toffee pretzel bread pudding amassed below a scoop of Woodside Farm Creamery vanilla ice cream coated with pretzel crust.
You may leave the dining room with Springsteen’s “Born to Run” playing in your ears, but you won’t be thinking about bolting from Stone Balloon Ale House. By the time you reach the front door, you are already plotting your next visit.
Stone Balloon Ale House
115 E. Main St., Newark, 266-8111, www.stoneballoon.com
PRICES: Appetizers $3-$10, burgers and sandwiches $10-$15, entrées $12-$22, desserts $7