The winter hibernation is rapidly coming to its close. Yes, the season is drawing to an end, and the promise of warmer weather is just around the corner. But with the COVID-19 vaccines rolling out in full force, the world’s year-long hibernation is also inching closer to an end, too.
With more people getting vaccinated and temperatures heating up, local restaurants are eager to keep everyone safely well-fed. Whether you’re only feeling safe hosting a gathering for two or have expanded your bubble to include a few friends, local eateries are safely offering up small plates and shareable options for your small group.
The Pop Shop
Jessica O’Donnell, general manager at The Pop Shop, admits the COVID-19 pandemic has made it an unsettling time to work in the restaurant industry.
“It’s been scary; it’s been hard,” she said. “Everyone has to pivot and change to keep up with what the customers are comfortable with during these times.”
The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic proved especially challenging for The Pop Shop’s Collingswood location. Given the location’s narrow storefront, the site wasn’t equipped for outdoor seating, and so when Gov. Phil Murphy prohibited indoor dining, the site attempted to sustain itself on takeout. But it just wasn’t proving profitable.
For those reasons, the Collingswood location was entirely shut down for a time while the restaurant focused on its Medford operation where they were granted a variance for 13 outdoor tables.
When indoor dining reopened, the Collingswood location turned the lights back on – with a new layout of course. Tables are now spaced six feet apart, and they’re seating at the state’s 35 percent capacity limit.
A family friendly spot, The Pop Shop’s back party room was often the site of children’s parties and birthday gatherings. But given the current restrictions on gatherings, the Pop Shop can no longer host parties of up to 60 or 70 people like they once did.
Within the last few weeks of February, The Pop Shop began getting flooded with requests to host small gatherings, and the restaurant is capping gatherings at 35 people. O’Donnell said they’re catering these gatherings toward diners’ comfort level. If the group is comfortable with a buffet, that option exists, but if they’d prefer guests remain seated and are served, the restaurant offers that option as well.
The restaurant is offering takeout again as well with a variety of appetizers and sandwiches for people to choose from. O’Donnell said some of their top sellers are the honeymoon chicken and the Santa Fe chicken sandwiches. The shop is known for their grilled cheeses, but the restaurant also offers unique items such as pretzel chips and pancake fries that are also popular among diners.
Looking ahead, The Pop Shop has plans to expand. The neighboring restaurant permanently closed its doors, and so The Pop Shop will be knocking down some walls and increasing their seating capacity.
While it’s been a tough road at times, O’Donnell said she’s hopeful that people will continue to get more comfortable dining out.
“Every day gets better; we’re hanging in there,” she said. “The Pop Shop is kind of an institution of downtown Collingswood.”
To learn more about The Pop Shop, visit www.thepopshopusa.com.
Treno Pizza Bar
Cheryl Pacitti, general manager at Treno Pizza Bar in Haddon Township, said the restaurant was lucky they already had a large, outdoor patio space. Throughout the summer, the outdoor space offered the restaurant a steady way to seat diners.
During the summer months, the restaurant added a walkup bar on their patio where people could grab to-go cocktails. Pacitti said diners who may have had reservations at nearby restaurants still came to Treno to grab a drink while they wait. Given the guidelines on to-go cocktails don’t change, when the weather heats up, she anticipates Treno will once again open up the bar.
But private events have largely taken the hit. Given the current health and safety guidelines, the restaurant is not offering buffets like they once did, and they’re limiting private gatherings to 25 people.
So as not to eat up precious dining space during dining hours, the restaurant is only offering events during the day, and diners have to choose from their sit down menu. In the past, Treno would open up their entire patio for events, but now access is limited to half the patio at most.
Pacitti said there’s been a lot of interest from people eager to host larger gatherings, but they just can’t accommodate the parties of 50 or 60 that people are requesting due to the current restrictions. She said they get inquiries for large parties that they need to turn down nearly every single day.
Treno has always offered takeout, but their takeout business has seen a distinct uptick since the COVID-19 pandemic. The restaurant added online ordering to make things easier for those eager to pick something up.
She said they’ve had some customers ordering food for private events in their homes. The restaurant offers pastas that they can put into a larger container rather than individually package. The meatballs – which are all hand-rolled – are also a popular offering.
In terms of small plates, the ricotta and honey jar with toasted crostini is another crowd pleaser. Treno also offers their own take on wings. The restaurant bakes their wings and seasons them with garlic and chili flakes.
The menu changes seasonally, and so diners should expect Treno’s new offerings to be revealed come April.
To learn more about Treno Pizza Bar, visit www.trenopizzabar.com.
Leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hearthside was considered the place to be by many in South Jersey. With reservations booked up to 60 days out, the Collingswood hotspot had no shortage of customers and was, at times, even difficult to get into. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced owner Chef Dominic Piperno to close the restaurant’s doors, the shutdown was devastating for Piperno, his wife and co-owner Lindsay, and staff.
“Mentally, the hardest thing was like we were the busiest restaurant we’ve ever been leading up to COVID, and then all of a sudden, it was just gone,” Piperno said.
From March 15 until Sept. 21, Hearthside remained shut down. Piperno said they dabbled with takeout for a time offering dinner packages for two, but the model proved fiscally unsustainable.
By Memorial Day weekend, the restaurant was completely shut down until Governor Phil Murphy permitted indoor dining in September.
Once Murphy allowed restricted indoor dining, Piperno had partitions made up, and he is abiding strictly by the 35 percent guideline. Customers are required to wear a mask whenever they interact with staff, and the restaurant is professionally cleaned twice a week in addition to nightly sanitation.
Given the unpredictability of the times, Hearthside is taking reservations only two weeks out. Piperno said the new structure has offered diners who struggled to book 60 days out a chance to dine at Hearthside for the first time.
“It’s been really nice to hear people come in and say this is our first dinner since last March and it was so nice we could book it within two weeks,” Piperno said.
When Hearthside reopened, they also brought back takeout with the entirety of the restaurant’s daily menu offered to-go. The dishes are fired to order to ensure freshness, and so the quantity of takeout they can offer is limited based on half an hour time slots.
“We understand that some people aren’t comfortable going out to dine yet so we’re not going to limit our reach in the community when it comes to food,” Piperno said. “We decided to just push through and do takeout as much as we possibly can.”
The contemporary wood-fired American menu is broken down into small, medium and large plates. Guests are encouraged to dine family style, and for a table of two, Piperno recommends that they order two small plates, one medium plate and one large plate to share.
The small plates change seasonally, but diners can typically expect some sort of crudos or vegetable dish. The hamachi ceviche has been a small plate staple for three years with the citrus changing based on the season.
“We try to give people an experience that they wouldn’t get at other places especially around here which is mostly Italian,” Piperno said. “We like to play on Latin American and Vietnamese and some Asian influences.”
Piperno prioritizes the safety of his staff and guests, and for that reason, Hearthside is not currently booking any parties or large groups. At most, Hearthside will seat 10 people at their large table, and guests are required to be from the same household and to answer a variety of COVID-19 screening questions before they’re allowed to book the table. Hearthside is also offering outdoor dining which does not require a reservation and is first come, first served.
While Piperno admits it’s been “a hard winter,” he’s hopeful that spring will bring a new life to the industry.
“Restaurants are like that backbone of society – where you celebrate things, where you go on dates,” he said. “I’m hoping that comes back a little bit.”
To learn more about Hearthside, visit www.hearthsidebyob.com.