Imagine 15,000 square feet of gleaming marble and dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows — abandoned for more than two decades in the heart of downtown Morristown.
And an owner of five fine dining restaurants in New York City — all of which earned three stars from The New York Times and a total of five Michelin Stars — who suddenly closed up shop and left in 2011.
Some would call them the perfect pairing.
When famed restaurateur Chris Cannon visited the Vail Mansion in Morristown some four years ago, the Italian palazzo-like estate (built for AT&T executive Theodore Vail during World War I) had sat empty on South Street for 23 years.
Cannon immediately saw the historic landmark's potential.
“I walked in and said it was perfect for a restaurant,” he said.
His 36 years in the business running New York City hot spots Judson Grill, L'Impero, Marea, Alto and Convivio have no doubt helped him build a checklist of requirements the spot easily met:
¾ Lower-than-Manhattan rent of $20,000 a month would allow him to charge lower-than-Manhattan prices.
¾ A location next to the 1,300-seat Mayo Performing Arts Center in a demographically wealthy area — 10 minutes from the Mall at Short Hills and near seven Fortune 500 companies — would make for ideal patronage.
¾ A vibrant downtown area in Morristown, which is only growing due to the residential development over the last 10 years.
So Cannon — who lives in Mountain Lakes with his wife and three children — took on the challenge of securing a certificate of occupancy and concession agreement for the redevelopment project to invest three years of his time (and, according to The New York Times, nearly $5 million) into creating Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen.
“This is the first time I've been able to pick every single thing myself,” Cannon said.
“Every piece of art, the building, the location — I'm doing the kind of concept I want to do.”
Cannon's passion project has certainly been a massive undertaking.
General Manager Ron Morgan, who relocated to New Jersey for the chance to work with Cannon again after his experience at L'Impero and Convivio, said the renovation was extensive.
“Basically, what we had to do was gut the place,” he said. “All the plumbing and electrical is new, and since we'll be running our menus downstairs off of iPads, we needed 11 wireless hotspots.”
Of course, nothing is more important than the ingredients. This is one of the key reasons Cannon chose New Jersey.
“There's nothing better than herbs or a tomato that were just plucked that afternoon,” he said. “Another advantage of being in Morristown is that within 20 minutes, you have farms — you don't have that in New York.”
In addition to outdoor dining, Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen will feature four distinctive modern American- and Italian-influenced dining experiences: an oyster and wine bar, a 1920s-style cocktail lounge, a private event space and a second-floor restaurant with a farm-to-table focus.
Cannon has created partnerships with Ralston Farm in Mendham for produce and purchased 20 percent of Forty North Oyster Farm in Mantoloking after it was devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
“We get our oysters for 50 percent off because I'm an investor, so we'll have dollar oysters for happy hour Monday through Friday,” he said.
In the spirit of sustainability, the mobile menus downstairs also will be environmentally friendly, allowing for each daily offering created by Executive Chef Kevin Sippel (who also relocated to Parsippany for the chance to work with Cannon again after his experience at L'Impero) to be changed daily or even in the middle of service.
With 300 seats and 120 employees, Morgan projects that the downstairs spaces will see three turns per night and the upstairs one and a half.
But neither Cannon nor Morgan wants to rush anyone through their meal.
“We're taking kind of a New Orleans attitude toward food — come here, stuff your face, drink a bunch, have a good time. It'll all be high quality, but it's first about fun and then about food,” Cannon said.
Which also means it'll be affordable, with wines ranging from $7 to $40 for a glass.
“Because of our reasonable rent, we can also afford to be more philanthropic,” Cannon said, noting he will continue to host health and wellness programs for area public schools in New Jersey and New York.
For example, Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen raised nearly $50,000 for the Community Soup Kitchen in Morristown when it hosted a cocktail hour and five-course fundraising dinner for 500 attendees in September.
“To have an established, successful New York restaurateur like Chris Cannon choose Morristown to open a restaurant speaks volumes to the desirability and vibrancy of our downtown,” said Michael Fabrizio, executive director of the Morristown Partnership Administration.
“Morristown draws from a wide market, but Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen should expand that market even more.”
So while Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen is expected to be fully operational in mid-October, Cannon already is making his mark.
“We want to prove to people that we are here for the long term and will be a really amazing neighbor in Morristown and a leader in New Jersey,” Cannon said.
E-mail to: email@example.com
On Twitter: @megfry3