Shedding Light on the Light Horse
The popular bar and restaurant Light Horse Tavern honors local history — while making some history of its own.
If you strolled by the corner of Washington and Morris Streets in the 1850s, you would’ve gazed upon one of the nicest homes in the neighborhood. By the early 20th century, you would’ve found a tavern on the ground floor (and then a speakeasy inside when Prohibition rolled around). In later decades, the building served as headquarters for a wholesale food distributor. Then, in the mid-1990s, you would’ve seen… well…
“It was one of the worst buildings in the neighborhood at that time,” Bill Gray remembers. “It was all dilapidated — basically collapsing. The ceiling was caving in.”
That didn’t stop Bill from hanging around Bella’s Tavern, the building’s then-occupant. It was a blue-collar bar, once popular with tugboat captains. Finally, Bella announced she was selling the place.
Bill — who had a background in construction and had attended engineering school — had moved to Jersey City from Long Island. A run-down property like 199 Washington Street normally wouldn’t interest him — until he headed upstairs. “I walked up to the roof,” Bill says. “As soon as I got up there — this was the tallest building at the time — you could see the Statue of Liberty, the whole harbor. I just got goose bumps; it was incredible. I thought, OK, I’m going to renovate this building.”
A Change of Plans
He wasn’t able to buy the building alone, so Bill teamed up with his brother-in-law, Ron Smith. (Bill had married Ron’s sister.) Ron, who worked on Wall Street, had lived in Jersey City since 1987. Together, they purchased the property in 1996 and began renovating the upper floors first, so their families could move in.
“Originally, we were not going to be restaurateurs,” Ron clarifies.
The plan was for the Imperatore family — of New York Waterway — to lease the ground-floor space. At the time, the Imperatores owned two restaurants: Arthur’s Landing on the Weehawken waterfront and Arthur’s Downtown in Newark.
Ron says, “We were going to have lunch and consummate our deal on September 12, 2001.”
After the tragic events of September 11, the agreement was put on hold, as New York Waterway dealt with the increased demand for ferry service to lower Manhattan. The brothers-in-law mulled things over and at last, Ron says, “We decided to do it ourselves.”
Bill and Ron had spent months preparing the ground-floor space for the Imperatores, but there was still much much planning and construction to do. “Everything you see, Bill designed and built it,” Ron states. “I was the gofer, the unskilled laborer.” By hand, they chipped off the concrete that was covering the building. They replaced all the brownstone material and much of the brickwork. And they cut giant holes out of the first-floor walls to create windows.
With one construction decision, the brothers-in-law hedged their bets just a little. “Quite frankly, we put a bigger bar in — a 31-foot mahogany bar,” Ron recalls, “so in case the restaurant didn’t work, we could have a sports bar.” The impressive bar was built in the classic “Chicago style,” with prominent mirrors and columns.
After a year and a half of arduous work, the restaurant was nearly ready to debut. But first, it needed a name. “I went to the Jersey Room of the Jersey City Public Library and researched the area,” Ron says. Many of the vintage city photographs he found would be used to decorate the restaurant’s interior. And it was Bill who landed upon the name Light Horse, after “Light-Horse Harry Lee,” leader of the patriot forces in the Battle of Paulus Hook on August 19, 1779. (Ron points out that the restaurant is located at what was back then the southeast corner of a British fort.)
Open for Business
At last, in December 2002, the Light Horse Tavern opened for business. Ron and Bill both admit that early on, there was a definite learning curve. “We didn’t have a clue how to run a restaurant,” says Bill. But they quickly learned from their mistakes, and soon enough, the Light Horse found its footing. It received a positive review in the New York Times, praising the food, wine selection, and the building’s remarkable restoration.
The economic downturn of 2008 certainly had an impact on the Light Horse, especially considering the number of financial firms that had come to Jersey City’s waterfront. Layoffs devastated the local workforce, and expense accounts vanished. Still, the Light Horse hung on. “We dropped our prices, and we maintained our [earnings] numbers,” Ron says. “We actually haven’t raised our prices since.”
Reasonable prices fit in with the establishment’s overall relaxed feel: There’s butcher paper on the tablecloths, casual attire is welcome, and “Tavern” in the restaurant’s name evokes a certain mood. But the low-key ethos doesn’t extend to how the business is run. “We do perceive ourselves as a higher-end restaurant, just through the knowledge of our staff. We work hard training them,” Ron states. “It’s about the level of service. We take pride in that.” (Indeed, the training of Light Horse’s servers culminates in a two-hour test.)
Food and Drinks
The high-end philosophy certainly extends to the kitchen and the New American fare, overseen by Jersey City-born chef Carlos Ortega. “He likes to work with fresh ingredients,” Ron explains. “For him, it’s about color, texture, and flavors, and not overwhelming the palate.” Dinner entrees include a wide variety of seafood, chicken, and steak dishes, while tavern favorites such as fish and chips, meatloaf, and burgers are also available.
And then there is the Light Horse’s raw bar. “Bill has established great relationships directly with the oyster beds,” Ron points out. “They pick them in the morning, FedEx them, and we get them the next day. There’s no middleman.” In their peak week of the summer, Light Horse can sell up to 3,000 oysters.
Equally popular as Light Horse’s dining options is the establishment’s bar scene. As early area proponents of the craft-beer movement, Light Horse was named a “Critic’s Pick” for its beer selection by New Jersey Monthly. There are 12 beers on tap, of which 8 of the choices rotate, and around 75 specialty bottled beers in stock. Meanwhile, Light Horse carries about 400 wines. Bill is responsible for choosing the beer and wine. For beers, he says, “I like a lot of the European beers; there’s a little more finesse. California is doing some great stuff too.” As for wines, “I’m big on Pinot noirs from Oregon and northern California, big on Cabernets from the Napa region, as well as wines from France and Italy,” Bill explains. “It’s a pretty extensive list.”
Taking It All In
Beyond food and beverage, a visitor’s experience is further enhanced by the Light Horse’s stunning aesthetics. One can’t help but notice the soaring 18-foot ceiling and massive windows looking out on both Washington and Morris Streets. But rather than feeling cavernous, it’s cozy inside. Brick, iron, mahogany, and the pressed-tin ceiling add a homey touch, as does the fireplace and even a magazine rack. A balcony provides additional dining space, and there is a quieter dining room behind the bar. There’s even room for a baby grand piano up front; four nights a week there is live background music from a rotating cast of local performers.
It all adds up to steady business for the Light Horse, keeping the staff of around 60 people on their toes: from the lunchtime office crowd, to after-work drinks, neighborhood residents coming by for dinner, and a popular Sunday brunch drawing people from around the region. Ron and Bill estimate they see about 3,000 customers a week, and serve around 350 brunches every Sunday.
Ron has noticed one big change in their customer base over the past several years. “More families are now living here. We see more strollers,” he says. “We put in a changing table when both my sister and my wife were pregnant. Now it’s used quite often!” The entire family is welcome: In warmer weather, dogs are often seen at the outdoor tables.
“We raise our own families here,” Bill adds. “We love living here; we love the neighborhood.”
And over the course of 12 successful years, the Light Horse Tavern has become part of Paulus Hook history itself. “We have ’02 on the sign,” Ron says. “So people think, 1902? 1802? A lot of people, when I tell them it’s 2002, they don’t believe me. But I like the idea that they think this was here for hundreds of years. Then, when they have the contemporary food and the nice selection of drink, they realize this is something special.”
Photos by Mickey Mathis. Top photo: Bill Gray, Ron Smith and the entire Light Horse staff