May 09, 2004 • The Star Ledger

New home for Raymond's but it still feels like home

by Ellen Simon

Raymond’s, which began as a small joint, has moved and become a good-sized lovely restaurant that still wants to be thought of as a small joint. It succeeds.

As my friend Jen, who lives nearby says, “Raymond’s used to be 10 people eating and 30 people waiting, hovering over them saying ‘Could you just drink the coffee!’ “

After moving a few months ago, Raymond’s is still a popular-but no longer obnoxiously crowded destination for breakfast, lunch and brunch. It has a small menu and sticks to the things it does best.

It’s old space was no bigger than a McMansion bathroom. The new space, a few doors down, is the former site of owner Raymond Badach’s swank but expensive new-American bistro, 28. The red velvet curtains are gone, and the place has been revamped to look like an upscale soda fountain. There are skylights, a tin ceiling and open shelves lined with vintage seltzer-water bottles. If you’re looking for someplace utterly unpretentious, this isn’t it. Everything down to the typeface on the menu is studiously retro.

The “old Raymond’s” space is destined to become a take-out satellite. And eventually the new Raymond’s will be open for dinner, too, but “don’t ask us when!” reads a sign above the counter.

Weekdays, Raymond’s is a hot spot for ladies who lunch, who nosh on salads, and some fancy entrees that look like refugees form the old 28 menu; Polenta with wild mushrooms ($7.50) and couscous with braised root vegetables, currants and almonds ($10). Enormous burgers come topped with a mound of cheese (dill havarti or blue, your pick) and a platter of super-skinny, crunchy fries ($9).

But Raymond’s is chiefly one of those places people build a weekend day around. When both new and old Raymond’s were closed for the move, people stood outside the doors, looking lost. Jen said this also happens on holiday weekends when the place is closed.

It’s easy to understand why: Raymond’s is friendly and the food is just right.

I normally scoff at fancy coffees, but the cappuccino ($2.50) was delicious and café latte ($3.50) was well worth the money. Hot chocolate is decadently sweet, and comes topped with a thick layer of steamed milk in a bowl-size mug. ($2.75.)

If you eat breakfast or brunch at Raymond’s, you must try the signature dish, the baguette French toast ($7). It’s crispy on the outside, silky on the inside. Corn pancakes ($6) were really corn muffins shaped like pancakes, giving you the goodness of a muffin with the added benefit of syrup. Brilliant.

Other sweet treats include a rotating selection of scones and muffins. If you’re lucky enough to get to Raymond’s on a strawberry muffin day, don’t hesitate. Crumbly, buttery and luscious with fruit, these jumbo confections only look oversized – actually, you’ll scarf down every crumb ($1.75).

The menu, considerably changed since the move, also includes savory treats. Classics like eggs Benedict line up next to gourmet omelet options.

The Western frittata ($7.50) is the omelet you’d never make at home, full of butter, chorizo, peppers and onions. We also ordered a side of bacon ($3), which was smoky tasting and somewhere between crispy and chewy.

On a Saturday morning, Raymond’s was crawling with kids form spit-up age and up. Strollers and bikes were parked outside. Inside, there were babies playing with keys, babies throwing plastic cups and a small girl in a lavender tutu and matching lavender angel wings walking around nonchalantly. Two little girls inched their way across the footrest of the bar as if it were a balance beam. The wait staff is as calm and unflappable as veteran nursery school teachers.

Holding court over the French toast is Raymond, who looked as if he were ready to belt out a tune from “Oklahoma!” Tall and gangly, with a grown-out brushcut, he wore crisp Levi’s and a crisper button-down. He worked the room, dandling babies and coming to our table to talk about “Last Exit to Brooklyn” and his favorite recent movie (“Ripley’s Game,” which unjustly went straight to video). Then he went on to John Malkovich’s modeling career and the lack of thoughtful entertainment.

None of us were strong enough, in the early morning, to add to the conversation, but he didn’t seem to care. It was an amusing soliloquy, and to make it even better, he brought us more water and coffee.