There are so many unique and interesting pockets of South Jersey. Sure, individual shops, restaurants and venues are nice to visit, but sometimes the magic is in the bigger picture — the cohesive unit that different businesses create just by being in proximity to one another. Inspired by the incredible main streets, boardwalks and marketplaces in the area, At the Shore is delighted to introduce our new “A Day In ...” column — an Anthony Bourdain-style take on these South Jersey locales, where we hit the streets to give you a first-person look at where, what and why these spots are so popular. Our first top: downtown Hammonton — the blueberry capital of the world.
Full disclosure, I’m a Hammonton girl. While I lack the pedigree that an Italian last name and a South Jersey birth certificate offer, I’ve been calling Hammonton home since I moved there when I was 10. So, armed with a familiarity achieved after years of trips downtown, I hit the main strip — the part of Bellevue Avenue that stretches between Central Avenue and the railroad tracks and its off-shooting side streets.
I started my jaunt on Central Avenue at the mART (18 Central Ave., the mART on Facebook), a fairly new and wildly imaginative addition to the center of town, in line with places like the Noyes Museum of Art (5 S. 2nd St., NoyesMuseum.org) and the Eagle Theatre (208 Vine St., TheEagleTheatre.com), all of which are successfully transforming Hammonton into an arts hub. The mART is a co-operative community and marketplace, a word which here means a warehouse-like space with vendors, a stage and even a bar area. They hold “Tacos and Tunes” on Thursdays, open mic nights on Fridays and a number of other more spontaneous themed-nights.
The exterior of the mART reflects what’s within — outside of its doors I walked past several pieces of abstract art and inviting Adirondack chairs, one cut in the shape of a skull.
It’s late October and downtown Hammonton is bustling with people looking to grab a quick mea…
Inside, I meandered through the kitschy, antique wares for sale. To the right of the door is a cubby with racks of vintage clothes. Further down are sectioned-off cubes dedicated to artisanal soaps and hand-made jewelry. It’s eclectic and artsy and cool — the type of hang-out that teens and adults alike would actually want to spend time in.
After leaving the mART I continued on to the corner of Bellevue, passed by the vape store Legion Vapor and the tattoo parlor Exotic Body Works. I briefly considered changing my personal aesthetic, thought better of it and kept walking.
My next destination was a little boutique called GorJess and LoveLee (220 Bellevue Ave., ShopGorJessandLoveLee.com). They always have trendy, reasonably priced clothes, accessories and gifts, making it one of my favorite shops in downtown Hammonton. When I walked in, Vanessa Carlton’s “Ordinary Day” was playing — so, needless to say, the music was on point. I had the store to myself, save for the girl working — my down-the-street neighbor and a high school friend of my sister’s. Welcome to Hammonton — a place where everybody knows everybody. We chatted. I over-shared about my sister’s life, and then continued to peruse the structured jackets, ruffled tops and cold-shoulder sweaters. At this point, I was quietly rocking out to Jesse McCartney’s “Because You Live” and silently congratulating my sister’s friend on her excellent choice of early-2000s music. And although Jesse’s sweet siren song begged me to stay, I again moved on.
Along Bellevue, steps away from GorJess and LoveLee are many other cute and nuanced stores and eateries worth mentioning. To name a few: the Funky Cow Cafe is a newly-opened spot that offers quick, delicious, waffle-based sandwiches and desserts. Tales of the Olive, another new business, features rows of stainless steel casks holding flavorful oils and vinegars available for purchase. SaDee’s is a boutique that’s a bit more expensive than GorJess and LoveLee, but with quality, on-trend clothing. Annata Wine Bar rounds out the dining scene with classy, gourmet dishes, while stores like Country Clutter and Chatter’s Baskets offer adorable gifts and homey decorations.
However, my next stop was the cozy and quaint Casciano Coffee Bar & Sweetery (212 Bellevue Ave., CascianoCoffee.com), a sure bet in downtown Hammonton. If you’re from the area, you’re more likely than not going to run into someone you know at Casciano’s — a situation that could teeter between nightmare and pleasant surprise. On this day, fortune favored the latter for me, and I walked in to find two good friends from high school chatting over coffee. I pulled up a comfy high-top chair and joined them for a spell before grabbing a coffee and heading back out.
As I made my way across the street, the gorgeous holiday window display of the Toy Market (200 Bellevue Ave., MyToyMarket.com) beckoned me in. No one does Christmas displays in Hammonton quite like the Toy Market, so I thought it was worth the stop. The Toy Market has a knack for finding charming, well-made, innovative toys to fill its shelves. If you have children to shop for, the Toy Market is your best friend. I, however, do not, so I quickly took my leave after a flit around the store.
Farther down toward the railroad tracks live some salons (like Chroma Hair & Beauty Bar) and children’s boutiques (La Mia Couture, Behind the Moon) — each wonderful additions to the downtown area in their own right. However, many venture this way to enjoy the string of incredible Mexican restaurants that sit in shocking proximity to each other: El Nuevo Mariachi Loco (101 Bellevue Ave., ElMariachiLocoRestaurant.com), Las Lomas Grille (8 Railroad Ave., Las Lomas Grille on Facebook) and Fiesta Mexicana (327 12th St., FiestaMexicana-NJ.com). They’re all incredible. I prefer the latter, but there are many who would defend the others as their pick for best Mexican food in town.
Even farther down the road, outside of the main drag, is another South Jersey-favorite, Bagliani’s Food Market (417 12th St., Baglianis.com). Known for its incredible fresh breads and cheeses, Bagliani’s is unlike Hammonton’s Mexican restaurants in that it is uncontested as the best market of its kind in town — and maybe in all of South Jersey.
Another Hammonton staple on the other side of the tracks Bruni’s Pizzeria (303 12th St., Bruni’s Pizzeria on Facebook). A town rich with Italian culture, Bruni’s is one among many incredible spots to grab a slice, Marcello’s (225 Bellevue Ave., MarcellosInHammonton.com) being another that resides on the downtown strip.
Having completed the circuit from the corner of Central Avenue to the railroad tracks and back, I was just about to call it a night when I noticed a store across the street from the Toy Market. It occurred to me that I’d never been there before. Stunned, I charged across the street (Hammonton is a stickler for the pedestrians-have-the-right-of-way concept, so I tend to be more reckless downtown), and opened the door of Herban Legend (205 N. Bellevue Ave., Herban Legend on Facebook).
The pervasive scent of incense greeted me, along with a woman in a long, rainbow scarf.
“You’re tempting me to go get a big cup of coffee,” she said, noting the cup I was still sipping from Casciano’s. We started chatting about caffeine and how we used to be able to drink it at any hour, but now we can’t or else we’ll face a sleepless night. Meanwhile, I browsed through baskets of chunky, knit hats and pondered over the earthy paintings that adorned the walls.
“Although no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.” — Carl Bard
She told me her name was LeAnn — “like LeAnn Rimes” — and that Herban Legend had just opened, which explains why I had never been. She also told me that she used to work at a catering company and when they would bring out the big coffee dispensers, the decaf was actually just regular coffee with twice as much water. Shameful. LeAnn explained all of this while trimming a tiny wire tree with butterfly wing earrings. When I eventually bid her adieu, she called out the door after me, “Have a good night, love.”
I charmed by Herban Legend, and, even more, I was charmed by LeAnn. It’s people like her that make downtown Hammonton such a delight to visit. When you shop and dine along Bellevue or any of its side streets, you’re dealing with homegrown businesses owned and run by people who want you to feel welcome. You don’t have to have been born and raised in Hammonton to be at home there, though it does help.