“Do you know the name of that restaurant we were just in?”

That was the question a couple asked Holly and me, as the four of us were leaving Upstairs, the bar/restaurant that opened above Dai-Kichi in July. The question isn’t as strange as it sounds.

Like the bewildered couple we met on our way down from Upstairs, visiting the restaurant the first time feels well, trippy, but in a really good way. First impression — a mysterious blue staircase. There’s no name or sign yet, but the light from those “ice stairs” definitely beckons you to ascend.

Once you reach the top, the space before you is visually arresting — with a decidedly different vibe than other Montclair eateries. Tucked away above street level, entering Upstairs feels like leaving Upper Montclair far behind, and like Alice, entering a secret world (unlike Alice you go up instead of down). One thing is for sure — the secret is clearly out. On two recent visits (dinner on a Wednesday, drinks on a Tuesday) Upstairs was packed with a mix of singles and couples at the bar (on an earlier visit Yankee fans had their eyes trained to flat screens above the glass bar); a girls’ night out group chatting amicably at a cozy banquette; and plenty of diners seated at tables along the long space (which runs parallel to the dramatic bar and open kitchen before leading back to a separate, more conventional-looking dining room).

Upstairs (that really is the name) was originally envisioned as an upscale Japanese restaurant (note the rest room’s high-end heated Japanese toilet and its many cleansing options.). That vision changed when Dai-Kichi owner Aki Kaneda was convinced by restaurant manager Scott Hirschberg to go a different route. Hirschberg’s call was a good one. Montclair liquor licenses are few and far between, and let’s face it, people don’t typically go to a Japanese restaurant to sit at the bar and sip for instance, a Smoking Corpse, or an Im-pear-ment (pictured below). The decision to take Upstairs in a different direction also meant owner Kenada, like the owners of Egan & Sons/Halcyon, is able two offer two distinct restaurant experiences sharing one liquor license.

The menu offers everything from small plates to share and sustain you through cocktails (or combine to make a meal) to larger, more substantial offerings (think seared scallops atop grilled bacon steak with creamy corn poblano or grilled pork chop, kale with chili and sweet potato chipotle gratin and candied bacon). Just don’t get too attached to any one item, because it might not be on the menu the next time you come.

The cook likes to mix it up (I say cook because the culinary brain behind Upstairs, Dave Van Morrelgem, prefers that title to chef). Van Morrelgem and his team (Chris Bertram, Chris Arturo and Travis Anderson) are constantly tweaking the menu not just seasonally, but weekly, to reflect what’s fresh and to deliver a more farm to table experience. The menu is small — about 14 items total, not counting dessert — and Hirschberg says the plan is to keep it that way. On a first visit, we tasted a small plate offering — actually a quite generous serving of creamy polenta with house made lamb sausage. Next time around, the polenta was gone, but the delicious lamb sausage was elevated to star status, served with grilled bread, red onion marmalade, mustard and cornichons.

Now about those drinks. Bartender/evil genius Joe Landolfi whipped up the Smoking Corpse which could easily be Upstairs signature drink — it’s a hip cocktail that also manages to be disconcerting. Bring the glass to your lips and you smell a smoky scent. Start to sip and you taste a heady mix of gin, chartreuse and citrus. We also tried the Im-pear-ment, a mix of prosecco, pear and St. Germain, which would be perfect at brunch (something Montclair sorely needs and Hirschberg plans to do). On our to-do list, testing the Elastic Band (spiced rum, ginger and rhubarb) to see if it gets one loose.

Upstairs, 608 Valley Rd., Upper Montclair, 973-744-4144. Hours are Monday-Sunday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Food photos: Upstairs Facebook

15 replies on “Taking A Trip Upstairs in Upper Montclair”

  1. JG- Go you will love it. Try the Smoking Corpse it is tripy. I have never tried any thing like it before.

    It is the perfect place to take out of town guests to give them a taste of NYC chic and great food without having to schlep your guests into the city.

  2. I have a couple of people from Manhattan staying over Saturday night so this might be a fun thing to try.

  3. You’re paying for the experience and the neon. add $3 to the apps, and $10 to the entres, to help pay for the ice stairs. if that’s your schtick, then this is your place. Perfect place for the 50 somethings i saw at the Egan’s bar that need to be “seen”. I appreciate Upstair’s addition to Montclair, but let’s call it like it is. It’s not a restaurant, it’s an experience for people too lazy to go to the city.

  4. Kind of harsh, Tinman. I’m in Manhattan every day. I lived there for years. On the weekends I really want a break from commuting and it’s nice to have some options to walk to. Plus, it’s good to support local businesses, and Dai Kichi has been in town for a long time. The city gets my money every day so I don’t mind spreading it around a bit in the town in which I live.

  5. I went last night, and Yogi Berra was there with his wife! The food was excellent. It’s pricey, but it’s good. And the Smoking Corpse is a bit wierd.

  6. went last night with bf and didn’t get a warm vibe from the place. we called ahead to make reservations.they hung up on us twice and on the third try i was able to leave a message.while waiting to be seated by scott,he allowed 2 parties ahead of us.when i explained i called and was hung up on,he claimed that his blackberry broke.we patiently proceeded to the bar and my bf suggested i go remind scott that even if his blackberry broke we still do have a 7:30 reservation. humbly i relayed that info to scott.amazingly he did get my message,although 10 minutes ago he told me his phone had broken.i don’t know about you but being deceived by a bussiness owner/manager doesn’t sit well with me.the place was gorgeous,seemed pretentious and stuffy.finally 2 diners claimed the food wasn’t up to par yet.thus i won’t go back!

  7. very sexy spot but pretty expensive for drinks. at the very least, it’s REALLY nice to have a new bar in montclair.

  8. Finally got to Upstairs last night for a Father’s Day cocktail with my husband. I highlight recommend The Cardinal cocktail and the Impearment was delicious and refreshing. But it was that Japanese toilet that I loved.

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