A Hoboken Renaissance man Owner of Onieal’s named Restaurateur of the Year

Chris Onieal, owner of Onieal’s Bar and Restaurant at 343 Park Ave. in Hoboken, is a jolly good fellow, which nobody seems able to deny. Onieal’s easygoing, good-natured, and hard-working ways may be why the New Jersey Restaurant Association can’t deny it either – he was just named its 2007 Restaurateur of the Year at their 27th Annual Awards Gala on Nov. 26.

The man behind the restaurant

“To be named Restaurateur of the Year is really a validation of what we do [at the restaurants],” said Onieal. “We’re blessed with this incredible food vendor network that you can only get in a city, and I get my food fresh every day. We don’t cook it until people order it. We don’t freeze, we don’t own a microwave.”

Born in Philadelphia, Pa., Onieal hitchhiked to San Francisco when he was 18, and came back five years later. He and his wife, Kathleen Hayes Onieal, lived in Plainfield while he worked as a realtor and went to night school at Rutgers University.

In 1983, Onieal heard the Park Tavern on Fourth and Park streets in Hoboken was for sale, and he bought it on a good feeling. Though the property has been a bar since 1895, Onieal explained that he’s its fourth owner (one owner had it for only five years). Onieal spent six months renovating, adding windows and flower boxes, and making other improvements paid for out of his own pocket, he said. After opening its doors in May 1984, Onieal’s was packed two months later.

When Onieal opened a second restaurant in downtown New York City, which doubled as the bar and restaurant “Scout” for the popular HBO series Sex and the City, he couldn’t have foreseen the devastating effects that 9/11 would have on his business, which lies in what’s designated Zone 1 of the disaster area. Through perseverance and persistence, as well as maintaining a cozy and friendly establishment, Onieal’s managed to survive and stay open in New York.

Now, Onieal’s accomplishments have been recognized by his peers. An NJRA awards advisory commission comprised of past Restaurateurs of the Year chose Onieal for this year’s honor, said Judy Richards, director of events and allied relations.

“The Restaurateur of the Year is the highest award bestowed upon a restaurateur by the Restaurant Association,” said Richards. “He is deserving and well-respected. He’s done a lot for Hoboken. He’s done a lot with the Restaurant Association – he’s a past chairman of the board. And I believe [all of] that’s why [the commission] selected him.”

At the forefront of the Renaissance

As a business owner in the neighborhood, Onieal’s is just as committed to quality of life as he is to the quality of food and service at his restaurants. “I love cities … I just saw something about Hoboken that everybody else saw,” Onieal said, pointing out that Hoboken didn’t experience the middle-class flight that many cities experienced in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “This is one of the greatest cities in the country from a quality of life and from an element of sophistication.”

When Hoboken was beginning to undergo its Renaissance, Onieal was there discussing the possibility of trolleys and “the impending parking crisis” on transportation task forces. Onieal was also a board member and executive committee treasurer for Hoboken Advantage, which helped businesses in areas “that fell on the depression side of the scale,” he explained.

Today’s Spring Festival in Hoboken is basically what Onieal started and organized for about eight years as the Hoboken Five Mile Classic and Spring Festival to benefit St. Joseph’s School, which had strong leadership, and an outreach program that was accepting of all regardless of religion, according to Onieal. The proceeds from the runners in the race went to the school, and proceeds from the vendors at the festival went to Hoboken Advantage.

Among his other contributions to the Hoboken community, Onieal has a long history of raising money for local organizations; this includes $15,000 for the Hoboken Symphony, $10,000 for the Muscular Dystrophy Association of Hoboken, and $6,000 for the Hoboken Babe Ruth Little League, among several others.

An ADD experience with coffee

Onieal experiences a self-described revitalization every five years. While he feels he has enough on his professional plate already, he seems eager to add to it. As he waxed about his interest in the hotel business, he discussed his next big business venture, which he hopes to open next year right across the street from Onieal’s in Hoboken – Bubbles and Sherman, which Onieal described as “an ADD experience with coffee.”

The retail store that serves up some java will offer items like sunglasses, wine glasses, corkscrews, as well as toothpaste, soap, moisturizer, and anything else that might randomly occur to a customer while grabbing a cup of coffee to go.

“This is the kind of mixed up way that I like to shop,” Onieal said. “Essentially, I’m building it for me.”

Onieal also wants the new store to be a place that the kids and moms of Church Square Park (across the street) can come – Bubbles and Sherman will have bubbles and rubber ducks, and “whatever kids are into.” The new store will also be serving Onieal’s hearty and popular Chicken Noodle Soup.

Comments on this story can be sent to mpaul@hudsonreporter.com.