By: Jonah Traub, Co-Editor-in-Chief
As a member of the Columbia High School (CHS) community, it is easy to lose oneself in the vibrant culture and atmosphere of the greater Maplewood-South Orange (MAPSO) area. One aspect that is especially captivating is MAPSO’s businesses. Like many smaller towns, these shops make up the heart and soul of the community and provide a great environment to meet new people. One cornerstone of the MAPSO business scene is the wide variety of restaurants located in and around the two towns. These restaurants offer CHS students a place to do work, find a job, sit down and talk with friends and grab some much needed food after a day of intense learning. When the clock strikes 12 PM and CHS officially enters its lunch break, dozens of students file out of the building or their homes and head off to grab a bite to eat. When it comes time to pick a place to go for lunch or dinner, names like Sabatino’s, Bagel Chateau, Village Trattoria, Wawa and more pop up. While some students can not get enough of these mainstays of the CHS diet, others prefer to travel off the beaten path and explore the newer and more mysterious places that MAPSO has to offer. Two such lesser-known treasures that CHS students have found and want to share include Maplewood’s Cornbread and South Orange’s Walia Ethiopian Restaurant, and after witnessing the buzz that these restaurants were generating, I decided to visit and review them myself.
Located in the Maplewood portion of Springfield Avenue, Cornbread lies right next to Maplecrest Park and is within driving distance from CHS. According to its website, Cornbread is, “a fast-casual, farm-to-table restaurant specializing in authentic soul food,” and it certainly delivers on this statement, offering some classics from the soul-style while bringing a southern feel to Northern New Jersey. Cornbread offers a wide variety of dine-in options, both in- and outdoors, while also providing takeout and delivery options for those who are less enthusiastic about eating at the restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the restaurant being extremely crowded when I got there, I was able to place my order relatively quickly in an open, air-conditioned room that I felt comfortable in, despite the various COVID-19 concerns that surround all restaurants and businesses. However, the ordering-process does have potential hitches, as the displayed menus are a bit confusing and the whole procedure is a little chaotic, making it easy to get overwhelmed at the register. For my meal, I got a large barbecue chicken combo with mixed rice, collard greens and (of course) cornbread, which came out to a steep $17.99 in total. After ordering, I was provided with multiple options for seating, including the outdoor patio in the front of the restaurant, as well as the large seating area and back balcony on the second floor. I opted for the outdoor patio, and while I had to wait a decent amount of time for my food – significantly over 20 minutes – I was able to do so in a tiny but spiced up space with bright overhead lighting and music that fit with the hybrid soulful and southern atmosphere of the restaurant, both of which made for a pleasant, if slightly cramped, pre-dinner experience.
At Cornbread, all of the food is brought out of the kitchen and stored in a buffet manner out front so that the customer can watch as their meal is assembled and boxed up. When one’s meal is prepared, the takeout bags or food trays are placed on the counter as the order number is shouted out a single time. This can cause some confusion when it comes to picking up your food, especially if the restaurant is crowded; however, my experience was surprisingly easy. After a brief period of uncertainty about whether or not my food was ready and a bit of waiting around inside the restaurant, my number was called, I retrieved my food and I made my way to a table outside. When it came to the meal itself, dryness was a bit of a theme, especially with the rice, so I think a drink is certainly needed when going to Cornbread. But despite the food being somewhat dry, it was massive and all tasted good, with my favorite item being the barbecue chicken, which had its dryness counteracted by its sweet sauce and was a much higher quality than the chicken that can be found at the Wawa down the street. The cornbread, while being a bit crunchier and sweeter than expected, was also top notch – a close second to the chicken – and I can understand why it is the restaurant’s namesake. The meal that I got was on the pricier side for sure, but the portions were generous, the food was pretty delicious, and I definitely left the restaurant feeling full.
When reflecting on my meal, it is easy to see why some students were looking to promote this restaurant. Except for the collard greens, which were too salty for my liking, I thoroughly enjoyed the food that I got, with it blowing the nearby Wawa and Burger King out of the water. I also really enjoyed the aesthetic of the restaurant, and despite it being a bit tight and pretty noisy thanks to the close-by hustle and bustle of Springfield Avenue, the time that I spent at Cornbread was definitely enjoyable. However, even though I am a big fan of the restaurant’s feel and food, I do have a few hang ups that I think hold it back from a truly great score in my book. The restaurant, while being relatively close to CHS, is definitely out of walking distance from the school and requires a significant amount of time to dine, making it a somewhat less desirable spot for food than nearby favorites like Sabatino’s or Mozzarella. In addition, the meal and restaurant in general were a bit too rich for my blood, as a nearly $20 price tag is not very appealing for a strapped-for-cash, high school student like myself and made me yearn for the reasonable $10 prices of Wawa or Burger King. All in all, Cornbread, with its unique southern style and great food offerings, is a very solid dining option that, despite its flaws, deserves a look from restaurant-goers searching for an escape from the Italian, American, Japanese, Chinese and Latin American restaurants that dominate the MAPSO food scene.
With its location at 11 Village Plaza – directly off of Valley Street – Walia Ethiopian Restaurant (Walia) is situated down the street from CHS and has the potential to be a prime destination for its restaurant-goers. As can be guessed from the name of the restaurant, Walia’s menu stands out as a palette diversifier, offering to fill community members’ craving for quality Ethiopian food as the only Ethiopian establishment in town (and for miles outside of it). Walia promises “a variety of delicious Ethiopian dishes, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian,” and fully delivers with its tasty offerings of injera, various meat tibs, berbere sauce, misr watt and more.
Unlike Cornbread, Walia was not offering any dine-in options for its customers at the time I ordered, instead having them choose between takeout or delivery. Because of this, I opted for takeout, and while I had to wait little more than an hour for my food to be ready, it was a bit of a bummer to sit around counting down the minutes in my house rather than in what I would imagine to be Walia’s atmospherically-rich interior. I also was not offered a chance to interact with the staff and better understand how in-house service functions, though I did get to experience the ordering process over the phone, which was extremely easy. Ordering was made especially smooth by the informative and helpful nature of every phone interaction I had with the restaurant staff.
While ambiance and service style – or lack thereof – have significant influence over whether a meal is good or not, the food is what really makes or breaks the restaurant-going experience, and luckily for me and MAPSO, this is the area that Walia really shines in. Even though I was disappointed that I was not able to have a Walia meal in the environment that best suits it, I still came away feeling plenty satisfied thanks to some absolutely fantastic food. Walia’s menu is as expensive, if not more expensive, than Cornbread’s, but because of the restaurant’s emphasis on family style and sharing food, the portions are ridiculously large and justify the higher price tag much better than the decently expensive in its own right food of Cornbread. But Walia’s food is not just cost efficient, it is also good – really good. I went into the meal expecting to only eat the non-vegetarian options, and if I did, that would have been fine because they – specifically the sweetly sauced kay wat and doro tibs – were delicious, but I was also coaxed into trying a pair of vegetarian options – the misr watt and msir alicha watt – and they absolutely blew my expectations out of the water. Not a single one of the five entrees that I sampled disappointed, and for a picky eater like myself, that is not an experience I commonly have while dining out.
If it is not apparent already, I definitely have a lot to gush about when it comes to Walia. Like Cornbread, there are some areas I feel the restaurant slightly missteps in, whether it be its lack of dine-in options, the somewhat long wait times, or its odd operating hours – the restaurant is not open on Mondays, and open Tuesday-Sunday from only 4:00 to 7:00 PM. But Walia more than makes up for these negatives in other places, like its wide variety of dishes and scrumptious food, and, through a culmination of many factors, creates a quality dining experience that is well worth the price of admission and the accommodations that have to be made to enjoy it. If you have not tried Walia already, I definitely recommend giving it a look.
Establishing restaurants around town that we enjoy and can frequently visit is important. Doing so allows us to create safety nets, places we can always count on for a good pick-me-up meal when needed. But there is no greater feeling than finding that next great restaurant to add to your food arsenal, and all it takes is a little exploration. Thanks to the dedicated explorers of CHS and the tireless workers at Cornbread and Walia that continue to provide quality food for the community throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, two more restaurants are certainly ready to be added to that prestigious list of hidden gems that litter MAPSO’s food landscape.
Designed by: Leo Preston