BLENDING TEXTBOOK EDUCATION WITH PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE, SOUTH ORANGE’S MOST TALKED ABOUT BARTENDER MIXES INTOXICATING ANECDOTES WITH CREATIVE LIBATIONS BY GILDA ROGERS PHOTOS
BY TOM ZAPCIC
There’s a connective aura in the spirits world that brings people together. This is something Jeffrey Umana knows well. With 25 years of experience in the food and beverage industry under his belt, Umana credits his grandfather, Ramon Salazar, with first introducing him to his future bartending livelihood. The journey began in Perez Zeledon, a city in San Jose, Costa Rica, where he grew up.
“My grandfather owned a party hall and I was always helping out the bartenders,” said the 35-year-old mixologist, who started his apprenticeship in the industry at the tender age of ten. “I tagged along with my grandfather to different bars, and he gave me whiskey to drink with him.”
Today, the Village Hall Tavern in South Orange and its clientele are the benefactors of his exquisite hospitality, 100-watt smile, engaging conversation, and expertise in personalizing flavor profiles that suit his guests’ tastes, setting the scene for a fine gustatory experience. The restaurant is one of 17 unique Landmark Hospitality properties located throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Housed in the same building that was once City Hall, the tavern’s facade is reminiscent of a castle. Some customers, according to Umana, have joked that they used to pay for parking tickets upstairs.
Once inside the cavernous environment, the Art Deco elements are an exotic feast for the eyes. “The unit is all handmade,” said general manager Christopher James, pointing to the tap behind a voluminous bar. “Its repurposed metal melted from the vault in Felina, a former bank in Ridgewood.” (Felina, now a vibrant restaurant and special even venue, also happens to be a property of the Cretella Family, the proprietors of Landmark Hospitality.)
“For a company that owns so many restaurants it still feels like a family-owned business,” he added. The Cretella family specializes in acquiring and then repurposing historic properties into banquet and dining destinations and upscale accommodations.
The Cretellas purchased the iconic 1894 building in 2015, and after extensive renovations and upgrades, the husband-and-wife duo recently opened the beer garden, the Pump House, an instant hit with a spacious outdoor area with repits along with 40 different beers on tap. The revitalized ambiance incorporates a hospitable warmth with contemporary comforts, mixing old and new in the heart of the downtown area.
We recommend the Black Walnut Boulevardier cocktail, a cousin of the classic Negroni, made with walnut bitters that lend more depth to the drink. “There’s a lot of history we like our guests to learn about cocktails,” said Umana. For example, when women started visiting bars, he related, bartenders began creating different styles of cocktails to appeal to the ladies.
“A lot of our guests are well-traveled and want to enjoy drinks that remind them of their travels,” said Umana, who has been with Landmark Hospitality since 2014. He recalled his father Luis Umaña’s huge bookshelf filled with tomes, covering everything from Greek mythology to the Roman Empire. He offers his vast knowledge of history to customers in exchange for lively conversation, perhaps on Alexander the Great, who built the largest ancient empire, stretching from Greece to India and Macedonia to Egypt. According to Umana, after winning war battles, people celebrated by making their own liquor. “Bartending is one of the oldest professions,” he said, adding that bars are special places in the community where business deals are made, and proposals and break-ups take place.
When not parenting his 12-year-old daughter Kailey, Umana enjoys bar hopping with a purpose, checking out the competition to make sure he’s bringing his A-game to his own customers and libations. A popular request is the Low Hanging Fruit cocktail, a refreshing blend of equal parts mezcal (which, like tequila, is made from the agave plant, though processed differently), apricot liqueur, Strega, and fresh lime, then garnished with an orange peel.