Since 2010, Hat City Kitchen has been a mainstay of food and music, serving as a communal gathering hub in the Valley Arts District of the City of Orange. Over the years, the space has attracted a faithful local and regional following. While the venue temporarily closed its doors in July, Hat City is about to relaunch under an impressive duo of new owners.
Music impresario Mike Griot and chef Lance Knowling have been hard at work, hoping to find the balance between reinvigorating Hat City (they have dropped “Kitchen” from the venue’s name) while holding tightly on to the vital role it serves in the community.
“We’re happy to be stewards of the next generation of Hat City while expanding on the successes of the past,” said Griot, who grew up a short walk away from the venue. Before taking on co-ownership, he was a regular at the food and music hub. “I was like Norm at ‘Cheers’,” he said.
But Griot’s involvement spans far beyond the venue. “I could be called one of the cultural stakeholders of the Valley Arts district,” said Griot about playing an active role in revitalizing the neighborhood. “And there’s not a competing live music-equipped venue nearby” he added. “Hat City is the de facto live stage for this [Essex] county.”
Chef Lance Knowling, a South Orange resident, has worked extensively in the area. Previous restaurants include Indigo Smoke in Montclair and Indigo Kitchen & Bar in Maplewood. While he won’t reveal a menu just yet, Knowling wants it to reflect the diversity of the neighborhood. “You have a great Latino population here as well as people from the Middle East,” he said. “I want the restaurant to represent the entire community.”
Griot wants his music curation to follow that approach. “I’m trying to create a music menu in a similar fashion to what Lance is going to do with our food,” he said.
Soon enough, the community will be able to experience it for themselves. Knowling says they are looking for an early November opening. “We’re planning on kicking the tires a bit,” he said. “We’ll probably do one or two private events first before we officially open.”
Griot says that the lighting and acoustics will be upgraded, in addition to a redesign of the dining room. “We’re going to do some ‘tszujing up’ as they say in the fashion industry,” he said.
But the core of Hat City certainly will remain. In 2010, Housing and Neighborhood Development Services – better known as HANDS, Inc. – took charge of restoring the building that now houses Hat City. “What we live for is making neighborhoods like this happen,” said Patrick Morrissy, Founding Director of HANDS.
Before World War I, the City of Orange was the mecca for the hat-making industry, manufacturing an estimated 30,000-40,000 hats per day. So the moniker for this Valley Arts District jewel celebrates the long history of the area.
HANDS believes that Griot and Knowling will succeed in holding onto the core of this establishment. “They’re both passionate about arts and driving development in neighborhoods that are depressed,” said Christine Jackson, Director of Communications for HANDS. “Lance provides restaurants expertise and Mike is the pied piper when it comes to music in the area. People will continue to come eat, listen to music, and eavesdrop on the incredible energy and vibe.”