'Miracle on George': New Brunswick restaurants transform into Christmas pop-ups

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With ruby-red walls, views of a roaring fireplace from every table, cozy seating, and real family photos lining the walls, Catherine Lombardi Italian restaurant in New Brunswick makes it feel like Christmas 365 days a year.

But from Black Friday through New Year’s Eve, the restaurant inspired by co-founder Mark Pascal’s Italian grandmother’s legacy and living room will essentially become the North Pole.

Catherine Lombardi at 3 Livingston Ave., as well as its downstairs sister restaurant Stage Left, will transform into Miracle Bars this holiday season. Known as "Miracle on George," expect over-the-top Christmas décor, lighting, cocktails — and even a few surprise visits from a certain Italian-American Santa Claus (who happens to look a lot like Pascal).

“It really is like Santa’s Workshop in here from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve,” said Francis Schott, co-owner of Catherine Lombardi and Stage Left.

The New Brunswick restaurants will be the only Miracle Bars in Central Jersey. Nearly 150 bars across the country are taking part in the concept that was cooked up by Greg Boehm, a friend of Pascal and Schott’s.

While Boehm was opening his new East Village cocktail bar Mace in 2014, he realized that construction wouldn’t be completed in time for the busy holiday season. Rather than skip service, he transformed Mace into a pop-up bar serving holiday drinks among over-the-top decorations. Since then, other bars have followed suit, with a flurry of stockings, garland, wrapped gifts, and a special cocktail menu.

“Bar” is the keyword here. Unlike other Miracle Bar transformations, Catherine Lombardi and Stage Left are some of the only full-fledged restaurants on the list, which also includes Cowan’s Public in Nutley and Gus' Last Word in Wood-Ridge. Sippin’ Santa venues, which are companion pop-ups that focus on both tiki and Christmas, will include The Vanguard in Harrison.

“We were the first Miracle Bar to become more than just a bar,” said Schott. “If you look at the other Miracle Bars, they’re mostly taverns and craft cocktail bars where you can only get a small bite to eat.”

At Catherine Lombardi and Stage Left, people can make dinner reservations in order to dine under the dangling wrapped gifts and flurries of ornaments.

“The cheat code is ‘come for dinner,’ and that’s what a lot of people do because you don’t have to stand in line, wait on a waiting list or worry about the bar being too full,” said Pascal.

The lines are no ho-ho-ho-ing matter, either. Tables traditionally go fast.

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“It’s by far the busiest thing we have ever done in our lives,” said Pascal.

“We had 30 Saturdays in the month of December,” Schott added.

Once inside, visitors can choose from a specialty cocktail menu that is available at all Miracle Bars, although brands of liquor and slight recipe variations can be found. Cocktails are served in Christmas-themed glassware, mugs, cups, and shot glasses, like Santa’s head or even Santa’s pants.

This season, some of the new cocktails include Grandma Got Run over by A T-Rex, Island of Misfit Toys, and Rudolph's Rum Rhapsody.

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They will be surrounded by Christmas decorations that vary each year, set up by 20 to 25 “elves,” Pascal said.

“The whole place has a twinkle,” Pascal said. 

That’s not so different from the original Catherine Lombardi’s living room, which the restaurant is based off with floor lamps, couch seating, and even a gaudy lamp. It's just like it was when Pascal was growing up, spending every Christmas at his grandmother’s Brooklyn home.

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“When you talk about Christmas, we all get a little nostalgic,” Pascal said. “Catherine Lombardi is all about nostalgia, being in your grandmother’s house, the warmth of the fire, great food, and laughing around a table with family and friends.”

Story by: Jenna Intersimone
Photo's Courtesy Of Catherine Lombardi