Beyond the Bright Lights

Jeffrey Steen |
Food And Dining

“We have a homemade apple moonshine that's just awesome. And for a sports bar, we have a really extensive wine list—two Champagnes and about 16 different reds and whites. Where else can you find that?” —Anthony Duda

Clifton is a quiet town—at least when compared to the soaring heights and bright lights the Big Apple across the water. And yet, a scant 15 miles outside of Manhattan, it has long fostered its own community, its own character, its own dynamic neighborhoods. Clifton is, without a doubt, a town unto itself.

And for those in the know, there are some truly fantastic finds in its culinary scene. Many of them have hitched to the Old World, vaguely-Americanized Italian eats that New Jersey is so well known for, while several a bold restaurateur has dabbled in higher-end American fare, Continental European classics, and Middle Eastern comfort foods. It's that kind of cosmopolitan culinary vision that inspired risk-taking Anthony Duda at Shots Sports Lounge, just off Highway 3 in the heart of Clifton.

“When I first saw it, I had a vision of what it should be—more of a neighborhood place,” Duda recalls of the spot's auspicious beginnings. That was a mere two years ago, and since then, Shots has soared in every way imaginable—and in a few ways people would not have imagined.

“Before I found the place, it was a struggling martini bar and restaurant,” he says. “I decided that's just not what the neighborhood needed. So I stripped it down and started from scratch. I knocked down walls and re-painted. I ripped up carpet and added hardwood floors. We installed 16 brand new televisions and put in new taps for beer. I bought new furniture and set up a lounge area with couches. It really is a completely different place.”

But while Duda's vision was most definitely a needed shift in the space's concept, it was still designed to be a bar and lounge—with a modest menu of what most would consider standard pub grub. That's when Chef John Skerrett came in.

“It opened as a bar, then John and I got together and the menu went from just the basics to John using his culinary expertise to expand and explore,” Duda says of the unexpected culinary angle.

“The menu is, well, everything,” Skerrett confesses. “Sure, it's standard American pub fare, but with a big gourmet twist. On given nights, we'll do different specials, like homemade pasta or Asian spare ribs. The core of the menu stays the same for the regular locals, but Anthony and I go out and buy fresh produce almost daily, which inspires the specials I make.”

Skerrett, as Duda admits, is an unbelievable catch for Shots. He spent his formative years learning the ins and outs of the culinary biz in Manhattan, cooking for Be Our Guest restaurants. The chance meeting of the two was both an act of Providence and a stroke of luck. As it turns out, when Duda was looking for a chef, Skerrett was between jobs. A recommendation from a friend and a few days later, Duda had a new chef and Skerrett had a new job.

Since then, Shot's menu has grown and expanded. Both men say the burgers are the biggest draw for regulars, but build-your-own apps and ever-enticing specials are no distant seconds.

“People come in just for the specials,” Duda says with a hint of pride. “They don't even know what the specials are, and they'll come in anyway. They trust John.”

And while the surprisingly sophisticated food would be enough of a draw for local Cliftonians, Duda certainly hasn't left the bar concept behind. “We have a homemade apple moonshine that's just awesome,” he says. “And for a sports bar, we have a really extensive wine list—two Champagnes and about 16 different reds and whites. Where else can you find that?”

Where else indeed? And should you come by in the young evening hours for a tipple and a bite, expect yet another treat in store from Shots: entertainment. That's right, around 10pm Thursday through Saturday, the tables in the dining room slowly disappear and the space is converted into a dance hall/music hub. Local DJs take up residence in the revamped DJ booth, lights kick on, and the taps pour—and pour, and pour, and pour.

“I get the best of the best when it comes to music,” Duda boasts. “Only the best DJs play here: DJ AMR, DJ Nasty, DJ Rob Cali, DJ Tony Gia, and DJ Dio.”

It's enough to bring in the crowds, for sure. Duda says that people wait more than an hour on Thursdays—mostly a young, college crowd, but with a neighborhood as diverse as the one surrounding Shots, you never know who will drop by.

“We're so close to New York that it's a melting pot of ethnicities and ages. It's really cool to see such a dynamic group come in here.”

Some people come just for a drink, some for dancing, and some for dinner. But what both Duda and Skerrett have noticed is that when they come for one, they often stay for another, or come back to explore the other offerings of Shots. I mean, what other sports bar boasts gourmet food? What restaurant has world-class DJs spinning 'til the early hours?

“People will come in for dinner and stay for dancing and drinks,” Duda says. “It's great because they can get everything they want in one place. People love spending their whole night here.”

Cliftonians may have interests as diverse as the city's population, but that's what makes Shots such an ideal concept for the area. For those who love food, it's a delicious option—and one that never remains stagnant, but is always expanding and growing according to Skerrett's muse. For those who love to drink, the bar is not only a happening scene, but pours some well-crafted cocktails and higher-end wine. And for those who want to get jiggy with it, well, Shots offers that, too.

After two years, and marked success, Duda says the biggest challenge of such a multifaceted concept is, in fact, the growing popularity.

“It's a lot of work to keep a restaurant and bar going that has so many parts to it,” he admits. “I'm not complaining, of course,” he finishes with a smile. “Shots has been a dream come true.”

Let that be said of Clifton, as much as the dynamic duo of Duda and Skerrett.