PARSIPPANY — I thought I would do something a little different this month and stop in at a local landmark, the Spa Coffee Shop & Restaurant located in the Troy Plaza in downtown Lake Hiawatha. The Spa has been offering comforting home-cooked meals to its customers for “over 55 years”, yet it doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves after all those years. No one seems to know exactly when the original Spa opened, but one individual posted on my social media page that she moved into town over 55 years ago and the Spa was there when she moved in.
Diner, restaurant, luncheonette; exactly how would one best describe Lake Hiawatha’s classic Spa restaurant? I really don’t know, you tell me. Any one of these would seem to fit this well-loved mainstay. With its welcoming, homey atmosphere and retro vibe The Spa has always been a well-known gathering spot for locals, whether it be for a regular breakfast get-together for a group of seniors, local politicians, or businesspeople meeting for a bite, or just local folks looking for a good, hearty, tasty, reasonably priced meal. Just one of those old-school, friendly neighborhood places that’s as local as local gets, and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week.
The Spa is situated in the center of a small strip mall right off North Beverwyck Road. (In the event you are not from the area, Lake Hiawatha is a section of Parsippany-Troy Hills.) The restaurant itself is in one of those nondescript glass-front businesses, from which the restaurant’s interior enjoys nice ambient lighting. If you are not looking, the restaurant seems to get lost amongst the various other small businesses that comprise the mall. Just keep an eye out for the prominent blue and red neon sign in the window, along with the restaurant’s signage clearly noted overhead. There is plenty of free, off-street parking available in the mall’s large lot.
As soon as you enter the Spa you are immediately greeted with a homey and welcoming vibe. Bright, clean, and airy, with a variety of ample seating, including booths (for four and two people). You will find soft, comfy mauve leather seats, Formica-topped tables, and a row of nine stylish chrome-based, diner-style seats along the Spa’s lengthy counter. The interior is spacious, ensuring you will feel comfortable wherever you choose to sit. The décor is unpretentious, attractive, neat, and well-organized. The Spa may have been around for a long time but still exudes a contemporary yet cozy, comfortable, warm, nostalgic feel. The rich, brown solid oak paneled walls and woodwork, white tile flooring, and ceiling fans, blended with a soft color scheme nicely complement the theme of the restaurant.
Owner and Chef, Gus Haralambopoulos arrived in the USA from Greece at the age of 19 barely speaking any English, but it wasn’t long before his culinary career began to blossom in 1975 at a small hamburger joint in Morristown. His boss, Peter, would eventually buy the Spa in 1977, bringing along his young protegee as his Chef. Peter decided to sell in 1983 and Gus, seizing the opportunity, acquired the Spa, which was at that time a very small (some might say tiny) sandwich/coffee shop situated next to a local, well-known men’s clothing store, Tony Ruda’s. A fire on January 4, 1987, which started in Tony Ruda’s, destroyed many of the small businesses in the mall, including the Spa. Out of disaster came opportunity, as Gus rebuilt the restaurant to almost twice its original size by expanding into half of the former clothing store location, reopening 11 months later, bigger and better than before.
I was fortunate to sit down with the very amiable Chef who stated, “I’ve been here over 40 years and I love all my customers. They are all like family. 97% of my customers are regulars who I have known for many years, and even when they move away, they come back when they are in the area.” Gus elaborated that he enjoys it when new customers visit and then join that family of regulars. “Once they try the food here, they come back.” “Everything is homemade every day from scratch, including almost all the desserts, and I use only fresh ingredients in every dish. One of our most popular dishes is the Sammy Salad with Tzatziki Sauce. Actually, I go through 80 to 100 pounds of Tzatziki Sauce every week.” I told Gus that I had just had his Sammy Salad earlier in the afternoon and I could see why it was so popular.
As my friends and I perused the eclectic menu, I was impressed with the diverse number of appetizing options to choose from, especially since every dish is homemade. Pretty much anything that would satisfy anyone’s cravings. Including such mouthwatering dishes as Veal Saltimbocca over Linguini, Chicken Napolitano, Chicken Villa with Crispy Calamari, and Seafood Paella, just to provide a few examples. In addition, to keep things fresh, the Spa offers 10 to 12 fluctuating “daily specials”, and every couple of months offers a specialty “Greek Night”. The regular selections include many Greek and Italian specialties, as well as a wonderful array of quintessential American comfort food.
The Chef told me that he either does all the cooking himself, or he carefully oversees his three-member kitchen staff. It was clear that Chef Gus loves what he does and takes great pride in the dishes he serves. It is no surprise as to why he is held in such high esteem by his customers, and why the Spa has been around so long.
As our group settled into a corner table we were welcomed by our smiling and friendly server, who quickly set us up with menus and tableware, including wine glasses. By the way, did I mention that The Spa is BYOB? Always a good thing!
There is a large selection of appetizers on the menu, but today we went straight to our entrees. Since I had heard so much about that signature dish, the Sammy Salad, I had to order it. Honestly, that would have been enough for any normal human being, but being a gavone and dismissing our servers’ advice that it might be too much I also ordered the Greek Special Hamburger, which was one of the “Daily Specials.” My dining companions went with a Spinach Salad with Chicken and a Chicken Caesar wrap. All our entrees came with French Fries and a cup of the Soup of the Day.
The Sammy Salad, a delicious mixture of pita bread, lettuce, tomato, cucumber & Bermuda onion, tossed with Greek dressing and tzatziki sauce, lived up to the hype. There are also plenty of additions you can add to the salad including chicken, shrimp, gyro, and more, if that’s your preference. The freshly made authentic Greek tzatziki (a yogurt and cucumber-based sauce) really livened up the dish. Rich, creamy, and full of fresh herbs, it married perfectly with the pita and fresh, crispy vegetables. Plus, it was definitely a very generously sized portion.
My Greek Burger was cooked to perfection, crispy crust on the outside and moist, juicy, and chewy on the inside. It came open-faced over pita bread and surrounded by fresh lettuce, tomato, and onions, with a serving of that tzatziki sauce on the side. The accompanying fries were also nice and crispy, not the least bit oily. Very tasty! All our meals came with that aforementioned cup of homemade, delicious, freshly made soup, which on this visit was a choice of either Chicken Pasta or Beef Barley.
My friends expressed their pleasure with their dishes as well, and our visit clearly rates as another great local dining experience. We couldn’t leave without trying one of Chef Gus’s desserts. A couple of us went with the Rice Pudding, while Mike Z tried the Chocolate Cream Pie. The Rice Pudding was decadently delicious. The flavorful pudding was sweet, soft, spongy, and textured, and topped with a large scoop of whipped cream. One of the best ones I’ve had in a very long time.
Just as a side note: A few weeks ago, I stopped in for breakfast and tried their New Jersey Eggs Benedict (only available on weekends). Outstanding! Don’t pass this up if you’re looking for a great breakfast. And don’t forget their hot fresh coffee, with free refills.
If you haven’t been there yet, do yourself a favor and give the Spa a try. You will not be disappointed.
Spa Coffee Shop & Restaurant is located at 482 North Beverwyck Road, Lake Hiawatha. Phone: (973) 335-7770 www.thesparestaurant.com; Dine In – In-Store Pickup – BYOB – Ample Parking. Home-Made Desserts – Reasonably Priced – Family Friendly. Casual, Cozy, and Comfortable Dining. Open 7 Days a Week for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner. Follow “The Spa Restaurant” on Facebook for Daily Specials.