Order in the courtyard

Tunes and treats share the scene at NJPAC’s summer outdoor concert series.


Horizon Foundation Sounds of the City is already Newark’s go-to summer celebration —  an eight-week Thursday night series of free, open-air concerts in Chambers Plaza, the perfectly manicured, multilevel  park that spreads out in front of NJPAC on Center Street. It’s been the city’s hot spot for dancing, socializing and basking in the late-afternoon sunshine for years.


But the long-running event tiptoed into becoming a food festival as well as a musical soirée last year, and will up the ante this summer. Now, Sounds is also an event where you can catch dinner with friends or colleagues while soaking in the music of Jon B., Newarker Frankie Negrón, Antibalas and more.


At every Thursday night jam, food trucks fill the courtyard in front of NJPAC’s NICO Kitchen + Bar restaurant. And NICO itself again offers a “beer tent” where not only beer but all kinds of summer beverages are sold, and a barbecue area with classic cookout treats. Everything from hot dogs to grilled chicken sandwiches and slushies (alcoholic or not, your choice) are available during the concerts.


Food trucks on hand during most of the concert series include the beloved Jersey-based  Empanada Guy truck, Newark’s familiar Steak-N-Take (which, despite the  name, offers soul-food classic s like fried whiting sandwiches and sweet potato pie in addition to steak), and an old-school ice cream truck. On select dates, a carnival truck will sell funnel cakes and cotton candy.


“And those funnel cakes are really good, I’ve had ‘em!” promises Eric McConnell, Concessions Manager at NJPAC, whose duties include finding treats that pair well with all kinds of concerts. (If you’ve ever been to one of the NJSO’s Harry Potter film-and-concert nights, you can thank McConnell for whipping up that Butterbeer slushie.)


Other food trucks may be added as the summer season rolls on, McConnell says.


“I’m always looking for something unique, something fun that you wouldn’t normally have,” he says.


“When I spot an interesting food truck, I always make a pitch to them to come out.”


NICO’s outdoor food offerings are pitched to not compete with the visiting trucks’ wares, so McConnell keeps the menu there simple and classic. Sabrett hot dogs, quarter-pound hamburgers and grilled chicken sandwiches (marinated in Italian seasonings, they are McConnell’s favorite) comprise the bulk of the offerings.


“We don’t want to compete with (the trucks), and we also have to be quick, grab-and-go. People come to hear the music, they don’t want to be waiting in a line for their food,” McConnell says.


(That’s outside; inside NICO, the standard evening menu of globe-spanning entrées and apps is always available.)


Drinks in the “beer tent” include not only many varieties of beer, but in a nod to summer temperatures, there are frozen blue raspberry or cherry slushies, spiked with rum, vodka or Hennessy, as well as frozen margaritas. (Those come in a souvenir shaker cup.) McConnell supplements the drinks menu with a rum punch.


Bartenders often rename the slushies depending who’s playing. Here’s the rest of the Horizon Foundation Sounds of the City lineup for 2018:


  • Funk and soul saxophonist Maceo Parker, who helped to create the sound of the genre while working alongside icons like James Brown, George Clinton and Prince, plays Aug. 9 with his band.
  • Newark-born sonero Frankie Negrón weaves elements of pop, rock, gospel, R&B, hip-hop and reggaetón into his distinctive salsa sound; he’ll be in his native city on Aug. 16.
  • Another local talent, Newark rapper and actress Rah Digga will come back to her home town on Aug. 23. 
  • Contemporary R&B singer-songwriter Jon B. concludes the series on Aug. 30 with his smooth blend of classic soul and R&B, seasoned with touches of hip-hop, rock, reggae and jazz.

Aug. 9, 2018