It’s only natural, and a good thing for me, that the dining scene along the Route 1 corridor is in constant flux. Towns that have been dining hubs for decades continue to expand, coalesce, and morph. Since the economic downtown of 2008, though, many of the eateries that have popped up are backed by established restaurateurs and chefs.
Take, for instance, Elements in Princeton, which owner Steve Distler relocated from the wilds of Route 206 and reopened in August on Witherspoon Street, in the heart of the central business district.
And Hopewell — that tiny town with more than its fair share of notable eateries — is set to expand its already impressive line-up with the opening of Brick Farm Tavern, which the owners — the folks who are also behind Double Brook Farm and Brick Farm Market in Hopewell — anticipate will occur in November.
Aside from these welcome but not unexpected developments, I’ve noticed a different, equally fortuitous trend: the establishment of new restaurants in locations that have either never been dining hot spots (e.g., Hightstown) or had been hot, but faded in recent years (e.g., New Brunswick). Here are six that have bravely planted their flags in such towns or neighborhoods.
When this storied restaurant — the summer home of the Algonquin Round Table in the early 20th century; its wishing well the inspiration for a song by Rogers & Hammerstein — abruptly closed down in mid-2014, it could have spelled the end of a run that began in 1710. But Mitch Millett, an aviation entrepreneur who owns Aerosource in Somerset and who had acquired the property in 2012, had other plans. After extensive renovations that include a new roof, HVAC, furniture, and kitchen equipment, the inn reopened in October, 2014.
Currently the exterior is being repainted, and the famed murals in three of its dining rooms, which date to the 1920s, are being given new life by Stockton resident Illia Barger, an accomplished muralist and painter.
The biggest change is a new focus on the quality of the dining experience. The inn no longer offers lodging or caters weddings, and Millett brought in 29-year-old Alan Heckman to oversee an American menu that draws on this sleepy Hunterdon County town’s Colonial legacy. “When you think about Colonial cooking, you think boring,” Heckman admits. “One-pot dishes, all cooked well-done or to mush. We’ve recreated dishes using those same ingredients, but with modern twists.”
Take rabbit, for example, which was widely used during Colonial times. “We do roulade, making a forcemeat mousseline of the legs, kidney, and heart, which we use as a filling rolled around rabbit loin and belly. It’s modern, but employs classic technique.” The menu is tweaked with the seasons, so instead of this summer’s red peppers and grilled baby squash to accompany the rabbit, Heckman plans to utilize fall’s winter squashes, apples, and pears in the weeks ahead.
A self-proclaimed Navy brat, Heckman started working part-time in restaurants at the age of 13. His high school in Virginia Beach offered a vocational culinary arts program and that plus scholarships earned him a spot at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. After graduating in 2007, he worked at Canlis, the esteemed Seattle restaurant, and eventually for Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak in Connecticut. For the last four years Heckman had worked across the river at Washington Crossing Inn.
“But,” he says, “I had no personal time; I was working 120 hours a week.” Not only does the Stockton Inn limit its operations to dinner five nights a week, but Heckman lives right next door, with his wife of one year and their nine-month-old daughter. “It’s the shortest commute of my career,” he jokes. The couple met at the Washington Crossing Inn, where she is the events coordinator. Heckman says that seasonal seafood dishes are perennial favorites, including halibut, sea bass, and day boat scallops, and is proud that one area food blogger declared his peanut butter and chocolate napoleon with salted caramel ice cream the best dessert of all time.
Owner Millett, a Stockton resident, tapped his nephew, Heath Millett, an award-winning chef from Texas, as consulting chef. Both Milletts pop into the restaurant regularly. “Heath is a great resource for me; we have a great working relationship,” Heckman says. “When I’m developing a dish, I can present it to him and we can agree on how to tweak it.”
The Stockton Inn has also instituted a guest chef series wherein acclaimed chefs from New York, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania create a five-course menu focusing on one key ingredient, and that fixed-price menu is offered for one month alongside the inn’s a la carte dinner menu. “We really hit the nail on the head with this,” Heckman says. The first guest chef was Max Hansen of Carversville, who created a menu around the ingredient he is best known for: salmon, including his famous smoked salmon. Starting on September 30, duck will take center stage, with five courses offered by chef Nick Farina of Verdad in Bryn Mawr. For that, even the dessert includes duck: foie gras with chocolate.
The guest chef and a la carte menus are offered, along with a short but thoughtful list of wines, classic cocktails, and craft beers, at the inn’s 20 indoor tables and at another 22 tables on the outdoor patios, including some alongside stone-clad waterfalls. The inn’s Dog & Deer Tavern boasts its own, more casual menu, although the formal menus can be had there, too. The former lounge, now called the club room, is where guests can savor the beverage menu’s “rarified spirits,” which include ultra premium libations such as Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac, and nosh on cheese and charcuterie platters. Besides those delights, the club room boasts cozy club chairs, a fireplace, and David Barry on piano on Friday and Saturday nights.
Stockton Inn, 1 Main Street, Stockton. Wednesday through Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m. 609-397-1250. www.stocktoninn.com.
Liberty Hall Pizza
Guest chefs appear to be a trend, at least along the Delaware. Liberty Hall Pizza, which opened last December in the Canal Studios complex on North Union Street in Lambertville, invites non-pizza-making chefs in every other Tuesday to create a signature Neapolitan-style pizza in its wood-fired Valoriani brick oven. Back in June, Brandon Anderson, head brewer at Triumph Brewing, created a pizza topped with wort-caramelized onions, drizzled with oil made with hops, and dusted with malted white pepper.
Next up are Lambertville artist Tony LaSalle on September 29, and Hamilton Grill Room’s Mark Miller on October 13.
But for the most part Liberty Hall “pizza artisan” and co-owner, Chris Bryan, serves up his own 12-inch red and white pizzas with both traditional and modern toppings, along with fresh salads and desserts that include Nutella pizza, ice cream, and a root beer float made with Victory Draught Root Beer. That root beer is also available by the glass, half-pitcher, and pitcher at this 50-seat BYOB. Bryan, who worked for Nomad Pizza for four years, says what sets his pizzas apart is the crust.
“For Neapolitan pizza you need a wood-fired oven that reaches 800 to 850 degrees, which allows all the ingredients to cook at the same time, and within 90 seconds to two minutes. Neapolitan pizza is thin-crust pizza, but it’s not a crunchy crust. It’s floppy — you eat it with a knife and fork. Our dough is unique. It’s fermented and used three to five days after we make it, which allows flavor to develop.”
Bryan grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, earned a degree in civil engineering from Drexel and an MBA from Temple, and entered sports marketing, working for, among others, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Somerset Patriots. Eventually he wound up as a sponsorship and event marketing specialist for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield in Newark. “But I had grown unhappy with corporate-type structures,” he says.
When he encountered the Nomad Pizza truck at an event, he decided to ditch the corporate world. “I believe pizza brings out the best in everyone. Not all foods do, but pizza does,” he says. Bryan, 47, lives in Flemington with his wife, Elizabeth, who for the last 12 years has been collections manager for the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Bryan met Liberty Hall Pizza’s co-owner, Danny Popkin, in 2013, when Popkin was looking for tenants for his Canal Studios, a former industrial space north of downtown that now houses many enterprises, including the pizza restaurant, Rojo’s Roastery, and Roxey Ballet, whose staff, parents, and students are regular customers. With an outlet of OWOWCOW creamery a block away, the triumvirate of artisan pizza, coffee, and ice cream has revitalized this section of Lambertville.
Popkin is the owner of Hamilton-based Modern Recycled Spaces, which specializes in converting old industrial spaces into new uses (U.S. 1, September 10, 2014). Liberty Hall reflects its industrial roots with original brick walls, polished concrete floors, and multi-paned windows adorned only with old tin pails hung from nautical rope. Bare wood tables get covered with white butcher’s paper, and on each table vintage squat red round industrial tins, purchased on eBay by Popkin, hold crayons, pizza wheels, shakers of hot red pepper flakes, paper napkins, and other accouterments. Taller versions are used as wine and beer coolers, and their lids are wall decorations.
The young, energetic staff is clad all in black, with t-shirts asking “Got Lardo?” Thin shavings of that ingredient — snow-white cured pork fat — is the star of a pizza that is also topped with buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto, rosemary, garlic, and a fistful of seasonings. In addition to the lineup of a dozen-plus pies, Bryan offers seasonal specials, like one this summer of local tomatoes, corn, and jalapenos with guanciale and fresh burrata. His restaurant’s margherita is a customer favorite, but Bryan’s own go-to pizza is the simplest of all: marinara. “Crust, plain sauce, cheese, olive oil, parmesan — nothing can hide,” he says.
Liberty Hall Pizza, 243 North Union Street, Lambertville. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m., Friday, 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. 609-397-8400. www.libertyhallpizza.com.
This Guatemalan restaurant took over the Chambersburg space that for decades had been Papa’s Pizza, after that Trenton landmark retrenched to Robbinsville in mid-2013. Many Mexican and Central American eateries have popped up in that section of the city in recent years, as it has transitioned from being a haven in the 20th century for Italian immigrants to playing the same role in the 21st century for Hispanics. Like many of these new restaurants, La Chapinita — an informal name for Guatemalans — is a family affair. Maibin Morales is the owner, along with her ex-husband, Carlos Diaz, who owns five restaurants in Trenton. Maibin’s 25-year-old brother, Edin, is manager and the two siblings’ mother is the kitchen manager.
Edin Morales created two of the restaurant’s top selling platters. One, the Pica Petenera Marinera, is named after the Morales family’s hometown of Peten, which is next to the famous Mayan temple ruins of Tikal. (Tikal also has platter named in its honor.) The Petenera Marinera features generous servings of carne asada, grilled chicken breast, links of fresh chorizo, and grilled shrimp, accompanied by stewed black beans, white rice, and tostones (fried green plantain), and comes garnished with fried cheese, a grilled jalapeno, and grilled scallions. Variations on this theme comprise the other platters, some with dried cured beef (asobada), fried fish fillet, grilled pork chop, dried sausage, avocado, and maduros (sweet plantain).
What sets La Chapinita apart from neighboring restaurants, Edin Morales says, is that he keeps the kitchen staff on their toes. When they try to change the recipes, or don’t follow his precise instructions for making sure that the restaurant’s many special platters are as beautifully plated as they are properly cooked, he sets them straight. Meat is grilled to well done, as is customary, but is still tender and moist. Rice is fluffy; beans are tender but not mushy; salsas are fresh and bright-tasting. Soft corn tortillas, which accompany every platter, are made to order and served warm. His restaurant draws both Latinos and Americanos from the immediate area and from as far away as Columbus in Burlington County, he says.
Besides Guatemalan specialties, La Chapinita’s sprawling menu features the breakfast, lunch, and dinner items typical of Mexican restaurants, including tacos, tortillas, burritos, fajitas, quesadillas, and tostadas. Rounding out the menu are traditional hot and cold beverages, including those made with hibiscus, tamarind, mango, rice, and corn. The restaurant sports a large display case with sweet breads and pastries, which are baked in the former pizza oven. But Edin Morales’ favorite dessert at La Chapinita is the rice quesadilla that his mother makes from scratch. Despite its name, it is in reality a sort of pound cake made with rice flour and grated cheese. He is also partial to his mother’s soup and a homestyle chicken stew with tomatillos, tomatoes, and chilies that is sometimes a daily special.
Morales, who learned to cook by working in other restaurants in Trenton over the years, says about half his business is take-out, the other half eat in. When the family took over from Papa’s, they painted the upper walls a cheerful red-orange and installed large, white-framed mirrors over the old European murals. In the coming year, Morales plans to remove the existing pizza parlor-type booths and replace them with tables and chairs to, he says, “create a true restaurant ambiance.” He will also reconfigure the front entrance and replace the curved red awning that many people associate with Papa’s with a custom sign.
La Chapinita is a cash-only establishment, and while the menu is in Spanish and English and the wait staff friendly and helpful, only Spanish is spoken on premises.
La Chapinita, 804 Chambers Street, Trenton. Daily, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. 609-396-3759. www.lachapinitarestaurant.com.
Il Forno Cafe & Trattoria
Jeff Malloy loves the look of surprise on the faces of first-time guests when they enter the Italian BYOB he opened last October behind a CVS in West Windsor. “You drive into a suburban strip mall, but you find yourself in a space that resembles a rustic post-and-beam barn,” he says. This executive chef/owner, who has had an award-winning Italian restaurant in Boston for 15 years, makes clear that his is also not a typical chicken-parm-and-veal-Marsala joint. “I want my food to take you to Italy,” he says. “For eight months over a three-year period, I went back to Italy — Tuscany, Naples, Sicily — to learn. I serve peasant food that’s beautifully plated.”
Malloy says his Bolognese sauce draws West Windsor customers back time and again, as does his haddock or cod loin Francese with capers, sauteed spinach, and arancini. “You can taste the fish; it’s not swimming in too much of a too lemony sauce,” he says. Neapolitan pizzas from the gas and wood-fired oven are other favorites, along with an appetizer of twice-baked, paper-thin potato slices lightly topped with fontina cheese and spinach. A signature pasta dish is baked penne with tiny Apulian-style meatballs that comes wrapped in parchment.
Lasagne and weekend risotto change with the seasons. “For fall, we’ll probably have a butternut squash or wild mushroom lasagne,” he conjectures. “We’ll also add cheese ravioli with fontina and butternut puree.” Gluten-free pasta, pizza, and breads are always available, as are cannoli, for which Malloy makes the shells as well as the filling. These departures from standard red-sauce fare are hard to find east of Route 1, he says, and are drawing folks from around the area.
That same regional rustic Italian fare has garnered Malloy acclaim at his first restaurant, Carmen, in Boston’s historically Italian-American North End. These days, Malloy, 43, spends a few days every two weeks up in Boston. Otherwise, he is based in West Windsor, where he and his partner in life and the restaurant, Melissa Virgilio, just moved from a townhouse into their own home. It was a rekindled love affair with Virgilio that brought him back to New Jersey. They share the home with Virgilio’s 12-year-old twin daughters.
Malloy grew up in Summit and has some Italian ancestry on his mother’s side. After graduating from a culinary arts program, in 1997 he moved to Boston and worked in several Italian restaurants before opening Carmen’s, which has made the “Best of Boston” list six times.
At Il Forno (the oven) — a much larger space than he has in Boston — tables and banquettes are well-spaced in a high-ceilinged space that combines the farmhouse vibe with industrial elements and which seats 85 indoors (in good weather, 12 can be seated on the patio). But the space is undergoing a reconfiguration. About a quarter is being converted in to a salumeria, with shelving and counter space for retail prepared foods, Italian market foods, and hard-to-find imported packaged products — what Malloy calls “a little di Bruno Brothers,” after the venerable Philadelphia specialty food shop. This section will also feature Il Forno’s own housemade mozzarella, pomodoro, and marinara sauces, and fresh pasta, as well as breads from Brooklyn Bread Company. “We’re also a great spot for private events,” Malloy says. “We can hold up to 80 comfortably.”
Il Forno Cafe & Trattoria, 358 Princeton Hightstown Road (behind CVS Shopping Center), West Windsor. Lunch: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Salads, sandwiches, pizza: Tuesday through Thursday, 3 to 5 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 3 to 9 p.m. 609-799-8822. www.ilfornowestwindsor.com.
Like Jeff Malloy of Il Forno, Rennie DiLorenzo also sees himself filling a dining vacuum east of Princeton. His 12 Farms restaurant brings the farm-to-table concept to downtown Hightstown, in a former coffee shop. “A lot of our regulars come from within a five-mile radius — Hightstown, East Windsor, Hamilton, and Robbinsville — but we’re also drawing customers from West Windsor and even Princeton, which has so many good restaurants,” DiLorenzo says.
The restaurant, which opened in February and seats 45 inside and 18 outside, features meat, fish, dairy, and produce from local farms and waters. Dishes such as day boat scallops crusted with pistachios and napped with Sambuca sauce, and grass-fed grilled sirloin steak (from Simply Grazin’ in Skillman) with port wine demi-glace combine DiLorenzo’s penchant for supporting area farms, and the local economy with the classical French technique he learned at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), which he graduated from in 2013.
Dishes such as a pork chop stuffed with fruit reflect his seasonal bent. In midsummer, the chop was filled with peaches and drizzled with apricot demi-glace. For fall, those are being switched out for figs and maple-balsamic reduction. Housemade fresh pastas, as well as gnocchi, risotto, and polenta are an homage to DiLorenzo’s Italian heritage, and reflect his time as an intern at Brooklyn’s famed Al Di La Trattoria.
12 Farms is BYOB, but wines from Working Dog Winery, on the outskirts of Hightstown, are available for purchase. The restaurant’s name reflects DiLorenzo’s plan to spotlight one farm each month with a reception and special dinner. One has already been held for Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrenceville, the cheeses of which are always on the 12 Farms menu.
On Thursday, September 24, Hopewell’s Beechtree Farm will take the spotlight. October’s wasn’t set as of press time, but that month will feature a very special menu addition: Beef Wellington. That’s in honor of DiLorenzo’s wife, Barbara, whose birthday is that month.
Renato DiLorenzo, 45, grew up in Westford, Massachusetts, the youngest of six children, and says he has worked in restaurants since he was 14. His next-in-command in the 12 Farms kitchen is Hightstown native, Jonny Fisk. Fisk grew up in his parents’ restaurant, the erstwhile Mom’s Peppermill, near the New Jersey Turnpike’s Exit 8, and attended the culinary program at Mercer County Community College. “Jonny’s sauces are exceptional,” DiLorenzo says, “He and I collaborate on everything. We’re constantly saying, ‘Here, taste this, taste this.’”
Barbara DiLorenzo is also integral to the operation. An art teacher at the Arts Council of Princeton and the Hightstown Library, she organizes the restaurant’s rotating art display (and sale) by local artists, and she books the live musicians who perform regularly at the restaurant. She also curates monthly live art salons and writers’ groups that meet at the restaurant when it is not serving. Her debut children’s book, “Renato and the Lion,” is due out next year. The DiLorenzos moved to Hightstown two years ago.
For the restaurant, Barbara DiLorenzo painted a large mural: a stylized map that depicts the location of many of the surrounding area farms. The mural is but one investment the couple made in a 1,600-square-foot space inside a vintage building that is owned by Hightstown resident Jeffrey Bond. “Moving into an old building always holds surprises,” Rennie DiLorenzo admits.
In its early weeks the restaurant got off to a rocky start, due to a malfunctioning oven and insufficient heating. “Plus I’m going to have to paint a red stripe where part of the floor slants,” he adds. Over the next six months DiLorenzo will be installing a second restroom and fire exit, and will replace the heating system before January’s chill sets in.
DiLorenzo is willing to make these investments because of his restaurant’s increasing popularity, but also for another reason. “Hightstown is due for a renaissance,” he says. “I predict that in three to five years it will be well underway.”
12 Farms, 120 North Main Street, Hightstown. Lunch: Wednesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner: Wednesday through Saturday, 3 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday brunch: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 609-336-7746. www.12farms.com.
INC American Bar & Kitchen
Recent times haven’t been kind to the downtown New Brunswick fine-dining scene. Some linchpins continue to thrive: the Frog & Peach, Stage Left, Panico’s, for example. But the space that had been SoHo on George is now split between two university student-friendly chains, World of Beer and the Counter, which specializes in burgers. Makeda, the pioneering Ethiopian restaurant, is shuttered. (Scheduled to open in its place later this month is the Dillinger Room, which appears to be a cocktail lounge with a speakeasy vibe.)
But there are also hopeful developments. A Cuban restaurant, Esquina Latina, has replaced V Lounge on Liberty Street. And, in the space adjacent to the Heldrich Hotel that has seen two failed incarnations of Daryl Wine Bar, is INC, which is shorthand for Ingredients N Craft. It opened late in February serving casual, modern American fare and playful interpretations of ethnic-American favorites. The key players are all veterans of the New Jersey restaurant scene. Mark Farro is chef/owner. His Mark Daniel Hospitality group owns Uproot in Warren, which shares a similar vibe and menu, and is where he spends most of his time.
Ryan Anderson is INC’s executive chef. He worked in the same location when it was Daryl, and has also spent time at Uproot, the Bernards Inn, and the Frog & Peach. Danny McGill, who once was manager of Tre Bar in Forrestal Village, is general manager. He holds the same position at Uproot and divides his time more or less equally between the two places.
New Brunswick represents a sort of homecoming for him, since he graduated from Rutgers in 2005 and while in school worked at two local restaurants: the Olive Branch and the erstwhile Doll’s Place, both student hangouts.
“We’ve tried to keep the menu American,” McGill says. “But really, the U.S. is eclectic, so our food draws from all over.” Case in point: General Tso’s cauliflower, a small dish of rice-batter fried florets coated with the eponymous sweet-tart sauce. The fall menu, just introduced, is a departure from INC’s previous, which focused on small plates and sharable dishes. This one separates “bites” from what would elsewhere be called entrees, of which there are now many more choices. Among the popular “sharables” that have made the cut are Vietnamese steam buns, truffle fries, and mac ’n’ cheese bites.
Entries that are being reprised include shrimp and grits (stone ground grits, corncob smoked bacon, tomato-herb broth, watercress); roasted Atlantic salmon, for cool weather now decked out with Brussels sprouts, smoked salmon hash, black truffle puree, sorrel, and lemon caper butter; and a vegetarian dish of stir-fried brown rice with vegetables, egg, pickled chilies, and peanuts. Some new entrees include hickory-smoked pork tacos, pastrami short rib, and hanger steak. And a previous lone burger (with blue cheese and caramelized onions) has been joined by two others.
Besides Rutgers students, faculty, and staff, McGill says the restaurant gets a lot of business travelers who stay at the Heldrich. “Our main client base ranges in age from 25 to 55,” McGill says. “Some come for happy hour; some enjoy both the drinks and the full menu.” Guests who dined at Daryl will recognize the room’s sleek, modern design, including an espresso-based color palette, which envelops gleaming wood floors, sleek tables, and upholstered Parsons chairs. The dark palette has been brightened with swaths of brilliant red-orange paint and new light fixtures (including some featuring today’s de rigueur Edison bulbs).
Whiskey, especially American whiskey (bourbon and its cousins), is a focus of the bar and beverage program. Roughly half of the list of 100-plus whiskeys is American. “So,” McGill says, “even if you’re not a regular whiskey drinker, some style will be for you.” In fact, some regulars keep track of which ones they have tried via personal lists that are kept behind the bar. There are also cocktails and a list of just over 20 all-American wines, as well as American craft and mainstream beers, many in cans. The INC team has maintained the liquor store that is part of the space, so guests can take home many of the whiskeys, wines, and beers. “This has been a big hit with Heldrich guests and with the residents of the George” — the new 14-story apartment tower across the street — McGill says.
INC American Bar & Kitchen, 302 George Street, New Brunswick. Monday through Saturday, 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. 732-640-0553. www.increstaurant.com.
Pat Tanner blogs at www.dinewithpat.com