When the venerable Rusty Scupper restaurant on Alexander Road closed in January, 2004, commercial real estate broker Toby Laughlin, part owner in the property, did not have any obvious replacement tenant for the 10,000 square foot property, built in 1972 for the Rusty Scupper chain by Laughlin’s father and another partner.

“I’m open to everything right now,” he said then (U.S. 1, January 7, 2004).

But at the same time that the Scupper announced its closing, Ed Kleefield, a Manhattan restaurateur, received an E-mail from a friend, a Lawrenceville School alumnus in the investment world who is also a partner in Kleefield’s restaurant group. The group includes J.L. East in Easthampton, a swank bistro that can accommodate 300 diners with upscale cuisine and a full-service raw bar; and Madame Tong’s (Pan Asian cuisine), JLX (X for express bistro), and Mumbo Gumbo Crab House (Southern cuisine) in Sag Harbor.

The E-mail referred to the Scupper’s closing and predicted, “This will be the future of your restaurant group.”

Since that first E-mail Kleefield, a Manhattan native who graduated from Franklin & Marshall in 1988, says, “it has been nothing but a fairy tale story with tremendous twists and turns to finally get from point A to point B.”

He is now immersed in plans to open his newest restaurant, as yet unnamed, in the former Scupper space in May.

Laughlin says the space had been vacant for far too long but he ultimately was in charge of choosing the next tenant — and wanted to choose carefully. He says at least 40 “real restaurateurs” came and looked at the space, as well as many people “who always wanted to open a restaurant.”

So, why Kleefield? “When the restaurant was empty it looked really empty to me. Yet when Ed looked at it he felt the space was fantastic. He has vision.”

Sags Kleefield: “The wonder of this whole thing is that Toby and I got along so well that I realized that in almost every one of my ventures the landlords have been nothing but blue chip, straightforward, caring individuals.” Kleefield calls the relationship with Laughlin “a three and a half year flirtation, a courtship.”

Kleefield, whose father is an attorney practicing international law in Manhattan and whose mother is an art collector, says he knows immediately whether a space is right for him. “If the space was in Kalamazoo and I felt the vibe the second I walked into the space I’d make a go of it.

“In this instance, when a friend, one of your original investors, puts his arm around your shoulders and says, ‘Just check this out,’ you do it. This is the suburbs, not what I’m used to. But the second I came to Princeton, I saw how cosmopolitan it is and wants to be. It speaks for itself as a gold standard. My idea was to reach the gold communities — Miami, Aspen, San Francisco. When Princeton came up, I swung by and I couldn’t believe how many people I met who told me how wonderful it would be to have a sophisticated, metropolitan restaurant. Every time I came down to ‘kick the tires’ on the property. I was driving back to New York with a smile on my face.”

‘Ed is a person who recognizes that a restaurant is more than a place that just sells food and liquor,” says Laughlin, who did his due diligence on Kleefield by visiting Jean Luc in Manhattan (a restaurant that Kleefield recently sold) and sending his sons to J.L. East in Easthampton and reading reviews of Kleefield’s restaurants.

Kleefield is committed to the act-local philosophy. His architect for the interior cosmetic renovation is Kelter and Giligo on Washington Road and his contractor is Ted Golfinopoulus of TG and Associates of New Jersey on Scotch Road in Ewing, a college fraternity buddy who attended the Lawrenceville School. He says he will open the restaurant with two charity events to benefit Princeton Public Library and the University Medical Center at Princeton. (J.L. East has been host to fundraisers for John Kerry and local firemen.)

“I think people who know the restaurant will be happily surprised they’re changing some of the layout,” says Laughlin. Kleefield won’t reveal all the details just yet but he says, “I’ve seen hundreds and thousands of restaurant spaces — restaurateurs are always the first to know when a restaurant is closing. I plan to modernize it and bring to it something that Princeton has never seen before, without making it other than approachable. I try to make restaurants that seem extremely stylish in design and decor, yet when people walk out they say that was very reasonable.”

The food, he says, “will feature some very popular bistro cuisine, French-inspired, a full-service raw bar, as well as full service sushi bar. There will be a private dining room upstairs, a jazz lounge on the main floor. We will have a lot of little packages, whether it’s a sushi bar, or the two bars, one upstairs, one downstairs. And the wonderful outdoor cafe along the brook.”

For those of you wondering what the French factor is in Kleefield’s heritage, his middle name is Jean and parents were born in France but are American citizens, “Who would want to go to Eddie’s Bistro?” Kleefield quips.

He says the new restaurant will also have live jazz and blues on select nights. “I’ll try to bring in some names — I’ll ask some of my partners to put those names up. I have extensive contacts in the music world. We have live music at Madame Tong’s and Mumbo Gumbo Crab House.”

Many of his contacts are born out of his Manhattan connections, and he says that he is friends with a lot of alumni of Princeton and the Lawrenceville School. “The reason this restaurant is going to come into existence is thanks to a number of university alumni — an eye doctor, others in finance — who wanted to see it emerge. It’s the sophistication of these investors — and members of the Princeton business community — that is really driving this. I’m the magician but they’re the ones putting on the show.”

Whether the restaurant actually opens in May remains to be seen. “The work is lengthy — the paperwork, liquor license, design work. I know better than anyone, you cannot cut corners. I do know the pressure is on but we are not a franchise operation dropping into a mall somewhere.”

Slow and steady is Kleefield’s style. He says he is looking forward to the restaurant’s having an eclectic mix of professionals as customers. “We’ll get to know our regular customers; our rhythm will be in line with theirs. I don’t want to get ahead of myself.”

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