If you’re in charge of booking your company’s holiday party this year, or even if you just want to drop a big hint to whoever’s planning it, we did some sleuthing and found the area’s most architecturally-interesting private dining rooms — the kinds of places that make the commonplace office social event a memorable affair.
Now is the time to plan. Donna Lang, event coordinator of Mediterra in Princeton, which has a private dining room that accommodates up to 30 guests, says that holiday party bookings for that room kick in about October 1, but that there is still room. Friday nights go very quickly, she says, but there are still openings for other days of the week.
Hint: She says that a holiday luncheon is a great option — a lot less expensive and the same great food. We like that idea, too, so you can keep your holiday nights free to party with your real friends. Herewith a sampling of the opportunities possible in the private rooms.
Its name, the Rat Hole, conjures up images of a dingy bar in the basement of a dirty building. But this private space, located in the kitchen of Rat’s restaurant at Grounds for Sculpture, is anything but. Its chef’s tasting menu, served at a table for no more than 10 guests, makes it among the area’s priciest and most prestigious private dining destinations. The “Hole” is one of several private dining spaces at Rat’s, which devotes an increasing measure of attention to patrons who want to entertain away from the crowds.
Modeled after a French village reminiscent of French impressionist Claude Monet’s Giverny, Rat’s (named after a character in “The Wind in the Willows”) sits on the grounds of the 35-acre Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton. In addition to its highest-end chef’s table in the Rat Hole, the restaurant has spaces that accommodate anywhere from 15 to about 200 people, all in picturesque settings.
“I’m fussy. I’ve done a lot of special events,” says Gail Balph Gordon, who last month married State Assemblyman Bob Gordon (D-Bergen County) at the restaurant. “And this was amazing.” The couple’s ceremony, followed by a brunch for more than 200 guests, cost them almost $30,000. While the couple took over the whole restaurant, not just one private dining room, their experience is telling of Rat’s stellar reputation. “At first we thought the price was daunting,” Gordon continues. “But when you figure I didn’t have to go crazy worrying about flowers and everything else, and when you consider how outstanding it was, it was absolutely worth it. And they threw in incredible amenities like vodka at each table with fresh caviar.”
The couple, whose marriage was the main wedding story in the October 15 “Style” section of the New York Times, were married outside, in front of the restaurant under a big tree. Cocktails were served by the bridge in the back of the restaurant built to resemble Monet’s at Giverny. “We looked at sites everywhere from Williamstown, MA, to Washington, D.C., and bar none, this was the most complete and picturesque we saw,” Gordon adds. “And I’m picky.”
Catering manager Christopher Carrell says the restaurant offers six private dining areas to guests. Among them is the Wine Tasting Room, which can accommodate from 14 to 21 people. “It’s very intimate and handsome, and guests dine at one table in the center of the room surrounded by our collection of 1,200 bottles. I do a lot of anniversary dinners there.”
Guests can choose from either the catering menu or a special tasting menu, which can be paired with wines or without. There is a sommelier on site, and the wine cellar steward can assist with the pairing of wines with different courses. “We station a captain in each room and we have a great guest-to-service ratio of 1-12, which is important for private events,” Carrell says.
Rat’s Dance Pavilion is another space for private dining. An octagonal free-standing room next to the main building with views of the Monet garden outside, it can accommodate 60 guests or more. The restaurant pays a lot of attention to table settings, again inspired by Monet. “We have a lot of burnt oranges, blues, and greens,” says Carrell. “And it changes. Mr. Johnson (Seward Johnson, founder of the Grounds for Sculpture complex) likes to keep the guests on their toes. We’re kind of an art facility, so that makes sense.”
For parties in the Dance Pavilion, guests can have cocktails or eat al fresco on the terrace, which can be heated and covered from above by rolldown awnings. The room includes a 60-inch flat screen, and a touchpad “jukebox” that has more than 160 playlists ranging from chamber music to smooth jazz. Prices range from $140 to $160 per person, Tuesdays through Thursdays. On weekends, the range is from $175 to $225. Brunch is about $55 to $75 a head and includes a complimentary mimosa or glass of champagne per guest, a hot entree as well as the brunch buffet, and chilled vodka and caviar served with all the accoutrements at table.
“It was the professionalism of the staff and the beauty of the location that made our wedding,” says Assemblyman Gordon. “It was flawless.”
Rat’s Restaurant, 16 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Christopher Carrell, catering sales manager. 609-584-8576, www.ratsrestaurant.org.
The Frog and the Peach
Gerry Kirchofer, party coordinator at the Frog and the Peach, also in New Brunswick, says the restaurant’s garden room is an open-air space that seats up to 40 and is open throughout the year. “It’s our most private space,” she says. “It’s so nice in the springtime. There is no air-conditioning in there, but we do have heat, with radiant heat in the floors. Even in the winter, with the billowing palms, you’ll feel like you’re in South Beach. It’s a kind of open-air space with greenery throughout the fall and winter, and seasonal flowers throughout the year.”
Opened in 1983 and named after a comedy routine by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (the late Moore was a guest), the Frog and the Peach also offers private dining on its upper and lower levels. Part of the upper floor, which is bi-level, can be closed off for smaller groups of up to 35. The full space can accommodate up to 50. The wine room downstairs, which is curtained off, accommodates 20. An additional little alcove, separated from the bar by a curtain of beads, makes a cozy space for up to 12 guests. It isn’t unusual to spot well-known actors, appearing at New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse or in town to attend a play, at the restaurant. “We’ve had James Gandolofini, and Adam Arkin,” says Kirchofer. “And we get a lot of politicians.”
The cost ranges from $33.50-$50.50 per person for lunch; and $44.50-$66.50 for dinner. The food is customized from the regular menu, and Kirchofer has occasionally added an extra course. “It’s not your typical banquet-style dining,” she says. “It’s all about our food, service, and ambience. If you’re a vegetarian, that’s not a problem. We will always accommodate different requests.”
The Frog and the Peach, 29 Dennis Street New Brunswick. Gerry Kirchofer, party coordinator. 732.846.3216, www.frogandpeach.com.
‘I can wow them with the food and wow them with the service,” says Rose Olender, event coordinator and manager of Nova Terra Restaurant and Bar in New Brunswick, part of the Terra Momo Group of restaurants that also includes Princeton’s Mediterra, Teresa Caffe, and Witherspoon Bread Company. “The restaurant is beautiful and we have a creative, passionate chef, whom I work with closely. We use mostly local, fresh organic ingredients. You’re getting top service and top food, not typical banquet style.”
Six-year-old Nova Terra has a sleek, contemporary private dining room that can accommodate up to 40 people. Located adjacent to the restaurant’s wine cellar, the room is painted in neutral shades, with yellow walls and rich, deep brown woodwork. Tablecloths are a champagne color, the centerpieces tend towards the simple and nature-inspired.
Olender offers three fixed price menus, the priciest of which includes an hors d’oeuvres reception. “We have a lot of lunches and dinners, retirement parties, and business meetings,” she says. “In addition to the three menus I can also custom-design a menu with the customer.”
Nova Terra specializes in Pan-Latino cuisine. Typical entrees at a private party might include skirt steak, paella, and mahi-mahi, at prices ranging from $37 to $55 a person, not including wine. “We also have an award-winning wine list, and I can pair dinners with lots of wines,” Olender says. “And of course, we have the best mojitos.”
Nova Terra, 78 Albany Street, New Brunswick. Rose Olender, manager. 732-296-1600, www.terramomo.com.
Based on the cuisines of the Mediterranean, Mediterra in Princeton offers a customized prix-fixe menu to hosts who use the private dining room, which boasts a wall-length mural by Leslie Dowling, wife of co-owner Carlo Momo. Dowling is a a freelance architect and based the mural loosely on Matisse’s painting “Dance.” Event coordinator Donna Lang says that prices range from $39 for a three-course menu to $51 for a four-course menu. Liquor is additional. Lang explains that Mediterra has a unique price structure. To book the private room, there is a minimum total consumption cost of food and alcohol, based on the day of the week, and the time of year.
Some clients, says Lang, get very creative to meet their minimum since, if you fall below the minimum, you incur a room charge to make up the balance. She is currently creating a menu for a company dinner, which will have 16 guests. However, because this party will have an $1,800 minimum, the host has decided to put a good deal of the cost towards food, so Lang and the chef are creating the following six-course tasting menu (tasting menus, says Lang, can run from five to nine courses). The appetizer course is Tuscan sheep’s milk cheese with acacia honey and cracked black pepper; followed by a salad course of local greenhouse butterhead lettuce with candied walnuts, Cabrales cheese, dried cherries, and white truffle vinaigrette; a pasta course of butternut squash gnocchi, duck confit, Swiss chard, and Grana Padano cheese; a fish course of pan-roasted snapper with braised Savoy cabbage, sun-dried tomato, and arugula coulis; a meat course of grass-fed strip steak, Roquefort whipped Yukon Gold potatoes, wild mushroom saute, and green peppercorn glace; and a dessert course with three different desserts — a chocolate cappuccino seven-layer cake, dark rum-scented chocolate mousse, and bourbon caramel gelato. Different wines will be paired with each course.
Lang says the restaurant is happy to accommodate special requests, like the company based out of Germany which requested the restaurant make glogg, a hot mulled wine punch, for its private party. She says the room has been used for all sorts of parties from anniversaries and birthdays to christenings and reunions. “We had a woman looking to come in for a family holiday party, and she said her family was all of Greek descent and could we do a Greek menu,” says Lang. “We tailored our menu, which is already Mediterranean, to focus just on Greek dishes.”
She says the room is used frequently by such major corporations as GE Healthcare, Merrill Lynch, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Johnson & Johnson, as well as by Princeton University and smaller companies such as Solon Capital, Tangible Value, Krog and Partners, and VMS Group.
Lang says the most memorable parties are those where the host works closely with her on the details. “I remember a woman who was getting married, and her father couldn’t attend the wedding. She asked if we would create a special dinner for him and his wife. That’s just the sort of attention to detail that makes our parties special.”
Mediterra, 29 Hulfish Street. Upscale, casual cuisine of the 21 countries surrounding the Mediterranean sea. Private dining room accommodates up to 30 guests. 609-252-9680, www.terramomo.com
90 Main in New Hope
90 Main in New Hope bills itself as “Bucks County’s hottest restaurant and lounge.” Surf the website’s photo gallery and see pictures of sexy, young revelers flashing cleavage at some of the parties the restaurant has held since its opening in 2004. Formerly a biker bar, 90 Main holds private parties in its VIP lounge upstairs, in an area lined with couches and lit by candles.
Don’t look for traditional table service here. “We’re more about appetizers like tapas, with waiters passing them around, and a bar,” says co-owner John Whitehead. “Music plays, people dance, and it’s kind of dark in here. It’s fun.”
Whitehead says the space can accommodate up to 60 people. It is frequently rented for corporate functions. But as in the restaurant downstairs, this is a space where a party atmosphere is promoted. “We have a booking for Ortho-McNeil in mid-November, a team-building event,” says Whitehead. “We’ll have a DJ and people in ’70s outfits. We have disco balls that add to the excitement.”
Whitehead counts a private “swingers party” among his most unusual clients. “They go online and meet every few months, I think,” he says. “It was crazy. I kind of peeked in a few times. There was a lot of clothed couch-dancing going on. That was interesting.”
The restaurant specializes in tapas and sushi, and will bring a sushi chef upstairs if a customer requests it. Typical party offerings include grilled baby lamb chops, calamari, and crab cakes. Prices for private dining range from $50 to $150 a person. “We want people to try a bunch of things,” says Whitehead. “People love it. We can either do what’s on the menu or whatever they want off the menu, within reason. If they want karaoke, we’ll bring it in. For one party, we hired a Sinatra singer because I overheard the person say it would be great to have Sinatra music.”
90 Main Restaurant/Lounge, 90 South Main Street, New Hope. 215-862-3030. www.90mainlounge.com.
Owned by the Louisiana-raised chef of the same name, who also owns Ruth’s Chris Steakhouses, Marsha Brown is housed in a building converted from a Methodist church. “Its congregation moved outside of town to a site where there was more parking. It was a clothing store for awhile downstairs. Marsha has kept the (architectural) integrity of the church,” says general manager and chef Caleb Lentchner.
In the main dining room, patrons can sit on what was the altar, and the church pews have been turned into restaurant seating. The stained glass is there, as is a 20-foot tapestry created for the restaurant. “We literally have, on any given Saturday or Sunday, people coming in and looking as if this is a museum,” Lentchner says.
In the private dining room on the first floor, an oak table in a lush Victorian decor seats 12 comfortably but more guests can be accommodated. This is the room where the red wine is stored, and it has “a very New Orleans feel about it,” Lentchner says.
The restaurant has taken over 40 reservations so far for December holiday parties, both in the private dining room and the main dining room, but there are still some available dates. Some area companies that have used the private dining room include Princeton Public Affairs Group, Blessing White, Johnson & Johnson, R.R. Donnelly, Convatec, and Lockheed Martin.
By January, the restaurant plans to open a much larger private dining area in what was once the choir loft. The 50-by-30-foot space is above the main dining room floor. “We’re converting it into a corporate dining area with one large table that is 25 or 30 feet long,” says event coordinator Michael J. Capezio. “It can be converted for other uses like weddings.”
The restaurant has already booked a double wedding for Halloween, 2007. “It’s a man and his daughter, both getting married,” says Capezio. “She asked if the guests could come dressed in costume, which is great. It ’ll be a pretty unusual event.”
Hosts of private parties choose three items from the appetizer menu such as Mamere’s crab cheese cake and crawfish spring roll, ranging in price from $8 to $18. Salads and soups are optional, and go for $5 to $11. Hosts may have four entree choices such as Bourbon Street sauteed catfish, pan-seared scallops and lobster tail, and duck and andouille sausage jambalaya, range from $18 to $38, and three family-style sides ($6-$8) and desserts like Granmere’s comfort custard and fudge bottom pie.
All of this delicious food can add up to a considerable cost. But Capezio only charges guests for what they ordered rather than a flat per head rate. “We found this to be the fairest approach; to charge guests for exactly what they order,” Capezio says. “Restaurants that charge flat rates price their menu to cover the cost of the highest-priced items they offer on their menu. For instance, a banquet menu that features filet mignon for an entree choice as well as chicken is priced to cover the cost of the more expensive filet, not the chicken. Therefore the host is paying too much for any guests who order chicken.”
The restaurant also offers its full menu for parties of 12 and under. Says Lentchner: “If you walk around the dining room on any given day, there will be 15 anniversaries and 20 birthdays. We are a destination for a special occasion.”
Marsha Brown, Creole Kitchen and Lounge, the Olde Stone Church, 15 South Main Street, New Hope. Caleb Lentchner, chef. 215-862-7044, www.marshabrownrestaurant.com.
More Private Rooms
Main Street Bistro & Bar, Princeton Shopping Center, 301 North Harrison Street. Selected as a great neighborhood bistro by Bon Appetit magazine. Private dining room downstairs accommodates up to 45. 609-921-2779, www.mainstreetprinceton.com.
Also Main Street Coffeehouse and Bakery, 56 Main Street, Kingston. 609-921-2778. BYOB. Room for up to 20 people.
Lambertville Station, 11 Bridge Street, Lambertville. 609-397-8300; 609-397-4262. American cuisine. Liquor license. Private room for up to 50 people. www.lambertvillestation.com
Palace of Asia, 540 Lawrence Square Blvd. South, Lawrenceville. The private dining room, called Yasmeena, accommodates up to 25. 609-689-1500, www.palace-of-asia.com/restaurant.htm
Sunny Garden, 15 Farber Road, Princeton. Upscale Chinese cuisine and sushi bar. Private room accommodates up to 70. 609-520-1881, www.sunnygarden.net.
Elements Asia, 4110 Quakerbridge Road, Lawrenceville. 609-275-4988; Chinese, Japanese, Thai cuisine. BYOB. Private room. www.elementsasia.com
Hannah & Mason’s, 39 North Main Street, Cranbury. 609-655-3220; 609-395-6776. American cuisine. BYOB. Private room.
Hopewell Valley Vineyards, 46 Yard Road, Pennington. 609-737-4465; 609-737-8816. Private room for wine tasting. www.hopewellvalleyvineyards.com
Malaga Spanish Restaurant, 511 Lalor Street off Route 29 south, Trenton. 609-396-8878; 609-396-5514. Spanish cuisine. Liquor license. Private room for 20 to 30 people. www.malagarestaurant.com
Tre Piani, 120 Rockingham Row, Princeton Forrestal Village, Plainsboro. Private dining rooms to seat up to 250 guests. 609-452-1515, www.trepiani.com
Lahiere’s, 5 Witherspoon Street. Contemporary French cuisine. Three private dining rooms acommodate 15, 20, and 40 guests. 609-921-2798, www.lahieres.com
Mrs. Chow, Route 206, Village Shopper, Rocky Hill. 609-924-3775. Mandarin Chinese cuisine. BYOB. Private room for 12 to 14 people.
Savoir Fare, 65 Prospect Avenue, Princeton. 609-924-8587. Catering. BYOB. Private functions in an elegant eating club at Princeton University.
Seafood Cottage, 1000 Aaron Road, North Brunswick. 732-821-2133. Hong Kong Chinese cuisine. BYOB. Private area available.
Shanghai Park, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton. 609-924-8001; 609-924-6037. Chinese cuisine. BYOB. Private room for up to 120 people.
Some restaurants without a private room will close in order to cater a special party. The establishments listed below, all advertisers in U.S. 1, are co-sponsors of this issue.
Ajihei Japanese Deli & Restaurant, 11 Chambers Street, Princeton. 609-252-1258; 609-252-1258. Japanese, sushi cuisine. BYOB.
Ajihei Too, 235 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-688-8916; 609-252-1258. Japanese, sushi cuisine.
CJ Garden, 319 Route 130, East Windsor. 609-448-8633; Internation buffet, sushi, steak, and hibachi.
Camillo’s Cafe, Harrison Street, Princeton. 609-252-0608; 609-279-0078. Italian cuisine. BYOB. www.camilloscafe.com
Hunan Chinese, 157 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. 609-921-6950; Chinese cuisine. BYOB.
Ichiban, 66 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. 609-683-8323; 908-359-8551. Japanese, sushi cuisine. BYOB.
La Mezzaluna, 25 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. 609-688-8515; 609-688-8517. Northern Italian cuisine. BYOB. www.lamezzaluna.com
Magma Pizza, 445 Nassau Park Boulevard, Princeton. 609-452-8383; 609-452-8181. Pizza and sandwiches. BYOB. www.magmapizza.com
Mehek, 164 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-279-9191; 609-279-9292. Indian cuisine. BYOB. www.mehek.us
Seafood Empire, 2205 Route 1 South, North Brunswick. 732-398-9090; 732-398-1966. Chinese cuisine. BYOB.
Taste Appeal Catering, Jack’s Cafe to open at 2445 Kuser Road, Hamilton. 609-324-1705; 609-360-0229. www.tasteappealcatering.com
Teriyaki Boy, 3535 Route 1, Princeton. 609-897-7979; 609-897-1204. Japanese, sushi cuisine.
Thai Village, Nassau and Olden Streets, Princeton. 609-683-3896; 609-683-1981. Thai cuisine. BYOB.
Tom Yung Goong, 354 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-921-2003; Thai cuisine. BYOB.