Corrections or additions?
These articles by Pat Tanner were prepared for the July 3, 2007 issue
of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Cover Story: Alfresco Dining
I know of few people who do not enjoy the simple pleasure of dining in
the open air. Whether on a terrace, patio, or sidewalk or in a garden,
for me – and many other too, I’m sure – the whole al fresco experience
is made special by a fresh breeze, sunshine or moonshine, greenery,
the ambient sounds of birds, fountains, passersby – even a little car
traffic. All seem to increase my appetite and my pleasure, especially
when I’m dining on good food presented by genial servers.
We are fortunate to have many and varied eateries in and around
Princeton for dining out, out. Several that I featured in U.S. 1’s
spring dining issue (May 9) on the particular delights of dining at
the bar also happen to have noteworthy outdoor spots. In Princeton,
there is Mediterra, with a plaza and fountain that evoke its European
kin. Witherspoon Grill has sprouted tables on Princeton’s newest
plaza, soon to be named for the late Albert Hinds, next to Princeton
Public Library. One of the oldest outdoor spots downtown has to be the
Alchemist & Barrister’s sliver of a patio, which is tucked quietly and
picturesquely away in the pedestrian alley between Witherspoon Street
and Palmer Square.
The east end of Nassau Street – the stretch that leads towards
Kingston – has become a sort of mecca not only for casual dining but
also for casual dining al fresco. Especially from Chestnut to Maple
Street, with two liquor stores acting as bookends to the many BYO
spots, that part of town bustles with pedestrians even on weeknights,
including many who are looking for someplace to dine. This part of
Nassau Street can be heavy at times with car and truck traffic, but it
moves slowly, making more for background noise rather than intrusion.
One of this area’s most venerable spots – and the anchor as far as I’m
concerned – is Blue Point Grill, Jack Morrison’s ever-popular seafood
restaurant that is elder sibling to Witherspoon Grill and an outgrowth
of Nassau Street Seafood, the fish market next door. Its pristine
seafood is sourced, like that of the store, from the major New York
and Philadelphia fish markets, as well as directly off day boats at
Viking Village in Point Pleasant, the state’s premiere commercial
On an unseasonably cool spring evening my husband and I (and other
savvy diners) were able to sidestep a 45-minute wait for an indoor
table by agreeing to dine street-side in the grill’s stylish and
comfortable blue-and-white bistro chairs. Before long an acquaintance
ambled by and we enjoyed a pleasant chat while waiting for our first
course of excellent lobster bisque. Then the family of five at the
next table spotted their neighbors crossing Nassau Street and I
eavesdropped on their amiable exchange. "This," I commented to my
husband as I sprinkled malt vinegar over my traditional fish and
chips, "is small town living at its best." He nodded as he dug into
his pasta with shrimp scampi.
While dining at Blue Point Grill, I faced another of my favorite
outdoor venues in this part of town: Tiger Noodles. Its sidewalk
setting makes it casual in the extreme, but also very dog friendly for
those who like to take their pooch along. Over my years as a
restaurant reviewer, I have found that people’s opinions of what
constitutes good Chinese food and good pizza are the two most strongly
held personal preferences. I count myself among the many who consider
Tiger Noodles the best Chinese food in town. I can’t imagine life
without their homestyle braised beef noodle soup, which I must have
even in hottest throes of summer. I am particularly fussy about
dumplings, and find Tiger Noodles’ delicate steamed juicy pork and
crabmeat buns downright addictive. Since I enjoy drinking beer with
Chinese food, having Nassau Liquors Grape & Grain right next door is
the height of convenience.
Not far away, at the corner of Chestnut and Nassau, is a spot that has
been one Chinese restaurant or another over the years. Four years ago
it became Ivy Garden, and in my opinion it is an improvement over its
previous incarnations. The menu is predictable, and although some of
its sweet dishes such as lemon chicken and Mandarin baby ribs are a
bit sweet for my tastes, other dishes, such as scallion pancakes and
Mongolian beef, are competent. Ivy Garden is a very good value and has
convenient parking in the rear. I like that its outdoor dining spot,
while not exactly a garden, is a pleasant terrace edged with greenery
and Asian-style lanterns, and is perched a step or two above street
level. The restaurant’s secret weapon, though, is the sincerely
friendly atmosphere created by owner Steve Lin, who seems to always be
present, greeting all comers and checking in to make sure diners are
happy. On a recent visit the highlights of my meal were chatting with
Mr. Lin and downing a generous serving of salt-and-pepper soft shell
Directly across Nassau Street are two other popular ethnic restaurants
with outdoor table service: Thai Village and Kalluri Corner, making
this intersection quite a hub. Like Ivy Garden, they are good values
for standard Thai and Indian dishes, respectively. I particularly like
dining out on Kalluri Corner’s rooftop on weekends, looking down onto
Nassau Street, when the truck traffic is lighter. Varsity Liquors is
just steps away from all these BYO spots.
I can’t leave this part of town without mentioning Hoagie Haven. There
is no table service, indoors or out, and the only seating is a bench
on the sidewalk. Yet Hoagie Haven is a Princeton institution, and
rightly so. Its classic Italian subs are indeed the area’s nonpareil.
(I give no quarter to calling them hoagies, heroes, or grinders: I
grew up in Newark, where they were never referred to as anything but
subs or submarine sandwiches.) With generous amounts of provolone,
capicola (sic), ham, and salami on properly soft, squishy torpedo
rolls, they are irresistible, if not exactly heart healthy. My
daughter refers to them as "the best bad sandwiches," and even the
likes of Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" sings their praises. Stewart,
who grew up in Lawrenceville, reportedly still comes down from
Manhattan for a fix every now and then.
Over at the Princeton Shopping Center on Harrison Street, Main Street
Euro-American Bistro & Bar has been offering well-prepared
contemporary takes on American, European, and Asian-style comfort food
for years. To the uninitiated, dining outdoors in the middle of a
shopping center might sound questionable at first blush but not to
those acquainted with this unique property. Main Street’s outdoor
patio, tastefully roped off under its blue Pellegrino umbrellas, sits
on the edge of a vast, green courtyard replete with clock tower,
fountains, pathways, split rail fencing, and, most importantly,
carefully maintained flowerbeds, making for a pretty, traffic-free (!)
setting for dining al fresco.
Adding to the already attractive setting are the annual summer
concerts in the courtyard on Thursday evenings. Portions of the menu
change monthly, and I especially like the rotating "best buys" in
wines by the bottle or glass, all at fair prices. Recommended summer
dishes include chilled gazpacho, soy-glazed salmon with spicy noodle
salad, and the half-pound Main Street Bistro burger, a steal at $7.
Another great option at Princeton Shopping Center is Camillo’s Cafe,
directly across from Main Street. It’s a cozy neighborhood trattoria
owned by executive chef Camillo Tortola. Entrees includelobster fra
diavolo over pappardelle with clams and mussels, and filet mignon with
Still in Princeton but out on Route 206 near the intersection of
Cherry Hill Road, is Gennaro’s, the latest restaurant in the space
that had been La Terraza and before that, Casabona. Owner Gennaro
Costabile, who also owns La Piazza further north on 206 in
Hillsborough, has kept the lace curtains and much of the menu from La
Terraza days but with a more noticeable traditional Italian accent.
Stylish new black aluminum patio tables and chairs add to the charm of
the courtyard next to the restaurant that already sported four square
beds filled with dogwoods, each anchored by a big stone planter
growing tomatoes and basil plants. On a recent visit our friendly
server told us these would eventually be put to good use in the
The courtyard is enclosed on three sides The noise from 206 during our
dinner was noticeable but we were able to converse without raising our
voices – which I cannot claim for many popular indoor venues – and the
classic Italian fare, from a generous antipasto that includes fried
calamari and grilled jumbo shrimp along with the typical Italian
salumi to a house-made Limoncello gelato, was delightful.
Moving out onto Route 1 outdoor dining options include Big Fish
Seafood Bistro at Marketfair and Tre Piani and Salt Creek Grille at
Forrestal Village. Big Fish Seafood Bistro is one of those rarities: a
chain restaurant that successfully negotiates the treacherous waters
of pleasing the masses while serving decent fare. From the raised
patio, which faces the parking lot, diners can peek into the
aquarium-like dining room, with its bubble-shaped light fixtures.
Big Fish has always been long on style – even its exterior stucco
walls alternate between deep blue and spicy orange. A few buzz-cut
evergreens soften the space, which overlooks the parking lot and can
get hot on sunny days. But I savored that sun on my back recently,
while indulging in my usual soup and salad combo of Big Fish Chowder
(which includes smoked fish and tasso ham – salty but savory) and the
Cape Codder, which tosses greens, pine nuts, red onion, and blue
cheese in a retro raspberry vinaigrette. Subtlety is not a Big Fish
strong point, but when I’m in the right mood, it delivers.
It is a testament to its quality that Tre Piani has survived, and
thrived, all these years at Forrestal Village, which is in the throes
yet another reincarnation. Chef/owner Jim Weaver’s ever-expanding
commitment to artisanal Italian base ingredients coupled with the
bounty of local farms and waters keeps this three-story restaurant
vibrant and fresh. Nowhere is this more apparent than out on the
raised patio that wraps around the curved brick facade of the
building, where tall planters sprout fig trees and the flowerbed is
planted with sunflowers and salvia. A fountain in the courtyard and
maroon umbrellas and awnings complete the setting, which Weaver
fancies so much he held his own wedding there last August.
On Friday, July 13, the patio will be the setting for Tre Piani’s
annual outdoor grilling class and tasting ($59, trepiani.com).
Participants learn to cook a complete eight-part dinner, with beer and
wine. Among the offerings are razor clams, soft-shell crabs, and
Florentine-style steak with grilled vegetables. In the coming weeks
Weaver will unveil Tre Bar, his wine and tapas bar. Its menu will also
be available to patrons who choose to dine out on the Tre Piani patio.
The newest addition to dining outdoors at Forrestal is Salt Creek
Grille. The brand new California-ranch style building, visible from
Route 1, is all about dark woods and fireplaces inside, but dining out
on the back porch offers a more airy environment, literally and
figuratively. The attractive porch is parallel to the highway but
kudos to the site designer who employs a long greensward and a high
berm to keep the noise at bay. In fact, diners spot only the tops of
cars whizzing by, with almost no noise – at least at dinnertime on a
Sunday, which is when I last dined there. Muslin drapes frame the
pillars on the only open side of the roofed porch. The lower half of
the porch holds dining tables and chairs, while the upper half
features stylish lounge chairs, a settee, and a cocktail table set
around an indoor-outdoor fireplace.
The Grille’s menu is a personable blend of contemporary American
grilled dishes and comfort foods. The salads – both sides and mains –
are especially well executed, from the mesquite-grilled Caesar to the
spicy grilled ahi tuna to the goat cheese wrapped in phyllo with a
Just as I couldn’t leave Princeton without mentioning Hoagie Haven, I
must give a nod out on Route 1 in Monmouth Junction to Burrito Royale.
It’s not just that this small, pseudo-hacienda structure serves up
good, fresh Mexican restaurant fare at ridiculously low prices. It’s
that for the last 30 years it has held its own against national
fast-food chains while dishing out tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and
Service, by the second generation of owners, is fast and friendly and
the atmosphere is relaxed to the max. I like to order the California
burrito and pretend I’m a trucker having lunch.
Further afield, in Pennington, is Za. This restaurant’s patio wins my
sow’s-ear-into-silk-purse award. Brothers Mark and Chazz Valenza took
over a space in an aging tiny strip mall at the busy intersection of
Route 31 and Delaware Avenue (opposite Delaware Avenue from Pennington
Shopping Center) that has a patio mere feet from noisy traffic.
Transforming the patio – the only asset of which was a
wisteria-covered pergola – fell to Chazz, whose other business is
designing water gardens. He added a dramatic, sight-and-sound-muffling
collection of boulders, plants, and cascading water garden at one end.
One long side is lined with stone planters packed with fresh herbs and
flowers. Blue and white woven bistro chairs and boldly striped awnings
add more color, and a solid wood fence screens off the parking lot.
Traffic noise is by no means obliterated, but is tolerable.
Chef Mark, who was last at Triumph Brewing in Princeton, calls his
oeuvre "cross cultural comfort cuisine." I call it some of the most
likeable and personal food I’ve encountered in a time when many
restaurant menus look alarmingly alike. Ethereal Roman semolina
gnocchi, Korean beef kebobs, and the Maine lobster picnic are among my
favorite offerings at this BYO.
Another favorite BYO that features al fresco dining is Brothers Moon
in Hopewell, where patrons can dine out on Broad Street (Route 518) in
this charming village. Chef/proprietor Will Mooney was among the first
in the state to spotlight local, sustainable foodstuffs, and with
top-notch ingredients even the most simple dishes shine, such as a
pasta special featuring olives, zucchini, asparagus, and oven-dried
tomatoes. Mooney has a way with soups, including lobster chowder and
corn chowder with grilled shrimp.
With a blue, silver, and gold celestial theme that is a play on the
chef’s name, Brothers Moon is pretty inside, but on a summer night,
why not bask in real moonshine and starlight? Five white wooden
trestle tables are covered in white linens, planters on pedestals
separate diners from pedestrians, and white sail-like awnings catch
Continue down Route 518 into Lambertville to come across the secret
garden that is the Swan Hotel’s patio. Each time I visit Anton’s, the
dining room inside the erstwhile Swan Hotel, I enjoy the ambitious
modern American fare that owner/ chef Chris Connors offers.
But in fine weather I opt for the simpler grill menu he serves up
evenings in Jim Bolger’s Swan Bar and in the pretty, leafy courtyard
just outside. This small space is set just below street level,
overhung by tall, old trees, and enclosed on one side by an
ivy-covered brick wall. A fountain flanked by doggy statues and masses
of impatiens in stone planters complete the idyll.
With credentials stretching back to the groundbreaking New Jersey
restaurant, the Tarragon Tree, Conners is adept at plain fare that
employs excellent basic components. Crab soup in summer, Caesar salad,
and sirloin burgers year round, and seasonal crisp-crust personal
pizzas are among the winners here.
Stick to the wine list because the by-the-glass list is lackluster. I
recommend any of the area beers that are on tap; Dogfish Head "60
Minute" IPA and Victory Pilsner are among my favorites.
Few and far between are restaurants about which I like everything.
Zoubi, across the river in New Hope, PA, is decidedly one. If it has
all the charm, good looks, and enticing food of a small, well-run
Mediterranean restaurant that is because its team of owners and chefs
hail from France, Belgium, and Greece; the most notable is Andre Le
Noble of St. Tropez.
The rear patio boasts bentwood bistro chairs, ancient overhanging
trees, an arbor, clematis wrapping around a post – enveloped by walls
of stone and stucco inset with fancy wrought iron "windows" and hung
with lanterns and big, fat, dramatically dripping candles. Zoubi’s
French/Mediterranean menu includes touches of Asia and Latin America.
Escargots, for example, are served in an au gratin dish with ginger
Duet of duck comprises a harmonious pairing of sliced grilled boneless
breast still rosy in the center and confit leg and thigh, whose
already prodigious flavor reaches new high notes by its crisp-sauteed
exterior. Lamb "lollipops" with cassoulet and crab cakes are other
signatures. Zoubi’s wine list has both both brevity and brains and
desserts are not to be missed.
These are just some of the myriad al fresco dining options we are
graced with in this area. Mediterranean oasis, secret garden, slice of
small town USA, truck stop – I happily devour them all.
Big Fish Seafood, MarketFair, 3535 Route 1 South, Princeton.
Blue Point Grill, 258 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-921-1211,
Brother Moon, 7 West Broad Street, Hopewell. 609-333-1330,
Burrito Royale, 4049 Route 1, Monmouth Junction. 732-297-6148.
Camillo’s Cafe, Princeton Shopping Center, 301 North Harrison Street,
Princeton. 609-252-0608, camilloscafe.net
Gennaro’s, 47B State Road (Route 206), Princeton. 609-497-2774.
Hoagie Haven, 242 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-921-7723.
Ivy Garden, 238 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-921-2388.
Main Street Euro-American Bistro, Princeton Shopping Center, 301 North
Harrison Street, Princeton. 609-921-2779, mainstreetprinceton.com
Salt Creek Grille Forrestal Village 1 Rockingham Row Plainsboro
Tiger Noodles, 260 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-252-0663.
The Swan Bar, 43 South Main Street, Lambertville. 609-397-1960,
Tre Piani, Forrestal Village, 120 Rockingham Row, Plainsboro.
Za, 147 West Delaware Avenue, Pennington. 609-737-4400,
Zoubi: A Restaurant, a Bar, 5 West Mechanic Street, New Hope, PA.
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