While there is plenty of good dining with water views to be had along the Jersey side of the Delaware River in our area — Hamilton’s Grill Room in Lambertville comes to mind, for one — some of the best views are just across the river in Bucks County. All of them look over to astonishingly beautiful vistas of our own fair state.
Below is a sampling that provides some idea of the range of what’s out there — plus one jingoist ringer: a unique, manmade waterfront setting in our own state with year-round aquatic and gustatory charms of its own.
Yardley Inn, Yardley
The sprawling, gray clapboard building along Route 32 between the Delaware River and canal that houses the Yardley Inn was damaged by three major floods in less than two years between 2004 and 2006. Yet Robin and Bob Freed, the restaurant’s owners for the last quarter century, unhesitatingly repaired and rebuilt, as they have in subsequent years. Nor did repeated flooding stop Eben Copple, the inn’s executive chef since 2007, from planting a small kitchen garden on a strip of land even closer to the water.
Besides producing herbs and cucumbers, it adds an additional element to the already striking river views in the main dining room. The garden, like the inn, has had to overcome additional flooding. (The inn was without power for 10 days after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.) In fact, Copple even established a second, larger garden on a two-acre plot a short distance from the inn on River Road, where this growing season he harvested enough tomatoes, lettuce, and green beans to preclude buying from outside sources. It could be argued (and I would) that the imposed need for rebuilding and refurbishing has actually kept the venerable inn from becoming tired and stale.
That same can be said for Eben Copple’s cuisine, which regularly makes the “Best of” lists in publications within Bucks County but deserves to be better appreciated on this side of the river. The chef admits that his contemporary American menu is “a guest-driven, not chef-driven amalgam of things that have worked in the past” and “things that are outside the norm.” Both old and new are characterized by first-rate ingredients, thoughtful handling, and expert execution.
Examples include a classic, generous Caesar salad with focaccia croutons; rich, creamy potato soup with bacon lardons; and the Yardley burger. That last is made of a blend of chuck, sirloin, and brisket that is ground in-house. The result is not just uber-beefy flavor, but also a pleasant texture akin to steak tartare. The pattie is topped with molten boursin cheese and roasted tomatoes.
Classic dinner fare such as crab cakes, braised short ribs, lemon chicken, and meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy are supplemented with nods to contemporary sensibilities. Among these are Thai-style steamed mussels with hazelnuts; salmon with black beluga lentils and purple mustard sauce; and vegetarian gnudi with fresh tomato sauce and basil pesto. The best of both worlds collide in a spectacularly fresh broiled Pennsylvania trout topped with chile butter, jalapeno rounds, and a salsa-like mix of sweet red peppers, celery, and thick squares of smoked bacon. The fish rests on a bed of creamy white grits.
That Copple is able to satisfy the wide range of Yardley Inn guests is a feat in itself. He estimates that about 60 percent are regulars, some of whom have been coming four nights a week for years. “They feel some ownership in the place; it’s kind of their social club,” he says. He and the inn are able to draw and keep other clientele, who range from local business people to those on date night or celebrating special occasions. Besides the smart menu, other continual changes and modernizations like the recent decision to eliminate tablecloths keep the inn on top of its game.
Yardley Inn, 83 East Afton Avenue, Yardley, Pennsylvania. 215-493-3800. www.yardleyinn.com.
Charcoal BYOB, Yardley
It seems almost unfair that tiny Yardley, at one square mile, would boast two excellent restaurants with spectacular river views, especially since they are mere steps from each other. But since their styles are miles apart, each can be enjoyed on its own terms. If the Yardley Inn hews to a mainly older school, Charcoal is way newer school. Here the progressive dinner fare of brothers Mark and Eric Plescha, ages 32 and 29 respectively, has been tagged “innovative” and lauded for its “unexpected flavor combinations,” even by the big-city press of Philadelphia.
The Plescha boys’ father, Anton (“Tony”) Plescha, has owned and operated Charcoal since 1995. It was destroyed by flooding in 2004 and 2006, which is why he eventually rebuilt it on stilts, with the dining room now on the equivalent of what would be a second story. That development serves to further enhance the river views, plenty of which are to be had along the long wall of a narrow dining room that seats 70. Charcoal’s original name was Charcoal Steaks-N-Things, but the current name could just as easily apply to the dominant color scheme in the spare, sleek, modern space that allows the view to be the focal point.
While father Tony still oversees the well-loved breakfast and lunch here, in the evening his sons take over, along with sous chef Jared Remer. Together they produce playful dishes that make good use of immersion circulators and nitrogen canisters, so even familiar-sounding dishes turn out to have unexpected flavors and textures.
One example from a recent menu is a starter of St. Louis ribs, a small, compressed, tender square of meat with an intense molasses sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds. Another starter seems to be based on wordplay, substituting red beets for red beef in a tartare that’s slathered on grilled country bread and topped with pickled shallots and arugula.
Highlights of a recent meal at Charcoal included two dishes that make excellent use of the housemade fresh pasta. One was the Pleschas’ twist on pasta Bolognese, which features pepperoni in the sauce, plus molten mozzarella and arugula. Another was a completely original and intriguing combination of escargot, preserved lemon, vermouth, and basil tossed in whole-wheat pasta shells. An equally inventive dessert is polenta budino, an affair in a Mason jar that layers lemon curd and candied nuts between the creamy polenta pudding.
Charcoal, 11 South Delaware Avenue, Yardley, Pennsylvania. 215-493-6394. www.charcoalbyob.com.
Black Bass Hotel,
To be honest the Black Bass, ideally situated on River Road just eight miles north of New Hope, had lost a lot of its luster by the time this small hotel and restaurant was shuttered in 2008. It was snapped up at auction by Jack Thompson of Doylestown’s Thompson Auto Group and when it reopened the following year after a multi-million dollar renovation, the historic 1740s structure had been sensitively updated and smartly revamped.
Welcome changes include the replacement of its ancient HVAC systems and revamping of its nine suites for overnight guests. Electricity was added to the dining room — previously all candlelit — and the hotel’s many antique treasures have been spit-and-polished to give them a renewed luster. For example, in the dining room new table tops have been added to the original bases, which are those wonderfully ornate black metal bottoms of antique Singer sewing machines. The main dining room also holds a floor-to-ceiling wine case of gleaming wood.
New double-glazed windows keep out the elements while maintaining the long wall that affords an elevated view of the river and the gorgeous tree-lined bank on the other side — a view that probably looks much the same as when the Bass was built. In warm weather, dining out on the pretty flagstone deck below gets diners even closer to the water as well as to the extension of the D&R Canal towpath and the view of the Raven Rock bridge.
The Bass’s longtime chef, John Barrett, is still in the kitchen, and these days his menu is an eclectic mix of traditional and modern Americana. In another nod to current times there is a gluten-free menu. But the signature here is old-school Charleston Meeting Street Crab, a classic au gratin dish of chunks of crab bathing in a rich sauce of reduced cream, sherry, and sharp Cheddar cheese. On the other end of the modernity spectrum is seared tuna coated with white and black sesame seeds — the tuna rare and deep-rosy red if that is how a diner requests it (as this diner did on a recent visit). The kitchen even makes its own ice creams and sorbets, and a recent mint chocolate chip version made one diner liken it to the best of his childhood.
With entree prices exclusively in the $30s, a meal here can quickly add up. Happily, the owners have instituted “locals’ nights” on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Special “Meet me at the Bass” menus are offered — a different menu on each of those evenings, with the menus changing weekly. At $32.50 for three courses, these are bargains — especially because they often include high-end choices like the Charleston crab and the seared tuna, which go for $33 each on the regular dinner menu. Plus, they feature the menu’s more seasonal choices, like a recent fresh sweet corn bisque and blueberry panna cotta.
Thompson also took over the Lumberville General Store, right across the road from the hotel, and that is where the restaurant’s baked goods are prepared. The charming country market also stocks specialty foods from local artisans, sandwiches, salads, baked goods, groceries, and Lumberville-themed gift items.
(By the way: Amble just seven miles further north on River Road and you’ll come to another jewel of the Delaware: the perennially wonderful Golden Pheasant Inn in Erwinna. Like the Black Bass, it too is an historic property (1857) with amazing water views. The Golden Pheasant also offers both dining and lodging, and it recently underwent a refurbishment that amped up its already substantial charms. The Faure family, which owns it, insists on labeling its menu “contemporary French,” but really it is a fine and delicious example of modern American eclecticism made with many locally sourced ingredients.)
Black Bass Hotel, 3774 River Road, Lumberville, Pennsylvania. 215-297-9260. www.blackbasshotel.com.
The Landing, New Hope
It is not so much about the food or the decor when it comes to romance at The Landing. Rather it’s all about location. This mostly casual eatery has held pride of place near the base of the Lambertville-New Hope Bridge since 1976. Dining out on its large, brick terrace along the Delaware affords incomparable views of the river, the bridge, and, across the way, Lambertville’s tree-lined coast, complete with a picturesque white church steeple — a sight that could be torn straight from the pages of the old Saturday Evening Post. Sunset views are, naturally, spectacular.
The terrace is situated along a high bank, and ducks often wobble up to the railing, politely seeking crumbs, and that adds to the charm. On clear nights, these delights are replaced by stars overhead and the twinkling lights of both towns, as well as any boats that mosey down the river. Despite the terrace’s pretty greenery and flower boxes, no one can claim that the white molded plastic chairs and plastic-covered tables out on the terrace conjure romance, although the cozy fireplace inside does offer just that in colder weather. (In winter, diners are, of course, welcome to bundle up and take in the sights at the railing.)
The Landing offers the same extensive menu all day, mostly of casual, all-American favorites with universal appeal, including nachos, Buffalo wings, chopped salad, burgers, and a chili that took top honors in the 2013 Lambertville-New Hope Chili Cook-off. These can be paired with cocktails, beers, and a selection of wines that lean heavily on California. Those wishing for a more formal meal can take a chance on, say, ceviche, fig salad with blue cheese, seared sea scallops with mushroom risotto, or sesame-crusted beef filet tips.
In mid-2008, the Landing’s longtime owner, Chris Bollenbacher, opened Fred’s Breakfast in an adjoining space along the river. He established it to give the locals an informal place to mingle in the morning away from New Hope’s tourists. Technically its impressive made-from-scratch classics (extending even to the English muffins) are available only to key-holding members, but those members have been known to occasionally take pity on a lone newcomer without a key.
The Landing, 22 North Main Street, New Hope, Pennnsylvania. 215-862-5711. www.landingrestaurant.com.
Rat’s, Hamilton (at Grounds for Sculpture)
This restaurant set inside Seward Johnson’s 42-acre sculpture park consistently lands on major “Most Romantic” lists, and with good reason. “Magical” is another much-named attribute, and Rat’s is never more so than out on its patio, which is nestled along the edge of a manmade lily pond in the middle of a fairytale garden inspired by Claude Monet’s at Giverny (famous bridge included). Inside ain’t bad either: its architecture and interior decor are patterned after Monet’s country house. The view changes with the seasons, with the weather, and most dramatically with the time of day.
Through it all one thing remains constant: the eerie piped-in fog that surrounds the stylized head of a woman that rises from the pond — the sleek, shiny gray sculpture a bit eerie, too. At night the gardens and pond are artistically lit, the paths glow with golden light from lanterns, and, of course, there’s candlelight on the tables.
The patio holds 16 tables that cannot be reserved, although the staff will do its best to accommodate requests. But each of the restaurant’s three indoor dining rooms has window tables offering a view of the pond as well, and they have French doors that are opened in warm weather, making the spaces quasi-alfresco.
Country French “with global influences” is the designation given not only to the restaurant’s decor but also to the cuisine. In 2009 the management of the restaurant was quietly handed over to the Starr Restaurants group, which is headed by Philadelphia-based restaurateur Stephen Starr, among whose properties are Buddakan, Alma de Cuba, Talula’s Garden, and Serpico.
At that time Starr installed Shane Cash in the kitchen, and the restaurant continued to receive high marks. When Cash left the group earlier this year to work with TV chef Robert (“Dinner Impossible”) Irvine, he was replaced, seamlessly, by Steve Swiderski, a Starr veteran who had years ago been the opening chef of Buddakan, Starr’s flagship.
Rat’s fare has received consistently high ratings since the turnover. The menu consists both of classics — onion soup, an artisanal cheese platter, rotisserie Griggstown chicken with potato puree (albeit dressed with truffled Brussels sprouts) — and of contemporary takes on classic dishes, such as a starter of Mayan prawn with compressed watermelon, feta, and pickled rind, and an entree of Scottish salmon with peekytoe crab, sunchokes, grapefruit, and vanilla butter sauce. The Rat’s burger ($24) includes seared foie gras, roasted farm apple, and charred onion drizzled with fig-balsamic vinegar on a brioche bun.
Rat’s is priced to match the quality of the food. If casual snacking is the order of the day, the gazebo further inside the sculpture park offers ice cream and soft drinks during warm-weather months. It, too, overlooks a pond — in this instance of lotus blossoms — and is surrounded by willows. Three graduated stone terraces around the gazebo seat close to 60.
Rat’s Restaurant, 16 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. 609-584-7800. www.ratsrestaurant.com
Pat Tanner blogs at www.dinewithpat.com.