Back in January I was contacted by the folks at Food Network Magazine for a story they were planning for their July/August issue on the 50 best breakfasts in the United States, one in each state. I was asked to nominate three New Jersey places, specifically with an eye toward “dishes that are memorable, wacky, locally inspired, the kind of place locals are fanatical about and where you’d want to take your out-of-town visitors.” I was pleased when they selected my number one choice: the egg-cheese-and-pork-roll sandwich at the vintage Summit Diner (in Union County).
Now I’m always looking for ways to promote New Jersey, but I was particularly psyched about this opportunity because breakfast is hands-down my favorite meal. I happily eat traditional breakfast foods — even cereal — for lunch and dinner. In fact, I prefer many of them later in the day, and I bemoan the fact that each year there are fewer and fewer places that serve breakfast at all hours (other than run-of-the-mill diners that use prefab mixes for hotcakes and pastured eggs from cartons. I’ll pass on those, thank you.)
The breakfast hour, it turns out, has been a rare high spot for the restaurant business in the United States over the last five years. Nation’s Restaurant News, a trade publication, cites a recent report by the NPD Group, a market research company based in Port Washington, NY, that shows that breakfast accounted for almost 60 percent of the restaurant industry’s growth during that time and states, “if not for the increase in traffic during the morning, restaurant visit declines over the past two years would have been steeper.”
I am convinced that I personally accounted for part of that growth, at least here in the Princeton area, as I ate my way through several restaurants for this snapshot of excellent breakfast spots. Each offers something unique when it comes to the first meal of the day, which explains why places like diners, chain restaurants, and big hotel dining rooms are not among them. Admittedly, there are several fine restaurants in the area that serve a delicious Sunday brunch — Brothers Moon in Hopewell in particular comes to mind — but they are also not the focus here. On that note I did include Sprig & Vine, a new fine dining vegan place (U.S. 1, May 19), not only because it offers good food but because of the daunting challenge behind creating breakfast meals without eggs, milk, and butter — not to mention bacon, sausage, pork roll, scrapple, steak, or other traditional breakfast meats.
Cafe at Rosemont
This charming spot was one of my three Food Network Magazine nominations. (The third was Mustache Bill’s Diner in Barnegat Light, which in 2009 was the first diner ever to win a James Beard Award.) With its authentic, plain-Jane country ambiance — the space started life in 1865 as a general store — this spot in the tiny village of Rosemont in Hunterdon County technically serves brunch, not breakfast, on weekends. But with a starting time of 9 a.m. and with all the breakfast must-haves on the menu, it fits my criteria. Plus, its worn wooden floors, mismatched chairs, and flea market crockery match up perfectly with the made-from-scratch fare that is a canny combination of homespun and cosmopolitan.
Four exceptionally fine, tender omelets are featured on the regular menu, but that number is always enhanced by at least two specials, perhaps, say, one featuring prosciutto and asiago, another with roasted pear and blue cheese. The Food Network folks asked me to pinpoint one special dish from each of my Jersey-centric nominees, and here it was no contest. I chose the Russian Peasant omelet, with its filling of soft chunks of red potato and its swathes of rich sour cream festooned with scallion rings, topped with a generous amount of black lumpfish caviar. Where else can you find such delicious decadence for only $9.50? Owner Lola Wykoff stands firm in using black lumpfish. “I tell people it may be at the bottom of the classic caviar chain, but if I used Beluga, I’d have to charge $90!”
French toast — a gargantuan portion — delivers thick, diagonal cuts of baguette, crisp on the outside and custardy inside, and real maple syrup, of course. No matter what you choose, my advice is to also indulge in as many accoutrements as can be consumed at one sitting. Among these are a generous basket of baked goods that may include a homemade muffin (whole grain with cranberries on one visit); a warm, tender croissant that left me licking my buttery fingers; and the bread of the day. I looked askance at the thick, dark brown slabs of bread, anticipating a deadly dense, chewy “health” creation. But the reality — Russian pumpernickel — was surprisingly light, airy, and flavorful, especially when smeared with the excellent sweet butter, strawberry jam, and orange marmalade that reside on the table.
If you like home-style potatoes, by all means order a side of Potatoes from Heaven, the name of which is only a tad hyperbolic. Dark, crispy bits are the best part, but all is redolent of olive oil, rosemary, garlic, onion, and more than a touch of cayenne. Same directive goes for the breakfast bangers. Wykoff gets these sausage links made to the cafe’s specifications, without preservatives, by Maresca’s of Sergeantsville.
The coffee is first-rate, even the decaf, which the menu specifies is “Columbian, water-processed.” Twinings and herbal teas (including echinacea) are offered, as is lunch fare such as black bean chili, sandwiches, and salads. Reservations are not accepted for brunch, but somehow the room accommodates a steady stream of patrons without a wait.
A bonus: If you’re coming into Rosemont from the east, you will drive through New Jersey’s last remaining covered bridge. On the other side you emerge into pretty, rolling hillside dotted with picture-postcard farms.
Cafe at Rosemont, Routes 519 & 604, Rosemont. 609-397-4097, cafeatrosemont.com. Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
This bright and airy casual spot, which opened in 2007 in the alley behind Cox’s Market on Nassau Street in Princeton quickly became a personal favorite. It is owned and managed by the same folks who have operated Cox’s since 2004, Marguerite and Alan Heap and Carlos Espichan. Their fare is a highly personal take on the fresh, bright cuisines of the Pacific Rim locales they know well firsthand — primarily those of California and Mexico (hence the cafe’s clever name), but also those of Hawaii, Asia’s Pacific coast, and Central America.
The room itself, which seats 30, makes me smile every time I enter. Two walls are painted floor-to-ceiling with a well executed mural that mimics a stone terrace looking out onto tropical seas. A painted palm even spills its fronds onto the coffered ceiling. The other walls continue the ruse with a faux treatment that evokes weathered stucco, while the floor of (real) slate tile adds to the effect. The mise-en-scene is completed with table linens that include bright orange napkins and seat cushions striped in primary colors.
Here, traditional French toast and pancakes can be had with blueberries, strawberries, or chocolate, but for a tropical touch try the mango. But what makes Calico Grill worth seeking out are the Mexican and Latino breakfast dishes: the burrito, quesadilla, “loco moco” (eggs with crab cakes, fish of the day, or grilled steak), and what the menu terms a “Spanish continental breakfast.” That last, my favorite, consists of two fried eggs served with flour tortillas, sides of fried plantains and small black beans, and pots of creamy white queso fresco and mild, house-made tomato salsa. Along with a mug of Seattle’s Best coffee or one of the Shangri La teas, this is my idea of breakfast heaven.
If what you order doesn’t include a side of the plantains, I strongly urge you to order these sticky-sweet, sticky-starchy treats. Oh yes: plus an order of Spanish-style chorizo. It comes incorporated into the breakfast quesadilla, a satisfying concoction of scrambled eggs, molten cheddar, and sauteed peppers and onions in a flour tortilla. The quesadilla is served with rice cooked in what looks to be the water from black beans.
Calico Grill, alley behind Cox’s Market, 180 Nassau Street. 609-924-0500, coxsmarket.com. Breakfast: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to noon; Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Nassau Inn Patio
In late May the venerable Nassau Inn unveiled its long-awaited patio next to Lindt Chocolates on Palmer Square — and boy is it ever worth the wait. On a beautiful day this attractive fieldstone-and-floral space ranks among the top choices in Princeton for al fresco dining.
As they say in real estate, location, location, location — and so it is with this most appealing spot. Wisely, the space was excavated so the patio sits below ground level (or at least, it gives that impression) and, streetside, a tall stone wall capped by stone planters bursting with colorful flowers effectively obscures the sights and sounds of passing traffic and parked cars. Tan umbrellas help keep the sun from beating down on the traditional black metal patio tables and extra-wide chairs with deep, striped cushions. Service is neither rushed nor rushing. At least on one weekday morning, we lingered as long as we wished while other patrons read their Kindles, fired up their laptops, and talked on their cell phones.
The food is typical of a medium-size hotel. The patio offers the same breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus as served in the inn’s restaurant, the Yankee Doodle Tap Room. The menus were recently developed by chef Matt Volpe. The breakfast offerings include some modern, beckoning choices like beignets, a breakfast wrap, omelets with chorizo or feta, and dried cherry and mascarpone pancakes.
I tried one such update: the breakfast panini. Pressed inside slices of thick, grilled brioche are a two-egg omelet, Canadian bacon, and bright orange cheddar. All flavors seem a bit muted, and the brioche itself has the consistency of white bread. It comes with O’Brien potatoes — now there’s a throwback! — but one I welcome. This version, however, has no trace of the red and green peppers that define the dish.
If you find yourself dining with children, either the chocolate chip and banana pancakes or the mixed berry stuffed French toast should be a hit. The latter falls squarely into the dessert-masquerading-as-breakfast category that, truth be told, as many adults as children favor. It utilizes that same rather airy brioche, is liberally drizzled with a sweeter-than-sweet raspberry sauce, and is dusted with powdered sugar.
Next time I go — and there will be a next time, because this space is drawing me like a magnet — I’ll opt for the simpler choices, like the fruit plate with yogurt or the oatmeal with dried cranberries. And I’ll repeat the real estate mantra, “location, location, location,” while sipping the inn’s very good coffee.
Nassau Inn Patio, 10 Palmer Square, next to Lindt Chocolates. 609-921-7500, nassauinn.com. Breakfast: Seven days a weekt (weather permitting), 7 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
This, the most casual of the restaurants owned by the Terra Momo Group (which also includes Mediterra, Eno Terra, and the Witherspoon Bread Company), has been a perennial favorite with area diners, including me, for its authentic trattoria ambiance and its consistently good food and drink that also represent good values. But I was unaware until recently that Teresa’s, under lead chef Luis Martinez, serves a mean breakfast on weekends. And if you come early enough you won’t have a wait at this no-reservations spot. I wish I had known sooner! I was captivated first by the Mediterranean timbre of the menu, with offerings of frittata, crepes, and breakfast pizzette as well as brioche and croissants from Witherspoon Bread.
Here, a simple poached egg (organic and brown) becomes a feast with grilled country bread, organic smoked bacon, Portobello mushroom, and asiago cheese. One of the four individual pizzas is topped with egg scrambled with black truffles, pancetta, and fontina; others feature prosciutto, spinach, asparagus — you can see the appeal.
After much hemming and hawing I settled on a most unusual dish: eggs baked in a ramekin along with chunks of roasted butternut squash and prosciutto di Parma, all capped by a layer of melted Swiss cheese. The rich orange yolk — half runny, half cooked through — melded beautifully with the slight sweetness of the squash and the salty tang of the ham. I plan on asking for the recipe. My guest chose a pizzetta slathered with fresh ricotta sauce, liberally swathed with excellent quality smoked salmon, and dotted with goat cheese, capers, and red onion — wonderfully salty and with an excellent chewy-crispy crust. Like the baked egg, it is even better than it sounds.
Both these dishes left me wanting to try every other thing on the menu of this Palmer Square veteran. Next time, though, I will be savvier about one quirk that has an especially significant impact at breakfast. For coffee, the restaurant utilizes an espresso machine. Order “regular” and a standard size coffee cup arrives at the table, with brewed espresso in the bottom. Your server then adds hot water. Surprisingly, this tastes just fine. But should you want more, be advised that you’ll pay $2.75 each time the cup is refilled.
Teresa’s Caffe, 23 Palmer Square East. 609-921-1974, terramomo.com. Breakfast/brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
When DeAnna’s, the popular Lambertville Italian restaurant, moved from these small but delightful digs on South Main Street several years ago, Dawn Raia moved over her Caffe Galleria. The space matches up well with her laid-back, vaguely hippie sensibilities when it comes to decor and to the fiercely fresh, made-to-order breakfast, lunch, and dinner fare. There is nothing particularly startling or unique on the breakfast menu of omelettes (the restaurant’s spelling), eggs, French toast, pancakes, oatmeal, yogurt, granola, and baked goods. Yet Caffe Galleria provided us with our tastiest breakfast of the bunch, hands down.
I cannot count how many versions of buttermilk pancakes with fresh blueberries I’ve eaten over the years — including my own formidable made-from-scratch ones — but Caffe Galleria’s outshines them all. Light and ridiculously fluffy, yes, but the batter itself has tons of flavor. The berries somehow taste blueberrier than some I’ve plucked off the bush and popped directly into my mouth. These pancakes are served with real maple syrup — nothing else would do them justice. On the side we ordered honey-glazed ham, and it turned out to be the real deal, too. I especially like how the thick slabs are crisp-sauteed. Canadian bacon will forevermore seem unacceptably wimpy.
Unless you’re an oatmeal lover like me, you probably won’t understand the deep, abiding appreciation I have for the multi-grain oatmeal here, which tastes like that of days gone by. (All right, of decades gone by.) Here’s one indication of how good it is: I didn’t bother to add any sugar.
Excellent coffee, freely refilled, adds to the delights here. Service is unhurried and since hot dishes are made to order, be sure to allow plenty of time to dine here. Waiting isn’t onerous, because the setting has real charm. The small dining room seats only 25 around a colorful and comfortable banquette backed with throw pillows. “Colorful” also describes the warm gold and blue tones of the Venetian-plaster walls and the local artwork, which changes monthly.
If weather permits, opt to dine on the pretty rear patio, with its lacy black metal tables and chairs. City Market, which Dawn Raia opened on Main Street, offers much of the same fare as the cafe, for eating in and taking out.
Caffe Galleria, 18 South Main Street, Lambertville, 609-397-2400, caffegalleria.com, Breakfast: Seven days a week, starting at 7 a.m.; ending time is flexible. The breakfast menu can be had through lunch time if restaurant is not too busy.
Pete’s Steak House
Going just by the name, this place near the Trenton Farmers Market doesn’t sound at first blush like it would be a terrific breakfast spot. But it comes highly recommended by U.S. 1 Preview editor Jamie Saxon, who is more or less a regular at Pete’s (or as she calls it, Eat at Pete’s, which is what is written at the top of the menu here), primarily because they serve breakfast all day Saturday — til 9 p.m., and Sundays til 2 p.m. Their bacon servings are enormous, and the prices are bargain-basement perfect.
The owner and cook at this diner-ish spot with 1950s-themed decor and music is Keith Casey. At breakfast, the chef on duty is Jack Palumbo, who years ago had his own restaurant, Palumbo’s, in West Trenton. Casey took over this version of Pete’s in 1997. It had originally been but is no longer related to Pete’s Steak House and Tavern in Hamilton, which itself was related to the original Pete’s in Chambersburg.
Since Casey liked Pete’s ’50s decor he replicated it here, complete with black-and-white checked tile and red vinyl booths and counter stools, as well as a (non-working) jukebox and framed Life magazine covers, LP covers, and ’50s movies posters. There is at least one period Coca-Cola sign, and the beverage fridge stocks the much admired Mexican-formula Coke.
Pete’s is best known for its cheese steak sandwiches and its pizza, but breakfast brings lots of good, substantial fare at very affordable prices, served cheerfully in the best diner tradition. The most popular breakfast items, Casey says, are his homemade hot cakes, especially the strawberry, blueberry, or chocolate chip versions. I got a short stack of the plain and found them good though not exceptional. Although the glob of butter on them is real, the syrup is the ubiquitous and euphemistic “table syrup” or “pancake syrup.” But remember, the price is right. Next time I’ll try the French toast, since the breads for it — regular, cinnamon-raisin, and cheese — are made in-house.
The short stack includes two eggs any style, and the ones over easy, as I requested, were perfectly cooked, fresh as could be, and sported yolks the color of marigolds. I also rounded out my plate with a selection from what the menu denotes as “breakfast meat.” I opted for pork roll — the place is on the Trenton border, after all — and this salty treat came hot and nicely crisped.
Casey told me after my visit that other customer favorites are the broccoli and cheddar omelet and the Italian sausage omelet. I can’t imagine that they are any better than the giambotta, an Italian kitchen-sink affair that I swear must have close to a dozen eggs in it. It came to our table literally hanging over every edge of its sizeable platter, stuffed to the gills with nubs of excellent Italian sausage, sauteed potatoes, hot and sweet peppers, onions, and melted provolone — all topped with a ladle of excellent pizza sauce.
Pete’s Steak House, 1855 North Olden Avenue Extension, corner of Route 31, Ewing. 609-771-6747. Breakfast: Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 11 a.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sprig & Vine
After enjoying an impressive lunch at this handsome, earth-toned vegan restaurant in May I was itching to come back for what I like to think of as breakfast, despite the fact that owner/chef Ross Olchvary calls it brunch and serves it only on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. So there I was on a recent Sunday, even before they opened the doors, ravenous. I steadfastly ignored such “brunchy” menu items as the strawberry-arugula salad and the tempeh Reuben on pumpernickel, despite the lure of its Thousand Island dressing and artisan pickles and sauerkraut. I headed straight for the more challenging breakfast items: tofu Benedict, French toast, and sausage.
My husband and I had never eaten vegan versions of any of these, so we were a bit apprehensive as we sipped our Small World coffee and unsweetened ice tea, respectively. That tea, really an herbal infusion, is a refreshing surprise, made from what seems to be equal parts ruby-red rooibus leaves (Afrikaans for “red bush”) and peppermint. We had hedged our bets by also ordering warm sugar-cinnamon doughnuts.
We needn’t have fretted. The French toast, made with a traditional white loaf from the artisan bakers at Rise in Clinton, contains cornmeal in the batter, which gives it crunch. It sits on a bed of maple walnut “cream” so good I wanted to lick the plate, and it is liberally drizzled with a bright, sweet coulis of fresh strawberries and raspberries. (The fruit will progress with the seasons to blueberries, blackberries, peaches, apples, etc.) Soy milk replaces egg here, with only a slight loss of richness and spongy texture.
The real test, though, was eggs Benedict — sans eggs and Canadian bacon. Hollandaise, too, requires eggs. And butter. Olchvary achieves a remarkable facsimile for the sauce, in both taste and texture, by employing silken tofu and vegan butter substitute. But what about the poached egg and meat? Sitting on each half of a crunchy toasted whole-wheat English muffin is a pattie of tempeh sausage and a tall cube of soft tofu. The latter mimics poached egg white perfectly, but, alas, not the yolk. The sausage has the flavor profile of hot Italian sausage, which is perfectly suitable, but the texture is a tad mealy-grainy. Rounding out the plate are a tangle of bright green spinach sauteed with strands of onion and a pile of good home fries. As for those warm, sugary doughnuts — actually, five doughnut holes about an inch and a half in diameter — they were simply excellent by any standard.
Sprig & Vine, 450 Union Square Drive, New Hope, PA. 215-693-1427, sprigandvine.com. Brunch: Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.