by Pat Tanner
Who could have predicted that the small stretch of Route 206 across from the Lawrenceville School would become a mecca of ambitious restaurants? For years Acacia was the only fine dining outpost, joined in 1996 by Vidalia, just around the corner. Then steadily over the last few years — and especially with the involvement of Lawrenceville Main Street, a grassroots civic association devoted to the revitalization of that area of town — they were joined by the funkier but stylish Fedora’s Cafe, and last year by Chambers Walk Cafe. The newest entry in the growing field is the Lawrenceville Inn, which opened in a Victorian house across the street from the historic Presbyterian Church.
The restaurant serves "American food prepared in the French style," according to its owners, Elizabeth and Jonathan Hunt, in four charming rooms that range from casual and family friendly (downstairs) to more formal and romantic (upstairs). All are filled with vintage furniture and collectibles the owners acquired at flea markets and antique shops up and down the East Coast.
When they purchased the house in August, 2001, the Hunts, who have lived in Lawrenceville since they married six years ago, intended merely to renovate the 1892 structure and then turn it over.
"I happened to drive by the house and saw the Weidel sign out front and thought I’d just see what it was selling for," Elizabeth Hunt recalls. "I was just pricing the market, not looking seriously because I had just bought a beach house six months earlier."
Turning over properties is what she had been doing as an enjoyable and profitable sideline for the past several years, her "real job" being to home school her twin daughters from her first marriage. The Hunts used the proceeds from several properties, including that beach house in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, to help fund the $225,000 Lawrenceville purchase. Hunt remembers remarking to her husband, a management consultant in Manhattan, that the place would make a great restaurant.
And she would know. Not only is she the daughter of two restaurateurs — her parents once owned the Meyersville Inn in Hunterdon County — but for 10 years she had a catering company in Summit called Your Heart’s Desire; she also has worked as a personal chef and an innkeeper. She says she had always wanted to own a restaurant but had put her ambition on hold so that she could devote herself to "bonding with the twins."
Home schooling was part of the bonding process for Hunt, who says she drew upon teaching skills she had picked up back in college at St. Elizabeth’s in Convent Station. Hunt also has a 20-year-old daughter, and she says she felt she had missed out by being a working mom for many years and after the breakup of her first marriage, a single working mom.
When the twins turned 13 years old, right around the time of the purchase, they expressed a desire to return to school. Elizabeth Hunt decided to take the plunge into the restaurant business. "I realized I might never again have the time and the energy it takes to own a restaurant," say this slender, vivacious woman who looks much younger than her 42 years. So the Hunts obtained a loan from the Small Business Administration and set to work. That was two weeks before the events of September 11, 2001. "Even a terrorist attack and the threat of what that would do to an already bad economy were not enough to stop me," she says.
The Hunts still shake their heads in disbelief that it eventually took almost two years to transform the Victorian home into the Lawrenceville Inn. Elizabeth Hunt was confident that it could be done quickly, not only because of her dual experience in fixing up homes and in food service, but because the other family business is construction. Her father, Jerry Carbone, owns a construction company in Summit and he would be doing some of the renovation work. "But the town bucked us the whole way," she says, "and this winter’s snow and rain didn’t help either. We didn’t even have heat in the house until January."
Hunt, who describes herself as "into historic preservation," fought to keep the home’s original fittings as much as possible. She is proud that only one interior wall had to be taken down as part of the conversion, and she won a battle to keep the doorways their original width, which is narrower than required for restaurants by code. When it became necessary to temporarily remove the wood trim from around the doors during construction, she made sure it was carefully preserved and reinstalled.
"When I first went into the township building department," she says, "they strongly advised against my being my own general contractor," partly, she believes, because she is a woman. Anthony Cermele, the town’s construction official, says it was because Lawrence Township issues construction permits on commercial buildings only to properly licensed contractors. Cermele says of Hunt, "I liked her right away. She is extremely determined and an interesting character, an enlightenment in this office. She came in with fresh ideas, a fresh approach, and I appreciated that," he says. "But it was in her own interest to hire a qualified contractor. It’s difficult turning a residential property into a restaurant, and since this was a historic building, it was doubly difficult."
As a courtesy, he walked through the property with her before work started. "I gave her some advice on `loopholes’ she could take advantage of via the rehabilitation code since it allows for exceptions in historical buildings," he says. Examples he cited include leaving the narrow staircases as they were and not requiring a separate exit for the second floor, which is mandatory for restaurants in non-historic buildings. "But there was no need to be overly stringent in this case," Cermele concluded.
He gives Hunt credit for doing a good job supervising all her contractors. Asked why he hasn’t yet eaten at the Lawrenceville Inn, he jokes: "The reason is that first I have to take out a mortgage. She’s gonna charge me for all those permit fees I made her pay." Ms. Hunt, for her part, says that she expects to qualify as general contractor on her next project: she has her eye on transforming a nearby property on Main Street into a bed and breakfast.
After announcing an opening date for the winter of 2002, and then one for the first day of spring 2003, the Lawrenceville Inn actually opened its doors in mid-June, serving dinner only. Lunch service was added in July and both brunch and lunch will be served in mid September.
Elizabeth Hunt’s original plan was serve "comfort food in a country setting," along the lines of Meils in Stockton and the Cafe at Rosemont, two establishments she admires. She hired Steve Permaul as the chef for the inn’s launch, and the menu has gone through a series of progressions, from comfort food to "American bistro in a country setting," to "American food prepared in the French style."
"I wanted comfort food, but with Steve’s input we have comfort food at a level 10," she says. "He has a way of making the food sparkle."
Now, only in this country would handmade tagliatelle with tomato confit or a dish of grilled Norwegian salmon with English cucumbers and medjool dates be classified as "American." (In all fairness, the summer dinner menu does include good old American grub such as grilled prime, dry-aged rib eye steak with potatoes and spinach, and barbecue-style short ribs with sweet corn and potato cake. The latter has become the restaurant’s most popular dish.)
Permaul had worked with noted chefs in New York, including David Burke, and with two of New Jersey’s most acclaimed chefs, Craig Shelton of the Ryland Inn, and Dennis Foy, who has had a succession of highly-regarded restaurants, from Townsquare in Chatham to his current venture, Dennis Foy’s in Point Pleasant Beach.
In fact, Elizabeth and Jonathan Hunt used Foy as a consultant and it was Foy who recommended they hire Permaul as the launch chef.
"He did a tasting for me and Jon. I’m a foodie, a food freak," says Elizabeth Hunt, "and I started to cry when I got to the scallops." Those scallops — seared and accompanied by fennel puree and crisp bacon — have made it onto the menu at the Lawrenceville Inn, and at $23 represent the average price of an entree.
Lawrenceville Inn menus make special mention of the area products they incorporate, which to date include apple cider from Terhune Orchards and organic eggs and bacon from Cherry Grove Farm right down the road on Route 206, where farmer Matt Conver raises pasture-fed pigs. Cherry Grove bacon shows up not only in the scallop dish, it also lends smokiness to a cold white bean puree that is sometimes served, in a demitasse, as a "gift" from the chef to start off dinner.
When the right ingredient can’t be found locally, Hunt turns to suppliers in New York, which is where she gets the dry-aged rib eye. If she can’t find the right ingredient at the right price, which right now includes dinner rolls, then the inn makes its own. Hunt even makes her own Limoncello for a sorbet sometimes served as an "intermezzo."
Since June, business has increased steadily and on one Saturday night in July Hunt reported her busiest night yet. At 9 p.m. the 50-seat restaurant had turned 80 "covers," with an hour still to go. Among the diners that evening were Lawrenceville residents George Point and Helen Trpisovsky. This was their third visit to the inn in one month. "The food, service, and setting are first rate," Trpisovsky reports, "and I especially like the fact that the Lawrenceville Inn and some of the other restaurants in town are featuring locally grown produce. Besides the freshness, it adds to the sense of community."
Trpisovsky believes that the addition of the inn to the village dining scene "complements the other restaurants nearby," rather than competes with them, an opinion shared by Bryan Brodowski, chef-owner of Acacia, just down the street. "Any business that draws people to the area is a good thing," he says, although he admits, "we’re probably reaching a saturation point. Any more restaurants would flood the area." He claims that he and other restaurateurs in town haven’t seen a drop off in their business since the opening of the Lawrenceville Inn. "It seems to be pulling in extra people. Still, a different type of business would be a welcome addition to the mix."
The charm of the Lawrenceville Inn’s carefully restored rooms has drawn people back to the inn as much of the food, Elizabeth Hunt believes. The decorating and interior design reflect her personal style and handiwork.
#h#Dining in a Victorian home#/h#
In the two downstairs rooms, patrons dine at wooden farmhouse tables with scrubbed tops and sit on mismatched wood chairs whose coat of white paint has been distressed to add to the shabby chic ambiance. In one room, the tables face the open kitchen, where they can watch the crew at work. Tables are left bare during the day but at dinnertime are covered with linens and set with votive candles. Vintage silverplate and mismatched flowered crockery accent plain white china and fine stemware, the latter used for the wines patrons bring to this BYO spot.
Upstairs, Hunt calls one room the "romantic room," because it comprises tables for two in more luxurious appointments. Across a small hall is the "meeting room," which is just large enough to encompass a vintage sideboard and one large table that can seat up to 14 people. When not booked for private parties (personal or business), the Hunts hope that the room will serve as a community dining table where they can seat unrelated groups, European-style.
Above each table hang period chandeliers, no two alike, many of which Elizabeth found at Joyce’s Early Lighting, right up the street from the inn. Their soft glow reflects off polished hardwood floors and walls painted in soothing tones ranging from butter yellow to beige to cafe au lait. Her plans include making some of the decorative pieces available for sale and to have works from area artists hanging on the walls, also for sale. In fine weather, patrons can dine outdoors in the front yard patio.
As part of the approval of the restaurant’s building plan, the Hunts had to come up with 22 parking spaces in addition to the few spots available on the side of the property. Ms. Hunt worked out easements with Gary Hullfish, owner of Lawrenceville Fuel Company, which is located behind the inn, and who is a member of the Lawrenceville Main Street initiative. "She told me that she came from a restaurant family and wanted to open this restaurant as a family business. I thought it was a good idea," he says.
Three easements were necessary to come up with the 22 parking spaces. "It took six months and three lawyers," Hullfish recalls, "and probably could have been done easier over dinner." In fact, Hullfish has dined at the inn multiple times, and is particularly fond of the rib eye.
Gary Hullfish became such a booster that he lent the Hunts a vintage U.S. Marines recruiting poster that now holds pride of place in the restaurant’s downstairs restroom. Hullfish says he doesn’t expect more in the way of development in that part of town because "the inn is situated on the last lot in this part of town zoned commercial, at least for a while, and that will put a stop to development for now." Elizabeth Hunt recently joined Hullfish on the board of Lawrenceville Main Street. "Jonathan and I really want to be part of the community and to help to bring it back to what it used to be," she says.
Despite hiring a high-powered chef and despite the loving attention she has lavished on the decor, Hunt says that "my strength is hospitality, which comes from my own childhood, my mother’s home. We were five kids, but there were at ten kids at the table on any given night," Hunt recalls. "I had my own stool in the kitchen, and a spoon for licking, with my name on it." Many of the items on the breakfast and lunch menus are derived from recipes she first learned from her mother or which she used in her catering business. Lunch, for instance, includes a cheese steak sandwich with sauteed onions, mushrooms and Vermont cheddar, for $10.
Her mother, Suzanne Adams, acts as unofficial hostess and sometimes bookkeeper. Adams says of her daughter, "Elizabeth is very gutsy. She’s very good at hospitality, and she’s very creative."
Jonathan Hunt, 52, is by day a management consultant with Electronic Data Systems in New York, but by night he can be found crunching the numbers on the inn’s Excel spreadsheets in the attic office. He brings to the marriage two sons, 16 and 20 years old. All five children of this blended family — Kayla, Marlaina, Tara, Wesley, and Joseph — work at the restaurant in various capacities, from hostessing to updating the website. It’s difficult to pick them out from the rest of the young staff, many of whom are students Ms. Hunt recruited at the College of New Jersey. Dressed in a uniform of black pants and shirts, they buzz around the restaurant, earnestly and enthusiastically learning their new craft.
"This place is like a second home to our family," Elizabeth Hunt says, "and we strive to make it feel like a home to our customers, in atmosphere, in our food, in the feeling you go away with."
Lawrenceville Inn, 2691 Main Street, Lawrenceville. 609-219-1900. www.lawrencevilleinn.com
Dinner served daily, 5 to 9 p.m., and lunch served on weekdays, 11:30 to 2 p.m.
Starting in mid September, lunches will be replaced by daily brunch (8 to 2 p.m.)