Fine dining has resurrected phoenix-like in Princeton in the newly reopened Peacock Inn on Bayard Lane. The restored, grand old mansion, bar, and restaurant heralds a much needed alternative to the on-trend, casual spots that dominate the dining scene in town. The grand reopening was the last weekend in May and the new staff seem to have gotten settled quickly.
New owner Genesis Hospitality Group, which also owns the Washington Crossing Inn and the venerable Yardley Inn, has freshened the muted, warm gray tones of the foyer and bar, echoing the stone walkway up to the sweeping porch.
The dining room is quietly elegant with the same tones subtlety accented with painted peacock feathers that barely shimmer in the subdued lighting — a touch of whimsy that is not overt. The hotel is now part of the Choice Hotels Ascend Collection and a check of the various travel sites indicates that room rates are around $300 per night.
But fine dining is the lure for locals. The famous murals from the glorious jazz age, a much-loved part of the house’s history as a watering hole, have been preserved. The back patio has been expanded to 10 wrought iron tables with umbrellas, perfect for al fresco dining or imbibing. Private rooms are available for those extra-special occasions.
The bar is configured much the same as before but brightened and mercifully has only one TV that faces to entranceway so that it can be ignored relatively easily and conversation can flow. The bar menu features a variety such as Croque-Monsieur with broiled honey ham and Gruyere melted on sourdough bread for $15; Maine Lobster Roll ($24) and a Bayard Burger with hot pepper slaw, and spicy tomato mayo ($18). The Peacock Salad Nicoise is $20 and the Curry Crab Salad has jumbo lump crab, watermelon, cucumber, arugula, and mint, with citronette ($24). The bar menu is available anytime the bar is open, and the salads are also on the main dining room’s menu.
Breakfast is served to the public from 7 to 10 a.m. weekdays, 8 to 11 a.m. weekends. The menu offers fully cooked dishes and a continental option, which is complimentary for hotel guests.
The inn will soon begin serving afternoon tea on Saturdays and Sundays by reservation. Having adored High Tea from years of travel across the pond, I trust the chef will provide tea that is well and truly brewed and not merely a pot of cooling hot water and a tea bag. Ah, the aroma of loose tea.
Lunch offers a wide variety of choices, but this is no quick-bite-and-back-to-work venue. Appetizers such as Poached Lobster Fondue is $26; and Black Truffle Semolina Gnocchi with goat cheese, pink truffle sauce, and shaved truffle is $17. For a main luncheon course, Retro Steak Frites with asparagus and crinkle-cut fries is $46 and Lump Crab Cakes with lemon slaw is $36. The menu includes a vegan option of Arborio Wild Rice & Grilled Vegetables for $25.
The main dining room clearly encourages conversation with its low ceiling, soft lighting, and subdued background music, noticeable but not so loud that you become hoarse trying to talk. Throughout the venue, my friend and I were able to chat amiably with the bartender, our waiter, and between ourselves never once having to raise our voices to be heard. This was an exceptionally pleasant change from the usual din of dining.
The bar has a good selection of wines, bottled and by the glass, and emphasizes the sparkling offerings of France, Italy, and the United States. Unionville wines from up the road in Ringoes are also featured. The house wine is Kendall Jackson ($14/glass, $49/bottle) and a flight of four wines is available for $22.
My friend and I dined on a Tuesday night at 7 p.m. We stopped at the bar for a quick drink to admire the new ambiance and then were seated in the main dining room. Several other tables were filled at that hour. The staff has clearly been well trained in traditional service. Our servers were amiable without being artificially cheerful and when questioned about items on the menu did not launch into condescending lectures on culinary arcana.
I had the gazpacho ($9) to start and it was snappy, tempered with the sweetness of melon balls. Presentation was particularly fine; the soup cup nestled in a larger bowl of crushed ice, the scarlet of the gazpacho contrasted with the white of the ice. My friend had lobster bisque ($14) that had a respectable amount of large Maine lobster meat.
Executive chef Mark Valenza, who has formerly been executive chef at Triumph Brewery, Za Restaurant in Pennington, and the Washington Crossing Inn, calls his cuisine “American mosaic cooking.”
The dinner entrees are weighted toward seafood. My companion had a generous portion of teriyaki salmon served with shiitake, green onion, sesame bean sprouts, and spinach ($27). A particularly fine touch came when he requested to take part of the meal home. Rather than plunking a paper bag on the table, our waiter gave him a discreet tag, saying his parcel would be at the front desk upon departure.
This subtle touch was echoed in the precision of the table settings, the deftness by which the servers turned the linen without showing the table, and the unobtrusive anticipation of our needs. There was no sign of pretence, the self-congratulatory attitude now typical of venues that aspire to elegant service. Frankly the only thing missing was an amuse bouche from the chef.
Other entrees include dayboat scallops with shaved black truffle, wild rice, garlic spinach, salmon roe, lemon parsley sauce ($43), a filet mignon grilled with manchego croquettes and asparagus tips ($52) — add a lobster tail for surf and turf for an additional $24. The Lobster Clambake features Maine lobster, white shrimp, clams, scallops, grilled sweet corn, and asparagus succotash ($59).
Princeton now has a replacement for the sorely missed Lahiere’s where fine food meets confident elegance. The Peacock Inn is the perfect place for a special dinner out or whenever you want to enjoy the company of good friends. It is also perfect for quality business entertaining. The prices may be surprising for Princeton, but not a New York expense account. The upscale ambiance and the adventurous menu may not be appropriate for small children, but adults will relish the quiet refinement. The Peacock Inn can be very proud.
Peacock Inn, 20 Bayard Lane, Princeton. Breakfast, Monday through Friday, 7 to 10 a.m.; Saturday 8 to 11 a.m.; brunch, Sunday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; lunch, Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 8 p.m.; Tea time, Saturday and Sunday, 2 to 4 p.m. by reservation only. Bar open all day. 609-924-1707 or www.peacockinn.com