You’ll never see it in an atlas but there is a small piece of Bucks County smack in the middle of Dayton in central New Jersey. Amid the proliferation of offices, condos, and strip malls, a slice of an 18th century village remains at the intersection of Ridge and Georges roads. The old settlers might not recognize much of the town but the Whitlock Tavern, built in 1739, would be recognizable after its long history of transformation. It was a general store, a private home, and later a somewhat popular restaurant with a memorable name, Fat Eddie’s Groaning Board, and later the Dayton Diner.
Now it has been lovingly renovated to resemble its 18th century beginnings. The original brick and beams are still evident in the dining rooms both upstairs and in the wrap-around porch. While it’s a shame that the view is marred by the WaWa across the way, there is still the view of the older homes and the beautiful First Presbyterian Church of Dayton across the street.
The old settlers wouldn’t recognize the 21st century bar with its huge flat screen TV but the rest of the building is reminiscent of the restored taverns in New England and Bucks County. The owner has even carried the touch of age to the restrooms where the commodes are reproduction overhead tanks complete with chain flush. The touch of whimsy is continued in large stained glass works by a local artisan used as interior windows and dividers.
The first thing we saw upon arrival is a charming gazebo and rose garden on the corner of the property. We were told that it was built by the owner as a remembrance to her husband and donated as a park to the town. Upon entering, we were promptly greeted and seated at a table that was actually wide enough to accommodate both our place settings and the extra plates that accumulate through a meal, a very nice change. Soft, jazzy renditions of 1940s standards were playing in the background. Also harking back to a day when not everything was a la carte, we were presented with crackers and cheese spread when the drink order was taken and the entrees came with soup or salad and a wide choice of rice or potatoes, along with the veg of the day.
The menu is extensive and focuses on good old meat, potatoes and gravy. I chose a hearty prime rib ($22) and my companion a seasoned, grilled salmon ($20). Some other choices were a special of Hungarian goulash ($18) and old-fashioned chicken potpie ($15). The choice of steaks is varied and runs in the mid-20s, with a London broil and Brazilian lobster tail combo for $30. Entrees include half of a duck, scallops, crab cakes and pasta such as wild mushroom ravioli and a fish and chips made with real scrod. All these range between $14 and $23.
Warm rolls complemented the meal and the service was professional. We were even given extra lemon for the fish without being asked and, mirabile dictu, we were able to enjoy the whole evening without once hearing the waitress say “how are you guys doing?” or “what can I get you guys?”! An added delight was a glass of wine that was good measure for the price and not one of these half glasses that end up costing twice the price because you have to order two to complete your meal. A mixed drink was only $5, a premium beer $4.50 and the shiraz/cab $7.50. We ended the meal with a sugar free vanilla cheesecake that was not too sweet and plenty for two for only $3.
The tavern offers a Sunday brunch that runs the gamut of pancakes, French toast, Belgian waffles, bagel and lox, quiche and eggs with all the fixin’s. In addition, there are sandwiches and wraps, burgers, soups and elaborate brunch salads. All this between $4 and $15.
Lunch is equally extensive with many more salads and a multitude of sandwiches. Offerings range around the $9 level.
The ambiance is comfortable and slightly upscale. The Saturday night we were there, all the men wore ties but the feel is definitely not stuffy. Wednesdays and Thursdays see the addition of live music to the mix. This is a date place definitely for the simple reason that the decor is inviting and you can hear your date speak. It is also a bring-the-boss place, a destination for the visiting firemen at the office or a cozy choice for a gathering of friends.
There are rooms for private functions and the tavern has hosted its share of weddings and showers, the gazebo offering the perfect spot for photos. Old Mr. Whitlock might not recognize his town after all these years, but he’d be mighty pleased at how his tavern has been resurrected.
Whitlock Tavern, 375 Georges Road, Dayton. 732-274-2200. Open seven days. From Route 1 north, take Route 522 (at the Exxon station) east to Georges Road. Turn right on Georges and the Whitlock is on the right just before the intersection with Ridge.