Some promise and some deliver. And the new Witherspoon Grill is promising to be the linchpin of the new development and public plaza next to the Princeton Public Library. It’s a tall order for a restaurant, but at least during these first few days, the Witherspoon Grill delivers in spades. Things look promising for restaurateur Jack Morrison, whose holdings also include the Blue Point Grill on Nassau Street and a reported $2 million investment in the plaza and parking garage development.
Knowing that the newest hot spot in Princeton was drawing big crowds, we deliberately arrived very early on a Saturday night, 5:30ish, so that we could enjoy the full dining experience without a wait. We were immediately shown to a cozy table en banquette in the middle of this jazzy eatery that combines funk with retro style.
The maitre d’ was friendly without being chummy and was pleased to share stories of the exciting first few days of the Grill’s existence. Our host mentioned that the Grill will be offering lunch in a few weeks and, best of all, outdoor seating come warm weather. His affability was echoed by the wait staff, all of whom exude a level of experience that bespeaks professionals.
The decor combines wood and glass with touches like retro lightbulbs with open filaments. The napkins are vintage dish towels that combine a sense of whimsy with the luxury of oversized Victorian serviettes.
Specialty martinis are there, of course, but the extensive and varied cellar of both hard liquor and wines includes top shelf wares such as Plymouth gin and newcomer Hendricks. We started with a fig Manhattan and a draft from the extensive list of beers.
This gave us the chance to study the menu. A Blue Plate special tempted with prime rib on Saturday, honest meatloaf on Monday and an old-fashioned Sunday roast of turkey. These specials ranged from $16 to $30. An intriguing entry was a Tower of Seafood, small for $50 and grand for $99. This is a concoction of shrimp, mussels, clams, crab and oysters, the small being enough for two and the grand for four or more. There was lobster pot pie for $25, wild salmon au poivre for $24, rotisserie free range chicken for $18, and steak, steak, steak. Eight ounce, 12, 14, and 16 ounce cuts of all descriptions. There is a signature burger, 10 ounces for $12.
Appetizers range from $8 to $12. We tried the beet and goat cheese salad, enough for two to share. This was followed by salmon and the 8 ounce filet mignon with a side of grilled mushrooms. All sides are separate and run from $4 to $5, with special sauces for $2. The salmon was well peppered and moist, the steak almost cuttable with a fork and perfectly medium rare.
Dessert was as eclectic as the main menu. With a range of treats from $6 to $8, there was bread pudding, lemon meringue pie, and ice creams and sorbets of organic fruit. We tried an old time favorite of Bananas Foster topped off with one of the impressive list of dessert wines, ports, and other after-dinner offerings that include single malt scotch and grappa.
And then there was the wine list. The Grill offers a select list of Twenty under Thirty, an eclectic choice of wines from around the world, all for under $30. The house wine is a Greek white or a Spanish red and the full list covers the gamut of hearty, light, and bubbly with a $135 Cabernet topping the menu, which sports a suitable quotation from Moliere.
The ambiance is welcoming to all. As the evening progressed, attire became more dressy but jeans and sneakers were seated with suits and ties. There were a surprising number of children from toddlers to adolescents. A children’s menu offers chicken fingers, mac and cheese, and burgers. Very little ones are offered a big box of jumbo crayons and can attack the paper sheets that cover the tablecloths.
The bar became increasingly crowded as diners congregated while waiting. At 7 p.m., the wait was two hours the Saturday we were there. The decor offers several tables and seating at the bar, but by the time we left at about 8 p.m., even the space between the bar and the tables was at a premium. The Witherspoon Grill does not take reservations, but it does offer the option of leaving a cell number so you can receive a call when your table is ready, a hallmark of the owner’s Blue Point Grill on Nassau Street. This will be a welcome choice come good weather as the Library plaza promises to be prime real estate for seeing and being seen. There is also a bar menu for those who want lighter fare.
The dining room proper offers a choice of booths, banquette, and open table seating with ample room between. Everyone pitches in. Owner Morrison, in fact, was seen serenely busing a table and setting it for the next group, all the while keeping a hawk-like eye on the surroundings and warmly greeting guests.
The newest kid on the block should prove to be a welcome addition to the wealth of dining choices that Princeton now offers. It is a fine choice for a night out with friends, colleagues, or a date. Exciting, vibrant, and just plain good.
Witherspoon Grill, 57 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-6011. Open for dinner only; lunch service is expected within several weeks.