I know of few people who do not enjoy the simple pleasure of dining in the open air. Whether on a terrace, patio, or sidewalk or in a garden, for me — and many other too, I’m sure — the whole al fresco experience is made special by a fresh breeze, sunshine or moonshine, greenery, the ambient sounds of birds, fountains, passersby — even a little car traffic. All seem to increase my appetite and my pleasure, especially when I’m dining on good food presented by genial servers.
We are fortunate to have many and varied eateries in and around Princeton for dining out, out. Several that I featured in U.S. 1’s spring dining issue (May 9) on the particular delights of dining at the bar also happen to have noteworthy outdoor spots. In Princeton, there is Mediterra, with a plaza and fountain that evoke its European kin. Witherspoon Grill has sprouted tables on Princeton’s newest plaza, soon to be named for the late Albert Hinds, next to Princeton Public Library. One of the oldest outdoor spots downtown has to be the Alchemist & Barrister’s sliver of a patio, which is tucked quietly and picturesquely away in the pedestrian alley between Witherspoon Street and Palmer Square.
The east end of Nassau Street — the stretch that leads towards Kingston — has become a sort of mecca not only for casual dining but also for casual dining al fresco. Especially from Chestnut to Maple Street, with two liquor stores acting as bookends to the many BYO spots, that part of town bustles with pedestrians even on weeknights, including many who are looking for someplace to dine. This part of Nassau Street can be heavy at times with car and truck traffic, but it moves slowly, making more for background noise rather than intrusion.
One of this area’s most venerable spots — and the anchor as far as I’m concerned — is Blue Point Grill, Jack Morrison’s ever-popular seafood restaurant that is elder sibling to Witherspoon Grill and an outgrowth of Nassau Street Seafood, the fish market next door. Its pristine seafood is sourced, like that of the store, from the major New York and Philadelphia fish markets, as well as directly off day boats at Viking Village in Point Pleasant, the state’s premiere commercial fishing port.
On an unseasonably cool spring evening my husband and I (and other savvy diners) were able to sidestep a 45-minute wait for an indoor table by agreeing to dine street-side in the grill’s stylish and comfortable blue-and-white bistro chairs. Before long an acquaintance ambled by and we enjoyed a pleasant chat while waiting for our first course of excellent lobster bisque. Then the family of five at the next table spotted their neighbors crossing Nassau Street and I eavesdropped on their amiable exchange. “This,” I commented to my husband as I sprinkled malt vinegar over my traditional fish and chips, “is small town living at its best.” He nodded as he dug into his pasta with shrimp scampi.
While dining at Blue Point Grill, I faced another of my favorite outdoor venues in this part of town: Tiger Noodles. Its sidewalk setting makes it casual in the extreme, but also very dog friendly for those who like to take their pooch along. Over my years as a restaurant reviewer, I have found that people’s opinions of what constitutes good Chinese food and good pizza are the two most strongly held personal preferences. I count myself among the many who consider Tiger Noodles the best Chinese food in town. I can’t imagine life without their homestyle braised beef noodle soup, which I must have even in hottest throes of summer. I am particularly fussy about dumplings, and find Tiger Noodles’ delicate steamed juicy pork and crabmeat buns downright addictive. Since I enjoy drinking beer with Chinese food, having Nassau Liquors Grape & Grain right next door is the height of convenience.
Not far away, at the corner of Chestnut and Nassau, is a spot that has been one Chinese restaurant or another over the years. Four years ago it became Ivy Garden, and in my opinion it is an improvement over its previous incarnations. The menu is predictable, and although some of its sweet dishes such as lemon chicken and Mandarin baby ribs are a bit sweet for my tastes, other dishes, such as scallion pancakes and Mongolian beef, are competent. Ivy Garden is a very good value and has convenient parking in the rear. I like that its outdoor dining spot, while not exactly a garden, is a pleasant terrace edged with greenery and Asian-style lanterns, and is perched a step or two above street level. The restaurant’s secret weapon, though, is the sincerely friendly atmosphere created by owner Steve Lin, who seems to always be present, greeting all comers and checking in to make sure diners are happy. On a recent visit the highlights of my meal were chatting with Mr. Lin and downing a generous serving of salt-and-pepper soft shell crabs.
Directly across Nassau Street are two other popular ethnic restaurants with outdoor table service: Thai Village and Kalluri Corner, making this intersection quite a hub. Like Ivy Garden, they are good values for standard Thai and Indian dishes, respectively. I particularly like dining out on Kalluri Corner’s rooftop on weekends, looking down onto Nassau Street, when the truck traffic is lighter. Varsity Liquors is just steps away from all these BYO spots.
I can’t leave this part of town without mentioning Hoagie Haven. There is no table service, indoors or out, and the only seating is a bench on the sidewalk. Yet Hoagie Haven is a Princeton institution, and rightly so. Its classic Italian subs are indeed the area’s nonpareil. (I give no quarter to calling them hoagies, heroes, or grinders: I grew up in Newark, where they were never referred to as anything but subs or submarine sandwiches.) With generous amounts of provolone, capicola (sic), ham, and salami on properly soft, squishy torpedo rolls, they are irresistible, if not exactly heart healthy. My daughter refers to them as “the best bad sandwiches,” and even the likes of Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” sings their praises. Stewart, who grew up in Lawrenceville, reportedly still comes down from Manhattan for a fix every now and then.
Over at the Princeton Shopping Center on Harrison Street, Main Street Euro-American Bistro & Bar has been offering well-prepared contemporary takes on American, European, and Asian-style comfort food for years. To the uninitiated, dining outdoors in the middle of a shopping center might sound questionable at first blush but not to those acquainted with this unique property. Main Street’s outdoor patio, tastefully roped off under its blue Pellegrino umbrellas, sits on the edge of a vast, green courtyard replete with clock tower, fountains, pathways, split rail fencing, and, most importantly, carefully maintained flowerbeds, making for a pretty, traffic-free (!) setting for dining al fresco.
Adding to the already attractive setting are the annual summer concerts in the courtyard on Thursday evenings. Portions of the menu change monthly, and I especially like the rotating “best buys” in wines by the bottle or glass, all at fair prices. Recommended summer dishes include chilled gazpacho, soy-glazed salmon with spicy noodle salad, and the half-pound Main Street Bistro burger, a steal at $7.
Another great option at Princeton Shopping Center is Camillo’s Cafe, directly across from Main Street. It’s a cozy neighborhood trattoria owned by executive chef Camillo Tortola. Entrees includelobster fra diavolo over pappardelle with clams and mussels, and filet mignon with gorgonzola.
Route 206 in Princeton
Still in Princeton but out on Route 206 near the intersection of Cherry Hill Road, is Gennaro’s, the latest restaurant in the space that had been La Terraza and before that, Casabona. Owner Gennaro Costabile, who also owns La Piazza further north on 206 in Hillsborough, has kept the lace curtains and much of the menu from La Terraza days but with a more noticeable traditional Italian accent. Stylish new black aluminum patio tables and chairs add to the charm of the courtyard next to the restaurant that already sported four square beds filled with dogwoods, each anchored by a big stone planter growing tomatoes and basil plants. On a recent visit our friendly server told us these would eventually be put to good use in the kitchen.
The courtyard is enclosed on three sides The noise from 206 during our dinner was noticeable but we were able to converse without raising our voices — which I cannot claim for many popular indoor venues — and the classic Italian fare, from a generous antipasto that includes fried calamari and grilled jumbo shrimp along with the typical Italian salumi to a house-made Limoncello gelato, was delightful.
Moving out onto Route 1 outdoor dining options include Big Fish Seafood Bistro at Marketfair and Tre Piani and Salt Creek Grille at Forrestal Village. Big Fish Seafood Bistro is one of those rarities: a chain restaurant that successfully negotiates the treacherous waters of pleasing the masses while serving decent fare. From the raised patio, which faces the parking lot, diners can peek into the aquarium-like dining room, with its bubble-shaped light fixtures.
Big Fish has always been long on style — even its exterior stucco walls alternate between deep blue and spicy orange. A few buzz-cut evergreens soften the space, which overlooks the parking lot and can get hot on sunny days. But I savored that sun on my back recently, while indulging in my usual soup and salad combo of Big Fish Chowder (which includes smoked fish and tasso ham — salty but savory) and the Cape Codder, which tosses greens, pine nuts, red onion, and blue cheese in a retro raspberry vinaigrette. Subtlety is not a Big Fish strong point, but when I’m in the right mood, it delivers.
It is a testament to its quality that Tre Piani has survived, and thrived, all these years at Forrestal Village, which is in the throes yet another reincarnation. Chef/owner Jim Weaver’s ever-expanding commitment to artisanal Italian base ingredients coupled with the bounty of local farms and waters keeps this three-story restaurant vibrant and fresh. Nowhere is this more apparent than out on the raised patio that wraps around the curved brick facade of the building, where tall planters sprout fig trees and the flowerbed is planted with sunflowers and salvia. A fountain in the courtyard and maroon umbrellas and awnings complete the setting, which Weaver fancies so much he held his own wedding there last August.
On Friday, July 13, the patio will be the setting for Tre Piani’s annual outdoor grilling class and tasting ($59, trepiani.com). Participants learn to cook a complete eight-part dinner, with beer and wine. Among the offerings are razor clams, soft-shell crabs, and Florentine-style steak with grilled vegetables. In the coming weeks Weaver will unveil Tre Bar, his wine and tapas bar. Its menu will also be available to patrons who choose to dine out on the Tre Piani patio.
The newest addition to dining outdoors at Forrestal is Salt Creek Grille. The brand new California-ranch style building, visible from Route 1, is all about dark woods and fireplaces inside, but dining out on the back porch offers a more airy environment, literally and figuratively. The attractive porch is parallel to the highway but kudos to the site designer who employs a long greensward and a high berm to keep the noise at bay. In fact, diners spot only the tops of cars whizzing by, with almost no noise — at least at dinnertime on a Sunday, which is when I last dined there. Muslin drapes frame the pillars on the only open side of the roofed porch. The lower half of the porch holds dining tables and chairs, while the upper half features stylish lounge chairs, a settee, and a cocktail table set around an indoor-outdoor fireplace.
The Grille’s menu is a personable blend of contemporary American grilled dishes and comfort foods. The salads — both sides and mains — are especially well executed, from the mesquite-grilled Caesar to the spicy grilled ahi tuna to the goat cheese wrapped in phyllo with a light vinaigrette.
Just as I couldn’t leave Princeton without mentioning Hoagie Haven, I must give a nod out on Route 1 in Monmouth Junction to Burrito Royale. It’s not just that this small, pseudo-hacienda structure serves up good, fresh Mexican restaurant fare at ridiculously low prices. It’s that for the last 30 years it has held its own against national fast-food chains while dishing out tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and the like.
Service, by the second generation of owners, is fast and friendly and the atmosphere is relaxed to the max. I like to order the California burrito and pretend I’m a trucker having lunch.
Further afield, in Pennington, is Za. This restaurant’s patio wins my sow’s-ear-into-silk-purse award. Brothers Mark and Chazz Valenza took over a space in an aging tiny strip mall at the busy intersection of Route 31 and Delaware Avenue (opposite Delaware Avenue from Pennington Shopping Center) that has a patio mere feet from noisy traffic. Transforming the patio — the only asset of which was a wisteria-covered pergola — fell to Chazz, whose other business is designing water gardens. He added a dramatic, sight-and-sound-muffling collection of boulders, plants, and cascading water garden at one end. One long side is lined with stone planters packed with fresh herbs and flowers. Blue and white woven bistro chairs and boldly striped awnings add more color, and a solid wood fence screens off the parking lot. Traffic noise is by no means obliterated, but is tolerable.
Chef Mark, who was last at Triumph Brewing in Princeton, calls his oeuvre “cross cultural comfort cuisine.” I call it some of the most likeable and personal food I’ve encountered in a time when many restaurant menus look alarmingly alike. Ethereal Roman semolina gnocchi, Korean beef kebobs, and the Maine lobster picnic are among my favorite offerings at this BYO.
Another favorite BYO that features al fresco dining is Brothers Moon in Hopewell, where patrons can dine out on Broad Street (Route 518) in this charming village. Chef/proprietor Will Mooney was among the first in the state to spotlight local, sustainable foodstuffs, and with top-notch ingredients even the most simple dishes shine, such as a pasta special featuring olives, zucchini, asparagus, and oven-dried tomatoes. Mooney has a way with soups, including lobster chowder and corn chowder with grilled shrimp.
With a blue, silver, and gold celestial theme that is a play on the chef’s name, Brothers Moon is pretty inside, but on a summer night, why not bask in real moonshine and starlight? Five white wooden trestle tables are covered in white linens, planters on pedestals separate diners from pedestrians, and white sail-like awnings catch summer breezes.
Continue down Route 518 into Lambertville to come across the secret garden that is the Swan Hotel’s patio. Each time I visit Anton’s, the dining room inside the erstwhile Swan Hotel, I enjoy the ambitious modern American fare that owner/ chef Chris Connors offers.
But in fine weather I opt for the simpler grill menu he serves up evenings in Jim Bolger’s Swan Bar and in the pretty, leafy courtyard just outside. This small space is set just below street level, overhung by tall, old trees, and enclosed on one side by an ivy-covered brick wall. A fountain flanked by doggy statues and masses of impatiens in stone planters complete the idyll.
With credentials stretching back to the groundbreaking New Jersey restaurant, the Tarragon Tree, Conners is adept at plain fare that employs excellent basic components. Crab soup in summer, Caesar salad, and sirloin burgers year round, and seasonal crisp-crust personal pizzas are among the winners here.
Stick to the wine list because the by-the-glass list is lackluster. I recommend any of the area beers that are on tap; Dogfish Head “60 Minute” IPA and Victory Pilsner are among my favorites.
Few and far between are restaurants about which I like everything. Zoubi, across the river in New Hope, PA, is decidedly one. If it has all the charm, good looks, and enticing food of a small, well-run Mediterranean restaurant that is because its team of owners and chefs hail from France, Belgium, and Greece; the most notable is Andre Le Noble of St. Tropez.
The rear patio boasts bentwood bistro chairs, ancient overhanging trees, an arbor, clematis wrapping around a post — enveloped by walls of stone and stucco inset with fancy wrought iron “windows” and hung with lanterns and big, fat, dramatically dripping candles. Zoubi’s French/Mediterranean menu includes touches of Asia and Latin America. Escargots, for example, are served in an au gratin dish with ginger and mango..
Duet of duck comprises a harmonious pairing of sliced grilled boneless breast still rosy in the center and confit leg and thigh, whose already prodigious flavor reaches new high notes by its crisp-sauteed exterior. Lamb “lollipops” with cassoulet and crab cakes are other signatures. Zoubi’s wine list has both both brevity and brains and desserts are not to be missed.
These are just some of the myriad al fresco dining options we are graced with in this area. Mediterranean oasis, secret garden, slice of small town USA, truck stop — I happily devour them all.
Big Fish Seafood, MarketFair, 3535 Route 1 South, Princeton. 609-919-1179, muer.com
Blue Point Grill, 258 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-921-1211, bluepointgrill.com
Brother Moon, 7 West Broad Street, Hopewell. 609-333-1330, brothersmoon.com
Burrito Royale, 4049 Route 1, Monmouth Junction. 732-297-6148.
Camillo’s Cafe, Princeton Shopping Center, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton. 609-252-0608, camilloscafe.net
Gennaro’s, 47B State Road (Route 206), Princeton. 609-497-2774.
Hoagie Haven, 242 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-921-7723.
Ivy Garden, 238 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-921-2388.
Main Street Euro-American Bistro, Princeton Shopping Center, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton. 609-921-2779, mainstreetprinceton.com
Salt Creek Grille Forrestal Village 1 Rockingham Row Plainsboro 609-419-4200 saltcreekgrille.com
Tiger Noodles, 260 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-252-0663.
The Swan Bar, 43 South Main Street, Lambertville. 609-397-1960, antons-at-the-swan.com
Tre Piani, Forrestal Village, 120 Rockingham Row, Plainsboro. 609-452-1515, trepiani.com
Za, 147 West Delaware Avenue, Pennington. 609-737-4400, zarestaurants.com
Zoubi: A Restaurant, a Bar, 5 West Mechanic Street, New Hope, PA. 215-862-5851, zoubinewhope.com