I’ve been away. College, misadventures in career building, and changes of heart led to changes of plans that inevitably drew me home to regroup for weeks or months on end. I would take the Raymond Road exit toward my childhood home, marveling at the ancient trees that line the roads through Herrontown Woods. Familiar corners of town triggered soft, easy memories as I inhaled my Olive’s chicken salad sandwich.
Then, without fail, I would be struck with the urge to hide — from you. You, the substitute teacher I still recognize from second grade at Littlebrook Elementary. You, the guy I once made out with at the Ivy Inn. (What’s up, Gary?) You, the high school classmate whom I’m certain is more successful, more put together, more master’s degree than me.
Shock of shocks — this fall finds me living in Princeton. Once again I am moved to whip out my cell phone and engage in a deep conversation with, uh, myself, whenever I glimpse someone I know on Nassau Street. Resolution? Say it with me: I will embrace my hometown. I am going to get it on with Princeton — social-life style. Surprise me, Princeton. Ask me out on a date, Princeton. Give me your number instead of asking for mine, Princeton. Mission numero uno: pub crawl. After all, the fastest way home is the way you already know.
A lady never crawls alone, so I enlisted the help of my de facto brother, Ezra. After a hearty dinner, we set off to figure out who is at what bar in Princeton and why.
Rules: 1.) No lying. I’m writing an article, but only if you ask. 2.) Only the bar’s cheapest suds could be consumed. (Did I mention I don’t have a master’s degree?) 3.) Twenty minutes in each location — then abandon beer, conversation, and establishment for the next joint. 4.) Designated driver. Duh.
The Nassau Inn
First stop: The Yankee Doodle Tap Room below the Nassau Inn, where flat-screens abound and dark corners are hard to come by. Here’s what I already know about this place: it’s got good burgers, less than ambient lighting, free popcorn, and pretty pricey beverages, considering the selection.
The bar seating is full, so Ezra and I grab a table with a view. In front of us are the backs of those who snagged stools at the bar. There is a gentleman with a laptop open, a group of likely post-rehearsal dinner friends, a woman with a frighteningly pink manicure grading papers, and striped button-down shirts as far as the eye can see.
I notice two young men sitting together at the corner of the bar; one of them is enjoying a refreshing glass of white wine. Can I pass up this joke? No. No, I cannot. (White wine drinkers take note: I enjoy a Soave or Fume Blanc as much as the next girl, but if you order it at The Tap Room, I will make fun of you. In print.) I’ve noticed these guys noticing me noticing them; so — unlike this sentence — the approach was pretty simple;
“Can I interrupt you guys?” They’re already looking up at me.
“Sure. Of course.”
“I’m just curious why you chose this bar tonight.”
“Wait, who are you with?”
“Oh, that’s my brother.”
They peer over at the de facto brother. He waves. Smooth, Ez.
I learn they are local. I make fun of Bucky for his Chardonnay, and he takes it like a champ. His pal, Rich, informs me that they would have gone to Triumph, but they weren’t up for the five-dollar cover, and frankly, I can’t blame them. They’ll be at A&B later. I ask them their ages — 25 and 28. They ask me mine;
“No way.” (Clever boys!)
“I’m 27.” With this, Rich recoils and his mouth sort of jerks open.
“What? Are you surprised?”
“No, I mean, you. You just look good for 27.”
I’m pretty sure what happened next was that I fell off my bar stool laughing. Ding. Twenty minutes. It’s time to shove off.
Stats: We were at the Tap Room from 8:53 to 9:15 p.m. Wait for a drink? Not really, though Rich and Bucky claimed it took them forever to get served. Number of beers on tap: 12. Cheapest beer: pint of Coors Light, $3.75. Music? No. Crowded? Not really. Demographic: Wide range: 20-somethings who might have preferred another bar but didn’t know any better through 60s.
Verdict: No music means it’s harder to talk to strangers. Test this theory out sometime. I don’t know why, but it’s true. This is a bar where people go to drink while doing something else — likely business or sports-related, or where out-of-towners can imbibe and then wander comfortably upstairs to their suites. Rich and Bucky were in the wrong place and they knew it; which explains why they were so excited to talk to me. (Ancient though I may be.) We left through the hotel lobby. The doorman looked good for 17.
Yankee Doodle Tap Room, the Nassau Inn, 10 Palmer Square, 800-862-7728 or 609-921-7500. Bar and lounge area, five big-screen TVs playing sports. www.nassauinn.com/dining/yankeedoodle.html
J B Winberie
J B Winberie is a bar named for a fictional figure. It is also a bar that has never attracted me for any discernible amount of time. First thing I notice: $3 Magic Hat #9 bottles. Really? On a Friday? Really. And this is your cheapest beer? Same price as MGD. I take two. I’m impressed!
Natalie Merchant whines over the din from an Internet jukebox. We manage two seats at the bar. The tables and booths in the bar area are all occupied by what appear to be groups of friends out for dinner before the real Friday night action begins. It feels vaguely like a scene, at least more so than the Tap Room. Nine young men line the wall directly behind the bar that houses the bank of windows looking out onto Palmer Square East. I stare at them with about as much subtlety as I can muster, which isn’t much. They ignore me. I step over to them.
“Hey guys, can I interrupt you for a second?” They turn, fix their gazes on me, and not one of them responds. I go on: “My friend and I were debating how old you all are.”
Stares all around — and these aren’t checking-me-out stares — these are clock ticking, crickets chirping, beep.beep.beep. flat line stares. I stare back. “So how old are you?”
“Nineteen. Just kidding.” Chortles one of them. Hardy Har. (Winberie’s, incidentally, was the only bar that carded me all night.) “We’re all about 21, 22.”
“Got it. Thanks, gentlemen.”
“I’m writing an article about different bars in Princeton, and I was just curious about who chooses to come to this one.”
“So do we get a prize or something?”
“Um, No.” Oh, darn, time’s up.
Stats: The bar was pretty crowded from 9:20 till 9:40 while we were there. Wait for a drink? Nope! Number of beers on tap: 8. Cheapest offering: $3 bottles of MGD and the drink special tonight: $3 Magic Hat #9 bottles. Music: meh. Crowded: yes, in the bar area. Demographic: Early 20s to early 30s with a pinch of 40-somethings.
Verdict: Since there’s not much room to mingle, there’s not much mingling. Good drink specials and nice bartenders but not great company. Also, I think Internet jukeboxes represent everything that’s wrong with the world. But that’s just my opinion. Okay, it’s Ezra’s opinion, but I agree.
J B Winberie, 1 Palmer Square East, 609-921-0700.
I have to choose between the Witherspoon Grill and Mediterra for an “upscale” bar. The Grill wins out simply because while I think they’re both overpriced, the Witherspoon Grill (in my opinion) offers slightly more delicious over-priced food than Mediterra. I’ve seen the bar packed here before, but tonight it is not. We’ve added a third to our group; Ezra’s lovely girlfriend, Jill, who makes it easier for me to chat with passersby without looking like the worst friend in the world.
Speaking of passersby, at the Witherspoon Grill if someone is passing by the bar and you are standing at the bar you will likely have some sort of unintentionally intimate encounter. The space between the bar seating and the bar stools is narrow and directly in the servers’ way. The staff, by the by, handle the annoyance gracefully and, with the exception of an initial glance that begged, “is this a joke?” from the bartender when I asked for three of their cheapest beers, the entire Grill crew deserves an honorable mention.
I noted more than a few patrons who were called by name by the bartenders, and everyone seemed happy and relaxed. The bartender served me three Sam Adams Octoberfest — five bucks a piece was no bargain, but I consider $1.50 a fair mark up for ambiance and significantly higher-quality beer than we were served at the Tap Room.
Stats: We arrived at 9:47 and left around 10:15. Wait for a drink? Yes. A good five minutes. Cheapest: $5. Number on tap: 12. (Good stuff, too.) Music: Nondescript Jazz. Crowded? No and yes. It felt pretty cramped, but there weren’t that many people there. Demographic: Mid-30s through 60s.
Verdict: I think the small bar tables (the ones they try to seat you at during dinner, which you should roundly refuse) ought to be open for cocktail service. I wouldn’t come here to meet someone, but if a date brought me here for a drink (or one of their burgers, for that matter) I’d be pleased enough. Are you taking notes?
Witherspoon Grill, 57 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-6011. Happy hour Monday-Friday, 3-6 p.m; live jazz on Tuesdays, 6:30-10:30 p.m. witherspoon.jmgroupprinceton.com
Mediterra, 29 Hulfish Street, 609-252-9680. Taverna menu with wines and cocktails. www.terramomo.com
I’m expecting the Alchemist & Barrister to be packed. It’s not, but it’s lively enough with a number of dates, singles and, ahem, others at the bar. Enter a middle-aged gentleman with kind eyes and a battered baseball cap circa his college years. Let’s just call him “Jim.” He positions himself next to me as I wait at the bar for three of their cheapest. (Choice of Bud, Miller and Coors. The bartender cheers this request. Thank you!)
I smile at Jim and drift away to bring my cohorts their drinks. Within moments, I notice him closing in on two young ladies who bear expressions of vague amusement mingled with resignation. This is the kind of guy who is hard to shake. He’s nice, but pushy. He’s cute, but a little pathetic. One is simultaneously charmed and infuriated.
This brings me to a bit of dating advice: gentlemen, a high five is only appropriate if someone has just scored. Let me amend that. A high five is only appropriate if someone has just scored in a sporting event. In all other situations, please resist the urge. I don’t run into this technique often, but Jim was pretty keen on it. The waitress graciously opted out of the high five and was then offered a hug, which she also declined but received anyway. Sheesh.
I sit down with Jim’s two friends, one of whom seems to be entertained by his antics, the other clearly is not. I ask the guys what brought them to A&B. They had been at Triumph and were ending the night here. By now Jim has noticed that his friends have welcomed a guest at their table, so he plunks himself down next to me and grins. I ask him what he does for a living.
His first response: “I drive the Zamboni for the Flyers.” Too bad that’s a lie. It would’ve given him a chance. I call his slurred bluff. He eyes me. “Are you single?”
“Let me give you my card. You’ll never call.”
A division of PNC Bank. Just as I suspected — one doesn’t engage in heavy-handed dodging about work unless one has something to brag about.
“I run seven branches, blah, blah, blah.”
Classic. Eventually, we get around to what I’m doing sitting and talking to them. My policy of no lying dictates the revelation that I’m hopping around the bars and that I’m writing an article.
“What, for a ‘local’ paper?” (No, Jim, for the Chicago Tribune. Yes for a ‘local paper.’)
“Give me my card back.”
“I’m serious, give me my card back.”
“Sorry, buddy. I’m not going to print your name, but you gave me that card, and it’s mine now.”
“Listen, this is a career here. I could get fired if you print that I was acting like an obnoxious idiot at a bar.”
(I’d offer advice here, but I think it’s implied.)
I’ve spent far more than 20 minutes at this point, and I know enough to get out before Mr. Serious starts to get his panties really bunched. I grab my friends, pocket his card, and bid the gentlemen farewell. Oh, and, “Jim,” you’re welcome.
Stats: We arrived at 10:19 and left around 10:50. Okay, okay, I got distracted. Wait for a drink? No. Cheapest: $3.50. Beers on tap: 9. Music? Classic rock. (Thankyouverymuch.)
Verdict: Good music and a pretty mixed crowd made it easy to chat with strangers, obnoxious or not. This is the kind of bar I’d be happy to watch people for an entire evening. It was just full enough when we arrived but was getting crowded by the time we left.
Alchemist & Barrister, 28 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-5555. Live music Sundays, 9-11 p.m. and Thursday, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m; open mic night Wednesdays, 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. www.alchemistandbarrister.com
Triumph Brewery may be tricky. I’m determined not to drag my two chaperones into a $5-a-piece cover situation. I make big promises: “I’ll talk us past the bouncer.” Here’s how that went:
1.) I try to charm the bouncer.
2.) He accuses me of threatening him.
3.) I perform a rather complex soft-shoe routine to the delight of onlookers.
4.) He let us into the bar.
All the beer is the same price at Triumph. The bartender serves me three Honey Wheats, which are light, delicious, and $5 each. I head down to the lower bar section where I plant myself in the only open spot I can find. In these shoes I’m 6 feet tall, so I enjoy a decent view of the room as I wait for someone to approach me. I wait and I wait. (Oddly enough, this is not something I would do without the perceived armor of “reporting.”)
Finally, a brave soul boasting about 5 feet 8 inches comes over and asks if I’m waiting for someone. I spill my spiel as his friend joins him. These two are polite and lovely and are both former Naval officers. Naval officers, you say? Huzzah! They promise to see me at the Ivy as my 20-minute alarm goes off in the form of a text message from Ezra. I thank the bouncer profusely as we leave.
Stats: We arrived at 11:07 and left around 11:30. Wait for a beer? Surprisingly short. Cheapest: $5. Music: Cover band. (A drinker’s best friend.) Crowded: Yes, ma’am. Demographic: Mid-20s through mid-30s. Singles galore.
Verdict: Triumph chases out its regulars and becomes a pretty significant singles scene on a Friday. (Though, as a single, I think I might prefer the regulars. Hmmm.)
Triumph Brewing Co., 138 Nassau Street, 609-924-7855. Singer Songwriter Showcase, Thursdays, 9 p.m., live music, Friday-Saturday, 10:30 p.m., $5 cover. www.triumphbrewing.com
End of the Rainbow:
The Ivy Inn
The parade route north on Nassau Street from Triumph to the Ivy Inn is well attended. A group of over-dressed Tigers are stumbling along just in front of us. There’s a $3 cover when we arrive. Yes, I pay. I have a feeling I’ll be rewarded once inside.
Ding ding ding! One dollar pints of Miller High Life (yes, the champagne of beers) await us not as a drink special, but as a standard offering here at the Ivy. It does take a sweaty few minutes to get rid of my two dollars at the bar. I am thoroughly entertained, though, by the two bartenders expertly and, dare I say passionately, pouring shots for the waiting hoards. These guys are having fun, and it made the wait easy.
A D.J. blasts bad remixes to a thrilled crowd that I can’t help but notice is not only the most enthusiastic, but also the most ethnically diverse I’ve seen so far. Eight sharks stand quietly around the pool table just to the right of the entrance. Most of them aren’t even drinking, just shooting really good pool. We tuck ourselves into a corner with a view of the game and marvel at the energy of those who have been drinking as long as we have.
Stats: We arrived at 11:40 and took off at midnight. Wait for a beer? Yes, but it was worth it. Number on tap: 9. Cheapest: Holler at one dollar! (Yes, I did just say that.) Crowded? Oh my god, yes. Music: D.J. Dance floor? Yes! Demographic: Early/mid 20s for the dance floor, late 30s through early 50s for the pool table.
Verdict: If you are young, or just love to press yourself against sweaty strangers, or dig “Don’t Stop Believing” as much as I do, this is your bar. I didn’t talk to anyone, mostly because the music makes that impossible, but I was filled with a fuzzy feeling that has less to do with the number of beers I’d consumed and more to do with the fact that here in Princeton we have a true dive bar.
Ivy Inn, 248 Nassau Street, 609-921-8555. Occasional bands, karaoke Wednesday and Thursday nights.
We’re still upright. There’s one last thing we need to do before our ride pulls up. You guessed it: eggplant parm, cheese fries, saltpepperketchup. Thankfully, the gentlemen at Hoagie Haven are anything but judgmental. I wonder where they drink.
Hoagie Haven, 242 Nassau Street, 609-921-7723. Open until 1 a.m. weekdays and as late as 3 a.m. weekends.
Other Downtown Night Spots
Sotto 128, 128 1/2 Nassau Street, 609-921-7555. Happy hour, Monday-Friday, 4-7 p.m.; live music, Saturdays, 9 p.m.-midnight. www.sotto128.com.
This basement level restaurant is a popular food destination. But it also has a lively bar scene and — on Saturday nights— live music. Coming up Saturday, November 7, the Meg Hansen Group featuring Billy Hill.
Lahiere’s, 5-11 Witherspoon Street, 609-921-2798. www.lahieres.com
Known primarily as the longtime destination for fine dining in Princeton, Lahiere’s also has a separate barroom that hosts a lively crowd on Friday and Saturday nights, when a piano player often entertains. Don’t expect too many 20-somethings on the scene, but you can sometimes be surprised.
Conte’s Bar, 339 Witherspoon Street, 609-921-8041.
Many longtime residents think of Conte’s first as a pizza place — probably the only one in town that’s been reviewed by the New York Times. But it also has the longest bar in Princeton.
Elements, 163 Bayard Lane, 609-924-0078. www.elementsprinceton.com.
Elements — at the other end of Leigh Avenue from Conte’s — has the shortest bar in town, with room for no more than three or four people. But the last time we visited it had a bartender who knew his stuff and could serve a wide variety of vintage cocktails. For bars in downtown Princeton, this is the long and short of it. Cheers.