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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the September 17, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Out to Lunch: Carousel

It was an unvarying routine. Pete Carril and his Princeton.University

basketball staff would gather at one of the Carousel’s larger tables,

middle front, while a couple of local contractors squeezed into a

table for two just behind them, hard up against the window looking

out on Pine Street. In a leisurely breakfast-time routine, the men

would solve the day’s crossword puzzle together, not with a pen, but

by reading clues, and calling out answers.

There was probably some talk about basketball strategy, too, but the

crossword puzzle was the main thing. As the blanks were filled in,

ever so slowly, the two waitresses, who had little need to ask what

anyone wanted to order, poured themselves through the narrow openings

between tables, bringing pancakes, oatmeal, and eggs not only to the

guys, but also to moms and their stroller-bound toddlers, to a pair

of old school chums, easily 70-years old, one white, one black, and

to a suspiciously well-dressed couple who befriended one of the waitresses,

promising to take her out to dinner, and then disappeared without

a trace.

There were often customers waiting outside of the tiny restaurant,

especially on weekends. The group was largest at breakfast, but the

tables filled up quickly at lunch too, when blackboard specials often

included meatloaf — with generous helpings of mashed potatoes

and green beans — and the soup of the day sold out fast.

Now the Carousel’s green-and-white-striped awning flaps

over an empty space. Chairs have been stacked on tables one last time.

The restaurant has moved. It’s only a couple of blocks south, just

opposite Thomas Sweet, but can it possibly be the same?

Well, no, and yes.

The new Carousel space, next to T.D. Waterhouse in what was, briefly,

a record store, is off-putting. It’s huge, and tan, with industrial

carpet in diamonds that alternate between shades of purple and shades

of rose. Despite the fine-looking wooden carousel horse in one enormous

window, it still looks pretty much like a record store — with

too few tables, spaced too far apart, and looking tentative.

The new space could provide fodder for anthropologists. For while

the old restaurant, really quite close by, was peopled by locals,

its new incarnation has brought out office workers. One tends to think

of Nassau Street as a retail strip, but a look skyward reveals that

there are a number of offices just above street level. Apparently

their denizens have been eager for good, cheap food a few steps away,

because, after being open for only a few weeks, the Carousel was packed

at lunchtime one day last week.

It was a fine, blue Wednesday but at 12:30 p.m., a waitress —

there are still only two — said "You’re getting the last table!"

Every other table stayed filled for a good hour with secretaries,

realtors, a smartly-dressed duo in dark dresses, a lone businessman

in a pin-striped suit, people wearing nameplates, and two sockless

men in expensive sportswear, who might well have been venture capitalists

with a tech-oriented firm.

The Carousel serves breakfast all day, and a number of diners were

chowing down on omelettes, fried eggs, beef hash, and even pancakes.

Others were enjoying burgers, served on soft Kaiser rolls, and club

sandwiches, mounded with piles of potato chips. Salads and wraps are

on the menu, but weren’t much in evidence in the dining room.

Portions are uniformly enormous, and prices are low. A burger is under

$3, a plate of eggs, hash, and potatoes big enough to have a family

of four requesting a doggie bag is less than $5. A BLT is $3.95 and

an egg salad sandwich is 45 cents less than that.

Service, amazingly, is fast — and friendly too. Quite a feat in

a 20-table restaurant where the customers just keep coming. Newspaper

readers are left undisturbed for as long as they like. And the tables,

which really are too far apart, aesthetically speaking, are a boon

to those who don’t want to be overheard. This is not a good place

for eavesdropping.

Would Pete Carril and his crew be happy here? Quite possibly so. Nostalgia

aside, all the basics are in place. There is comfort, a total lack

of pretense, fast service, and good, definitely untrendy food.

Meanwhile it is hard not to feel sad when passing the old Carousel.

Its windows, once frosted with the breath of a dozen familiar conversations,

are now covered over with newspaper.

— Kathleen McGinn Spring

The Carousel, 182 Nassau Street, 609-497-0033. Sunday

through Thursday from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday from

6:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. All credit cards are accepted.

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