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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
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
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
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