When I heard the news that Lahiere’s, the iconic Princeton restaurant, was closing its doors after 90 years, I was surprised by the depth of my feelings for the place. After all, unlike generations of area Princetonians, I never became a regular. Not like, for example, Jim Weaver and Kim Clearwater, a married couple who first met at the bar there and who say they never failed to encounter friends there whenever they stopped in. And since no one in my family ever attended Princeton University, mine is not among the many for whom parental visits to town mandated meals there, becoming fodder for generations of family lore.
No, what took me aback was how I could measure the arc and stages of four decades of my adult life in terms of my relationship with this restaurant, from the first time I dined there as a newlywed in 1974 to the last, in my capacity as food writer and restaurant critic. That arc also reflects, in a tiny way, the trajectory of the restaurant.
In 1974 my best friend chose Lahiere’s for her wedding luncheon. I was charmed by how authentically European the place seemed — and consequently how sophisticated it made us 20-somethings feel. That experience was pretty near impossible to find in central Jersey back then. I recall marveling at the crusty French bread and luxurious European butter and may have even dined on Dover sole with green beans amandine. And to drink with that? The de rigueur choice among us nascent (and pretentious) wine cognoscenti of the day: pouilly-fuisse. Which we probably mispronounced.
Fast forward about a decade, and my husband and I decide we want to fete his parents on their anniversary. Knowing they would never spend the money for such a meal, we, newly flush, would treat them to the dinner of their lives. Only one problem: they were tee-totaling Irish-Americans who enjoyed overcooked beef and boiled potatoes. (The first time I cooked for my father-in-law he asked me to identify the funny green stuff on the food. It was parsley.)
At Lahiere’s, my father-in-law was relieved to find his beloved calves liver on the menu. I still recall the horror on his face when his knife revealed not the monotone gray interior he had expected, but a decidedly pink one that the chef, quite correctly, had produced. The dinner was a disaster, not because of any lapse on the restaurant’s part, but because of two over-eager young adults longing to have the previous generation’s imprimatur of approval on their lifestyle. Lesson learned.
By the 1990s, the nation’s restaurant scene — including that of central Jersey — had been transformed by new-wave American cooking. Lahiere’s, like many other temples of French haute cuisine, had to decide whether to stay the course or modernize. It’s always a tricky proposition for venerated, emblematic restaurants to change direction. I remember reading about an uproar that ensued — I think it may have been in the 1950s — when the Christen family, who founded and eventually ran the restaurant for three generations, replaced the cafe curtains on the windows. If I recall correctly, they went from toile to lace (or vice versa). The paper reported the comments of the disgruntled townspeople who weighed in, most calling the change was a lamentable folly.
Nevertheless, decades later, diners found Lahiere’s attempting to bridge the gap between old and new. By this time I had become a professional restaurant critic and blithely decided to weigh in. If memory serves, the high spots of my 1999 review dinner were being cordially greeted by Joe Christen (who, to this day, doesn’t know me) and my delight at being seated near the table that was Albert Einstein’s regular spot, over which hung a black and white photo of the man himself. The food, in summary, was lackluster and expensive. The dining room looked worn. I regretted having to set these impressions down in print.
I continued to dine there privately from time to time. In recent years the food improved, especially but inexplicably at lunch (which also had the benefit of being more cost effective). I never again thought the main dining room attractive, preferring instead to dine in the brick-walled barroom — especially at the corner banquette with a view of the bar.
For U.S. 1 in 2008 I wrote a story on eating at the bar, and I was delighted to find myself at Lahiere’s enjoying a meal of small plates that I cobbled together from the appetizers section of the menu. From my corner vantage point I was able to watch the goings on of a quintessentially Princeton gathering at the bar, for which every member of a classic cocktail-imbibing, multi-generational family appeared to be decked out in Brooks Brothers, from the matriarchal grandmother in tweed to her married son in bowtie and suspenders to his twin four-year-old boys in tiny blazers. This was Lahiere’s.
That dinner at the bar was, I am sorry to say, my last visit. But it is also why I think my relationship with this restaurant is probably representative of many. Once a restaurant loses its mojo, it’s hard to convince the dining public to come back. And in this economy, it’s probably impossible. (Philadelphia’s venerable Le Bec-Fin, for example, is scheduled to close in the spring.) I am truly sad to see Lahiere’s go, and hope this special place will have a second life, perhaps even as the iconic Princeton restaurant of the 21st century.