The newest occupant of the Lawrenceville Inn, initially converted from a Victorian home to restaurant six years ago by Elizabeth and Jonathan Hunt, is veteran chef and pioneering New Jersey restaurateur Dennis Foy. It was back in the ’70s at his groundbreaking restaurant, the Tarragon Tree, in the tiny hamlet of Meyersville in Morris County, that I and many other foodies had an epiphany. It was there, courtesy of Foy and his brother, John, that we first realized world-class cuisine could be had without crossing the river into Manhattan.
What no one foresaw was the long-term impact the Tarragon Tree (which eventually moved to Chatham) would have on haute cuisine in the Garden State. In a phone interview days before the re-opening of the Lawrenceville Inn in late October, Dennis Foy acknowledged as much. “I never thought about how important that kitchen was, the influence it would have,” he says.
To follow just one thread: among those who trained at the Tarragon Tree was Craig Shelton, whose Ryland Inn in Whitehouse (may it rest in peace) went on to garner a rating of “extraordinary” from the New York Times. Shelton is still the only New Jersey chef to be named best in the Mid-Atlantic region by the James Beard Foundation. Among the many young chefs who Shelton trained, in turn, is Scott Anderson of Elements in Princeton. This yearling restaurant is considered by many — including this restaurant reviewer — among the most exciting and accomplished in the state these days.
“When the Ryland Inn closed, an era ended,” says Foy. “That style of food and dining is over. It represented the second generation. We’re now onto the third.” He may have something there: Shelton recently accepted the post of consulting chef at, of all places, the Skylark Diner on Route 1 in Edison. As for Foy himself, who went on to establish other restaurants including New York’s acclaimed Mondrian, taking over the Lawrenceville Inn is akin to coming back to his roots. “Last year I had open-heart surgery,” says the 50-something Foy, “and that makes you sit back, take stock, and decide what it is you want to do. Over the years my style of cooking has undergone a metamorphosis. It’s more focused and simplified, and I now look at it from the perspective of healthy eating.
“I came to the realization that I wanted to find a location reminiscent of the Tarragon Tree. That is, not in a city — certainly not New York City! — not a big property, a peaceful location. Over the last 25 years the restaurant business became corporate. Restaurateurs these days want a 150-seat restaurant, but I think anything over 75 becomes impersonal.” Plus, he adds, the restaurant business forgot the importance of artisanal products.
All of which made him look to what he calls western Jersey for his next venture. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when he called his old friend Elizabeth Hunt. Hunt’s parents were for many years the proprietors of the Meyersville Inn, so the two families go way back. In fact, Elizabeth and Jonathan Hunt had hired Foy as a consultant before opening the original Lawrenceville Inn. “I told Betsy what it was I was looking for and she told me to come take a look,” he says. “It was so weird the way it happened. Everything I wanted turns out to be here!” Not least of which, he notes, are the nearby organic farms.
Of course, the restaurant industry has caught up with the benefits and rewards of featuring the local, seasonal, and artisanal. And whether it’s possible to return to one’s roots is always debatable. Foy himself acknowledges this. “It’s an enormous risk on my part,” he says. “For one thing, there has been a recent track record at this place. For another, what are the right price points?” he asks, in reference to the current economic climate.
His tack, at least upon opening the BYOB, is to keep entrees on his Mediterranean-influenced menu under $25. Whole roasted Griggstown chicken for two is $19 per person, for example, while single entrees such as wild-caught salmon with cauliflower and winter squash purees and cassoulet with lamb are $24. Assisting Foy as operations manager is his wife, Estella Quinones-Foy. In the kitchen are sous chef Michael Metzner, formerly of Restaurant Nicholas in Middletown, and Priscilla Rojas, who worked with Michael White at the highly regarded but shuttered Fiamma in New York. She is in charge of desserts and house-made pastas.
Foy has ditched the restaurant’s former shabby chic decor, replacing vintage tables and chairs with sleek modern ones, and has recreated what has become his signature look: stark white walls decorated only with his own accomplished landscape paintings. He and his wife are currently living in Point Pleasant while subletting their New York apartment and looking for a pied-a-terre in the Princeton area. He is in negotiations with the Hunts for purchasing the Lawrenceville Inn property. Long term, Foy says, “If all goes well, I’d like to become a gentleman farmer, with a studio for painting. At this point I find simplicity admirable.”
Lawrenceville Inn, 2691 Main Street (Route 206), Lawrenceville, 609-219-1900. www.lawrencevilleinn.com.