I confess that until the state of New Jersey enacted the ban on smoking in restaurants, I tended to avoid dining in the barroom of even my most favored spots. Since then, I have rediscovered its unique pleasures, at places both old and new. And, as I discovered when I asked a select group of friends and associates, everyone has his or her particular favorites when it comes to hopping up onto a stool and digging in.

When I ask Patrick Mooney, a longtime friend who is senior vice president at Mathematica Policy Research, to share some of his preferred spots, his initial response is promising. “My wife, Margaret, and I often dine at restaurant bars, and often in New York at places like Gramercy Tavern, Mesa Grill, and Bar Americain,” he says. “I also like it when I’m traveling on my own, since you’re never actually alone — at the minimum the bartender will talk with you and often other diners sitting at the bar will too. And if you connect with the bartender, it’s often a path to a free glass of something.”

Then Mooney adds ominously, “But wait — I don’t want you to write this article. For some time now it has been my secret path to dining at popular restaurants without a reservation.”

Main Street Bistro

Fortunately, my pal Patrick Mooney reveals his favorite bar spots. “The only local restaurant where I’ve regularly eaten at the bar is Main Street Bistro, but that was when Tony Crozier held court there. He was one of the best bartenders I’ve come across. The food there is medium, but he made it a fun experience. He would always make a point of introducing me to his regular customers. I believe he’s at the Stockton Inn now, but I haven’t tried it.”

Main Street, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, remains popular for its honest American and Mediterranean dishes, such as meat or vegetarian chili with cornbread and their version of ribollita, the Tuscan vegetable and white bean soup, the recipe which has been featured in Bon Appetit magazine and earned the restaurant the Bon Appetit accolade of “Best Neighborhood Restaurant.”

After Mooney gave such a glowing report on bartender Tony Crozier, I had to contact him. He is, indeed, reigning over the bar/tavern at the Stockton Inn. Crozier turned 53 in April and has been tending bar for 32 years. “I started out at the Royal Manor in North Brunswick and during the 1990s worked at the Frog and the Peach in New Brunswick,” says Crozier, who lives in Highland Park with his wife and four sons, ages 1, 3, 4, and 12. “I love it. It’s a show. When you step behind the bar, you’re on!”

Crozier emphasizes the importance of making customers feel at home. “In recent years, the inn’s previous owners had alienated the locals,” he says, but the current owners and Crozier are reversing that. “I have customers who are vegetable farmers, politicians, and business people. It’s a more relaxed atmosphere with lots of light back-and-forth, give-and-take, almost like a ‘Cheers’ atmosphere,” he says, using a reference I was to hear over and over while reporting this story.

In fact, the Cheers factor is what Crozier thinks draws people to dine at any bar in the first place. “They are recognized when they walk in. You remember what they drink. They’re comfortable. It’s like we’re an extension of their home.” Crozier asks me to pass on a message to Patrick Mooney. “Tell him that I have a Perfect Canadian Club Manhattan, up, waiting for him.”

Bill’s Olde Tavern

It was Mooney who a few years back put me onto an unexpectedly good bar dining experience at Bill’s Olde Tavern at Five Points in Mercerville. “At Bill’s when we sat at the bar I felt included in a club,” Mooney says. “Regulars started talking with us and we traded sports opinions, including a discussion of the likely merit of various horses in the upcoming Kentucky Derby.”

Until Mooney’s recommendation, I must have driven past Bill’s Olde Tavern 100 times without being tempted to stop in. With its rundown, barn-red planking and big white letters it looks like just another old-timey tavern. Well it is that, but in the very best sense. Bill’s has a full menu of American steakhouse favorites plus Italian-American classics that are surprisingly well prepared, that utilize fresh ingredients, sport moderate prices, and are delivered by some of the most canny servers I’ve encountered in recent times, including those at fancier, pricier establishments.

In fact, I must be among the last to have discovered these facts, because the first time my husband and I dropped in — on the spur of the moment one Saturday night — we were told there would be a two-hour wait for a table. Luckily, a spot at the bar was open so we sat down and had a delightful time under the watchful eye of Sean, the good-natured and efficient bartender. Everyone at the bar was having dinner, and all were regulars except us, but Sean made us feel welcome nonetheless.

Among the beer choices is one of my favorites, Newcastle Brown Ale. The wine list is appropriately modest but not dumb. I do have one strong recommendation about dining at Bill’s: go with the meat dishes. Pastas and seafood entrees are hit-or-miss, but everything else is really good. For a substantial entree try the Veal St. Charles, which is excellent on all counts: thin, tender scaloppini sauteed in brandy cream sauce helped along mightily by bits of prosciutto, tomato, cremini mushroom, and provolone.

On my first visit, I tried unsuccessfully to doctor up a bland dish of broiled scallops while everyone around us was savoring meat: an aging biker wolfed down a 10-ounce filet mignon with Bearnaise, his female companion praised the New York strip, and many diners agreed that Bill’s does a mean burger at lunch.

Bell’s Tavern

Another bona fide tavern was the choice of my buddy George Point, a freelance technical writer from Lawrenceville. “Bell’s Tavern in Lambertville is the closest place I know to the bar in the TV show ‘Cheers,’” he says, and I agree. “OK, maybe everybody doesn’t know my name there but the atmosphere is always welcoming and the buzz emanating from the mostly local crowd makes a nice backdrop for dining at the bar or at one of the few tables in the barroom.” Point usually opts for a pint of beer because, he says, “they’re fanatics when it comes to beer: the tap is custom-made in Ireland, and they keep their brews chilled to just the right temperature. The selection is nicely varied, well chosen, and small enough to guarantee that it’s always fresh.”

When it comes to food, Point says, “They do a nice basic burger at Bell’s, just the right size at eight ounces, moist and with a very decent fresh roll served with lettuce, tomato, raw onion, and fries for $6.95. If I’m feeling more ambitious, I go for their gamberetti: my choice of pasta topped with shrimp, wilted spinach, fresh tomatoes, pine nuts, oil, and garlic.” In fact, I myself have never been disappointed by a pasta dish at Bell’s. Note, though, that Bell’s does not accept credit cards.

Chambers Walk Cafe

Point and I also share a liking for Chambers Walk Cafe in Lawrenceville. “This may seem like a strange choice for dining at a bar, since it is a BYO,” he says, “but I like to sit at the curved, concrete-topped bar that faces the kitchen and watch the staff prepare my meal. It also makes it a great place to go for lunch when I’m dining alone. Another bonus is the chance to chat with chef David Ercolano, who always manages to make the time to share his observations about food and life in general.”

I am addicted to Chambers Walk’s soba noodle salad. Point says, “I always have a tough time not ordering the Carolina pulled pork with black coffee-barbecue sauce. Served on pane rustico with vinegar slaw, it defines ‘comfort food’ for me.” He occasionally manages to tear himself away in favor of the Moroccan spiced pork loin served over roasted chickpea puree with preserved lemon gremolata.

Toscano

Point was one of the first people to introduce me to the charms of Bordentown (which I featured in this space in last spring’s dining issue). So I was happy to return the favor by introducing him to one of its newer restaurants, Toscano Ristorante. “I felt right at home in the cozy bar the first time I walked in the front door,” he says. “The warm greeting I get from co-owner John Antonorro, the guy who keeps things running smoothly at the front of the house, is a nice bonus and one reason — in addition to the consistently good food — I keep going back.”

Point mentions another appeal of dining at the bar: people watching. “With only about a dozen or so bar stools, the bar at Toscano gets pretty packed as the evening progresses, but the crowd is invariably an interesting mix of ages, hairstyles, and dress codes, and the noise level is reasonable enough to make conversation possible. Because of the limited space at the bar, I usually build my dinner from a series of appetizers. I’m a big fan of chef Zak Melker’s Italian egg rolls stuffed with sausage, broccoli rabe, and provolone. I usually follow up with the fried calamari dusted with bacon and served in a sweet and sour sauce.”

I like how Toscano’s owners revamped a tired restaurant space when they opened a year ago, bringing it into the 21st century with graphite-gray walls; sleek, dim halogen lighting; and seating on two levels, including the sparkling bar. The short wine list includes reasonably priced choices that are well suited to the menu, including an Antinori Toscana for around $30. Espresso is excellent here; that and a dish of lush vanilla ice cream are fine ways to end a meal at the bar.

Settimo Cielo

As a restaurant reviewer, I never know where the next great recommendation is going to come from. One reliable source over the years has been my hairdresser, Robert Leone of E. Y. Staats in Princeton. Leone, who lives in the Mill Hill section of Trenton, was prompted to phone me one day because he was so excited about a restaurant that had just opened in his neighborhood. “Pat, Settimo Cielo is probably the best Northern Italian restaurant outside of New York City,” was his astonishing claim.

“I went in just to have a drink and to scope out the place,” he began. “O.K., I was really just being a nosy neighbor. I wound up staying for dinner and, since I was alone, I had dinner at the gorgeous mahogany art-deco bar.” Leone enjoyed the arugula salad and the farfalle pasta with “big chunks of clam,” but he also relished his talk with Henry Mendez, a co-owner who serves as Settimo Cielo’s gracious general manager and maitre d’. He learned that Mendez and co-owner Franco Rivas, the chef, are originally from Ecuador and had worked at a high-end Italian restaurant in Manhattan.

Naturally, I had to check out Leone’s hyperbolic claim. In fact, I was captivated by everything, from the tasteful renovation of the space to the genuine warmth of everyone on the staff and, of course, the food. Among my must-try dishes: beef carpaccio over a tangle of dressed arugula; any of the homemade pastas but especially a special of linguine with sweet sausage and radicchio, the sweet potato croquettes, and the ricotta pie made with small-curd ricotta.

Since that first visit, Leone and his wife, Georgia, have become regulars at Settimo Cielo and have introduced many of their Mill Hill neighbors to the place. Settimo Cielo, perfectly situated between Passage Theater and Patriot Theater in the War Memorial, is a natural choice for drinks and dinner before a performance, then an easy walk back to the restaurant for dessert and a nightcap.

“I’m a vodka drinker,” Leone says. “Their Belvedere on the rocks with lime is perfect. Georgia drinks cosmos. It is not uncommon for us to have a cocktail or two, then wine with dinner. Even if we’re going to sit at a table for dinner, we always make a point of ordering our meal while sitting at the bar. Then, when the first course comes out from the kitchen, we move over to our table.”

Settimo Cielo also has a very nice wine list. Try the well-priced Chianti by the glass.

Teresa Caffe

Enjoyable Italian food and wine have likewise been a hallmark of Palmer Square’s Teresa Caffe, the more casual and relaxed restaurant of the Terra Momo group, which also owns Mediterra. I consider their penne arabbiata to be a veritable “best buy” in Princeton at only $12. A friend of mine with an 11-year-old son says Teresa’s is a good choice if you have children — they’ll make a good individual size plain pizza, just right for a kid, right in front of your eyes in the brick oven behind the bar, and her son rates their Shirley Temple in the top five in town. Another added bonus is its proximity (as are all the bar/restaurants in the Palmer Square area) to Richardson Auditorium” The chicken and orzo salad is a must. And they’ll gladly split it in two portions at no charge.

Mediterra

As for Teresa Caffe’s sister restaurant, Mediterra, I am impressed with how it continues to evolve: upping the sophistication of its wine list and refining the quality of its imported ingredients while at the same time broadening its support of area farms. Especially enjoyable are the daily featured wines, usually four whites and four reds. On a recent visit these included Pira Luigi dolcetto and Renato Ratti nebbiolo. Which is not to say that the barkeeps — two engaging gentlemen of a certain age — weren’t kept busy doling out pitchers of homemade sangria, bottles of interesting beers (such as Estrella Galicia from Spain), Negronis, and precision martinis.

That evening, the back half of the barroom — stools and tables both — was reserved for a private party, which made seats at the bar even harder to come by than usual with the regular clientele, mostly business people of all ages.

Perhaps that is why I and my companion were the only ones who opted to dine at the bar. Although we could have chosen from the restaurant menu, we stayed with the bar menu, selecting from both ends of the restaurant’s strengths: the “terroir” burger made from organic, grass-fed beef from Simply Grazin’ farm in Montgomery and a charcuterie platter. For that, paper-thin slices of top-notch Italian salumi such as prosciutto, mortadella, and sopressata are given a run for their money by superb Spanish counterparts including dried chorizo and Serrano ham. By the way: Mediterra’s bar stools win my prize for most comfortable.

Triumph Brewing Co.

The zeitgeist at Triumph Brewing Company, on the other hand, includes high-energy ambiance, handcrafted brews — the wheat beer is rightly legendary — live music across an admirable range of genres, and slightly more ambitious fare. I can always count on the portobello mushroom sandwich on rosemary ciabatta or the lime-flavored Yucatan grilled chicken breast with avocado.

Witherspoon Grill

The bar at Witherspoon Grill is often two-deep by 5:30 on a weeknight. The sparkling cosmo, which is topped off with Champagne is a delight — and one is enough, both in terms of its $11 price tag and the alcohol content. Interesting beers are on tap here, especially ales, which include Ommegang’s 3 Philosophers, Smithwick’s, and Yard’s Philadelphia Pale Ale. To go with any of them, the Witherspoon burger is my personal favorite, with mushrooms being my preferred topping.

I expect a grill restaurant to offer a good burger, but good pasta is not a given, so Witherspoon Grill’s outstanding rigatoni Bolognese comes as a surprise. Given that the restaurant is an enterprise of Jack Morrison, who owns Blue Point Grill and Nassau Street Seafood, the seafood tower is, of course, another good bet.

Alchemist & Barrister

Hearty, uncomplicated fare and an authentic local pub atmosphere are the hallmarks of the Alchemist & Barrister. In the years when I worked in Princeton but lived in East Windsor, A & B’s Angus burger and a pint of Guinness meant dinner when I was too tired to go home and cook. I have a friend who says her favorite bar meal, hands down, is an Alchemist & Barrister cosmo and the grilled sirloin steak salad with roasted red peppers, grilled onions, shredded provolone, and garlic-herb dressing, topped with potato hay.

Clydz

Clydz in New Brunswick is well-known for its extraordinary martini list, although their bar menu does contain two items that are my idea of perfect bar food: pierogies with caramelized onions and a warm pastrami and Swiss wrap. Burgers come with excellent homemade potato chips. It’s a good place to go before a performance at the State Theater or George Street Playhouse, although it can get too crowded on weekends.

Clydz takes a firm stand on the shaken-versus-stirred martini conundrum. Its website states: “All martinis will be served shaken, to your desired dryness. Shaking creates a sharper taste.” One of my friends often makes a pre-theater meal of the pomegranate martini and the hummus plate.

Christopher’s

New to the New Brunswick bar and dining scene is Christopher’s Restaurant & Bar at the Heldrich, the sparkling new hotel and conference center located across from the State Theater on a triangular parcel between Livingston, George, and New streets. The State Theater has partnered with the Heldrich to offer a getaway package including theater tickets, dinner, and a stay (visit www.statetheatrenj.org/promotions).

The swanky barroom, completely separate from the restaurant, features a nice array of seating options: at the bar itself, on high stools at small round tables, or at larger, regulation-height dining tables and chairs. To see and be seen, the high stools, with their gleaming chrome bases and bright, striped upholstery, are ideal for preening. But be warned: with their diminutive round seats, they could make even a supermodel self-conscious. Christopher’s has an extensive, appealing bar menu, with the restaurant’s menu also at a diner’s disposal. In fact, the best dish we had came from the restaurant side: a salad of house-made duck confit, watercress, and Oldwick Shepherd cheese from New Jersey’s own Valley Shepherd Creamery.

Christopher’s was only three weeks old when we visited and was working out a few kinks. Servers still seemed to be learning the menu and drinks, although ours did well by us in recommending the bento box appetizer, a wonderful collection including excellent quality tuna tartare and a spring roll filled with scallop mousse. I was delighted to spot listed among the aperitifs a personal favorite: Pineau de Charentes. After a long search, the staff determined that they didn’t have any, although I suspect that may have been because it was spelled on the menu as “Pinot.” I was consoled with a glass of Matanzas Creek Chardonnay, while my companions enjoyed the Crosspoint Pinot Noir and a well-constructed mojito.

Europa

I had been meaning to visit Europa in Monroe since it replaced Domenico’s last fall, and this story gave me the perfect excuse to make it the last stop on my barhopping extravaganza. I had long been a fan of the Spanish-Mediterranean fare at La Terraza in Princeton (now Gennaro’s), where Europa’s owner, Jose Martin-Serrano, last presided.

The menu at Europa maintains some of my past favorites, such as piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese and meltingly tender grilled calamari, but what really made the experience noteworthy was the bartender, Michael.

A former NYPD detective, this gregarious fellow is a natural. He reigns over the bar on Wednesday and Friday nights, and we were lucky enough to visit on Friday, when the bar was hopping — and not with the white-haired locals from the surrounding adult communities as I had anticipated, but with 30 and 40-somethings from the area’s burgeoning housing developments. While I zeroed in on some of Martin-Serrano’s interesting wine choices from Spain, Michael and his crew were kept busy pumping out martinis that could have doubled as dessert, with names like tira misu and strawberry shortcake. Duck cacciatore is a standout dish here, as is chef Claudio Patella’s apple tart.

I admit that there are circumstances when dining at the bar of any restaurant is not ideal: when toddlers are in tow, for parties of more than three who want to converse easily, for romantic couples who only have eyes for each other, for example.

But nothing beats it when dining alone; for getting to know the local neighborhood bartender, restaurateur, or chef; for interacting with like-minded diners; or, on a purely practical level, for skirting a long wait for a table, dining without a reservation, or, oftentimes, just getting quicker service. Most of all, though, it’s a way to turn dining out into a most enjoyable, convivial experience. Call it the “Cheers” effect, with good food thrown into the bargain.

Bars with Great Food

Following is the contact information for the restaurants on Pat Tanner’s tour of barroom dining that begins on page 16:

Alchemist & Barrister, 28 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. 609-924-5555; fax: 609-921-2634. www.alchemistandbarrister.com

Bell’s Union Street Restaurant and Bar, 183 North Union Street, Lambertville. 609-397-2226. www.bellstavern.com

Bill’s Olde Tavern, 2694 Nottingham Way, Mercerville. 609-586-0192; fax: 609-586-3812.

Chambers Walk Cafe and Catering, 2667 Main Street, Lawrenceville. (BYOB, but still a cozy setting, says Pat Tanner.) 609-896-5995; fax: 609-896-0445. www.chamberswalk.com

Christopher’s at the Heldrich, 10 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. 732-729-4670; fax: 732-729-4672. www.theheldrich.com

Clydz, 55 Paterson Street, New Brunswick. 732-846-6521; fax: 732-846-8137. www.clydz.com

Europa, 146 Applegarth Road, Monroe. 609-490-9500. www.europanj.com

Settimo Cielo, 17 West Front Street, Trenton. 609-656-9077; fax: 609-656-9077.

Teresa Caffe, 19-23 Palmer Square East, Princeton. 609-921-1974; fax: 609-921-6706. www.terramomo.com

The Stockton Inn, 1 Main Street (Route 29), Stockton. 609-397-1250; fax: 609-397-8948.

Toscano’s, 136 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. 609-291-0291. www.toscano-ristorante.com

Triumph Brewing Company, 138 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-924-7855; fax: 609-924-7857. www.triumphbrewing.com

Witherspoon Grill, 57 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. 609-924-6011. www.jmgroupprinceton.com

Dining Sponsors

The following dining destinations are advertising sponsors of the U.S. 1 Spring Dining Issue:

Boardwalk Fresh Seafood Grill, 365 Georges Road, South Brunswick. 732-355-0990. www.boardwalkseafood.net

C.J. Garden Buffet, 319 Route 130 North, East Windsor. 609-448-8633.

Deliteful Foods, 4040 Quakerbridge Road, Lawrenceville. 609-586-7122; www.delitefulfood.com

Diamond’s Riverside, 1140 River Road, Trenton. 609-882-0303. www.diamondsrestaurant.com

Forsgate Country Club, 375 Forsgate Drive, Monroe Township. 732-521-0070. www.forsgatecc.com

Ganges, 33 Princeton Hightstown Road, Princeton Junction. 609-750-1550. www.gangesonline.com

Greenacres Country Club, 2170 Lawrence Road (Route 206), Lawrenceville. 609-896-0259.

Hopewell Valley Vineyards, 46 Yard Road, Pennington. 609-737-4465. www.hopewellvalleyvineyards.com

Hunan Chinese, 157 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. 609-921-6950.

Ichiban, 66 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. 609-683-8323; fax: 908-359-8551.

Lahiere’s Restaurant, 5-11 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. 609-921-2798; www.lahieres.com

Main Street Catering, 5 Crescent Avenue, Rocky Hill. 609-921-2777. www.mainstreetcatering.com

Malaga Spanish Restaurant, 511 Lalor Street off Route 29 south, Trenton. 609-396-8878; www.malagarestaurant.com

Marcello’s, 106 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. 609-298-8360.

Masti Indian Grill, 440 Route 130 South, East Windsor. 609-490-0100.

Mehek, 164 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-279-9191.

Ming’s Garden, 4437 Route 27, Kingston. 609-252-1688.

Salt Creek Grille, 1 Rockingham Row, Princeton Forrestal Village. 609-419-4200.

Shanghai Park, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton Shopping Center. 609-924-8001.

Spigola Vino & Cucino, 3817 Crosswicks-Hamilton Square Road, Hamilton. 609-585-5255; fax: 609-585-5355. www.spigola.net

Sumo Asian Cuisine, 12 South Main Street, Pennington. 609-737-8788. http:sumo12.com

Teriyaki Boy, 3535 Route 1, Princeton. 609-897-7979.

Teriyaki Boy, Princeton Forrestal Village. 609-897-7979.

Thai Japanese Dynasty, 4437 Route 27, Kingston. 609-924-2882.

Thai Village, Nassau and Olden Streets, Princeton. 609-683-3896.

Tom Yum Goong, 354 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-921-2003; www.tygthai.com

Zen Palate, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton Shopping Center. 609-279-9888. www.zenpalate.com

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