Corrections or additions?
These articles by Pat Tanner were prepared for the May 9, 2007 issue
of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Raising the Bar: Pull Up a Stool and Dig In
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
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."
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
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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;
Chambers Walk Cafe and Catering, 2667 Main Street, Lawrenceville.
(BYOB, but still a cozy setting, says Pat Tanner.) 609-896-5995; fax:
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:
Europa, 146 Applegarth Road, Monroe. 609-490-9500. www.europanj.com
Settimo Cielo, 17 West Front Street, Trenton. 609-656-9077; fax:
Teresa Caffe, 19-23 Palmer Square East, Princeton. 609-921-1974; fax:
The Stockton Inn, 1 Main Street (Route 29), Stockton. 609-397-1250;
Toscano’s, 136 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. 609-291-0291.
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.
The following dining destinations are advertising sponsors of the U.S.
1 Spring Dining Issue:
Boardwalk Fresh Seafood Grill, 365 Georges Road, South Brunswick.
C.J. Garden Buffet, 319 Route 130 North, East Windsor. 609-448-8633.
Deliteful Foods, 4040 Quakerbridge Road, Lawrenceville. 609-586-7122;
Diamond’s Riverside, 1140 River Road, Trenton. 609-882-0303.
Forsgate Country Club, 375 Forsgate Drive, Monroe Township.
Ganges, 33 Princeton Hightstown Road, Princeton Junction.
Greenacres Country Club, 2170 Lawrence Road (Route 206),
Hopewell Valley Vineyards, 46 Yard Road, Pennington. 609-737-4465.
Hunan Chinese, 157 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. 609-921-6950.
Ichiban, 66 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. 609-683-8323; fax:
Lahiere’s Restaurant, 5-11 Witherspoon Street, Princeton.
Main Street Catering, 5 Crescent Avenue, Rocky Hill. 609-921-2777.
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.
Shanghai Park, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton Shopping Center.
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.
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;
Zen Palate, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton Shopping Center.
Corrections or additions?
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