For those thinking the only way to have a special night of dinner and jazz is to hop on the A Train and head to the big city, take five. Because anyone looking for a dish with a hot side of swing can easily get it right here in the U.S. 1 reading area.
One just needs to direct one’s feet to those regional restaurants catering to cooking and all that jazz.
First stop — Hopewell.
It’s Thursday night and the Hopewell Valley Bistro and Inn is jumpin’ with its weekly Jazz on Broad. The series features solid musicians from the region and as far away as New York City.
But let’s start with the food first. Operated by members of the Molnar family for 40 years, the bistro mixes American and European cooking with a specialty in Hungarian dishes. That includes Chicken Paprikas ($16.95), Stuffed Cabbage ($15.95), Beef Goulash ($17.95), and Weiner Schnitzel ($17.95).
While the bistro has had jazz in the past, this weekly series just celebrated its first year playing in the Bistro Room — a large modern-styled room accented by a starry chandelier.
On the Thursday night we visit highlighters include trumpeter Danny Tobias and pianist Steve Kramer. Thirty-some people are seated at table near the performing area — marked by a piano, amps, and a “Jazz on Broad” banner. Most tables have groups of three or more. A few are solo.
The room’s liveliness is a noticeable contrast to the vintage European-styled decor of the adjacent dining room — with faux cross-beams and stucco — and the silent street seen out the windows behind the band. And the wait staff’s moving in and out of plates and glasses seems aptly choreographed.
The music series is coordinated by Phil Orr, a classically trained jazz pianist. He is also a Hopewell resident, Rider University faculty member, and minister of music at Hopewell’s Calvary Baptist, about a block down from the bistro.
Orr’s story about manning the series reflects a jazz musician’s plight: no place to call home to perform regularly, experiment, and build one’s artistry.
Since he lived close, he talked to the bistro owner. And after some cajoling and getting a piano, jazz came again to Broad Street.
The arrangement is easy. Make a $15 donation for the music ($5 for those 18 and under) and then just order from the regular menu. There’s no minimum.
And while the Bistro Room has table cloths and suggests formality, casual wear works fine. Yet some attendees notch it, including guys in ties.
And if jazz doesn’t fill the menu, the bistro also has Irish music on two Sundays a month.
Hopewell Valley Bistro and Inn, 15 East Broad Street, Hopewell. Parking behind the building and on the street. Jazz on Thursdays, 6 to 9 p.m. 609-466-9889 or www.hopewellbistro.com.
Next stop is Trenton and the Candlelight Lounge.
Known as “one of the last old jazz joints” in New Jersey by both jazz players and aficionados, the Candlelight swings a local and national reputation.
It differs from the other venues because it is primarily a bar with music, hosts afternoon presentations, and serves buffet-style soul food with protocol (more later).
Music-wise it is a jazz gem and brings musicians from New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and even Europe. Just check out some of the musicians who play there regularly: Orrin Evans, Julian Pressley, Darryl Yokley, Duane Eubanks, and Monnette Sudler.
The audience also comes from wide and far: the shore, Bucks County, Princeton, Trenton, Philadelphia, and so on.
“You wouldn’t believe the people who come,” says owner and manager E.C. Bradley. “A lot of different cultures are coming here because of the jazz and the music. That keeps us alive. But it’s very interesting. We meet people from other countries.”
Last year Oxford American, a Mississippi-based online publication, assessed the Candlelight attendees as “educated professionals, middle-aged or older — knowledgeable listeners with discretionary income. Listed occupations included a lawyer, artist, corrections officer, and a data analyst.”
The decision to have an afternoon series is a good fit: People like driving into the city during the day, and guest musicians enjoy playing a more open and free-form show before they go to a more standard job later that night — in more expensive venues.
“This keeps people from having to go to New York or Philadelphia. It is very costly to go to New York. You got the turnpike fares, gas, tunnel, and parking,” says Candlelight jazz coordinator Larry Hilton.
After paying your $10 cover charge to help support the musicians, step through the front doors into the long rectangular room and adjust your eyes. Soon you’ll notice several tables to your left, then a large oval bar with barstools filling most of the room, and a few tables in front of the raised performing area with a Candlelight banner.
The decor is 1970s and ’80s tavern with bare counters and tables. Low illumination, a TV, and promotional bar lights contribute to the venue’s twilight-like mood. Patron dress ranges from very casual to hints of formal to ’40s vintage.
Along with the cover charge, there is $10 bar minimum. But there is no charge for the soul food buffet prepared by co-partner, wife, and bartender Valarie Bradley.
But there is that protocol: Musicians go first and then the audience (no exceptions!).
It is all part of the devotion to the art, something Bradley calls, “My personal passion.”
There are several choices for parking: in the Candlelight lot right next to the building (but it can get congested), on the street with the car repair center and the barber shops (an urban experience), and in the state parking lot across the street (an easy choice and an easy walk to the lounge).
Jazz at the Candlelight Lounge, 24 Passaic Street, Trenton. Saturdays, 3:30 to 7:30 p.m., $10 cover, $10 drink minimum, and free buffet. Tuesday night jazz and Thursday blues sessions, 6 to 10 p.m., $5. For a full schedule: www.jazztrenton.com.
Now head to Hamilton and Diamonds.
Frank Sinatra crooning “Nice and Easy” through ceiling speakers seems the apt anthem for this latest incarnation of the noted Trenton-born restaurant that took its menu on the road and was last seen in Pennington.
The main ingredients here are brothers Anthony and Tommy Zucchetti’s brand and two of the restaurant’s original chefs.
The food fare highlights the restaurant’s glory days on Kent Street in Chambersburg. But now the venue is a banquet hall-turned-restaurant with bar.
The space is nice — mixing banquet hall frills with and Old World flourishes — and the mood is easy. That comes mainly from the low-glow ceiling lights, shaded counter lamps, flickering bar and table candles, recessed neon, and chandeliers.
The sound of Sinatra is way more than just chance. In fact, he and the Rat Pack are very much evoked here in the pre-show background music and on the bar’s video monitors showing reruns of the Dean Martin Show. Another one shows scenes of Italy.
On a recent Friday night, just before 6 p.m., business is brisk, the tall glasses brimmed, and the plump plates full. The long row of 30-plus bar stools is just about filled. And the eight bar tables are claimed.
A slow migration of diners is passing through the host station to the reserved seating section of 30 or so tables — separated from the bar area by an effective and generally unobtrusive divider. It’s a racially mixed crowd, though older white clientele heavily tips the scale.
Vocalist Jessica DiDonato is tonight’s featured performer. She has the 6 to 10 p.m. slot. A DJ is on tap from there.
A product of the region and a Titusville resident, DiDonato has built her chops by singing at theme parks, cruise ships, and private events. Her training started regionally with Byron and Tina Steele, founders of the Trenton Civic Opera Company and Artists Showcase in Trenton.
Stationed tonight on the far wall at a microphone stand, she looks like a radio songstress and is delivering the goods with an accomplished, firm yet fluid, jazz-infused sound.
Accompanied by prerecorded backup, her songbook ranges from soft pop favorites, Stevie Wonder to post-war jazz — including a restrained but playfully expressive “Route 66.”
And while bar patrons generally chat as she sings, several sing along. More will be in the mood for song after taking up DiDonato’s invitation to make requests.
There’s no extra fee for music (she is paid by the restaurant) and no minimum. There’s a happy hour every night except Saturday that goes to 7 p.m. and includes $5 appetizers (Philly Cheesesteak Crepes), $6 house wines, and $6 and $7 martinis and other select cocktails. Draft beers range from $5 to $7.
The later dinner menu ranges from soups ($5 to $8), appetizers ($8 for Meatballs Bolognaise and $24 Lobster St. Jacques), salads ($6 to $10), and main course (from small or large orders of chicken and veal dishes at $18/$26, Porterhouse Steak at $59, or pasta dishes at $16).
Diamond’s of Hamilton, 661 Highway 33 in Hamilton, behind Buy-Rite Liquors and part of the Cedar Gardens Banquet center. A lot with ample parking is there for the taking. DiDinoto appears every other Friday and other performers (not always jazz) appear on other Fridays and Saturdays. 609-981-7900 or www.diamondsofhamilton.com.
Here we are in Princeton and the Witherspoon Grill.
Jazz is the special sauce at the Witherspoon Grill on Tuesday nights.
With free live music starting at 6:30 p.m., the up-tempo sounds blend with the afterglow of the 6 p.m. close of happy hour — when snacks and beer are $5, wines $6 to $7, and cocktail specials are $7.
The place is pretty packed, but after a while it becomes slowly evident that an early crew leaves between 7 and 7:30 p.m. and the regulars, diehards, and latecomers are the norm though 10:30 p.m.
The Witherspoon Grill is pretty much in the heart of town on Hinds Plaza, next to the Princeton Public Library. It’s owned by Jack Morrison, who also owns and operates Blue Point Grill and Nassau Street Seafood, both on Nassau Street. (And he will soon add a new restaurant in the space adjacent to Witherspoon Grill.)
The space is a combination of dark wood and window walls. Patrons dine in booths, at tables, and or the wall-length bar. In nice weather, outdoor seating is available.
One of the space’s winning elements is the opportunity to gaze out the window-walls to watch the light change, the day fade, and street life going about its business.
On a recent Tuesday the Brothers Grimm Trio played in the far corner, diagonal from the entrance. With backs to the windows, they began their first set to a nearly full and chatty house of approximately 150 (according to a staff member). A quick demographic would read 40 plus, mainly white, and professional.
And while the trio’s name and website go for the tall-tales, the guitarist, drummer, and bassist are serious about providing a blend of blues and jazzed-infused standards. Keeping the mood buoyant — or as they call their approach “Supercharged” — the faux bros provide such tunes as “All of Me,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “I Could Write a Book.”
And if the lively chatter and the in-unison swaying between the bartender and waiter at the bar are any gauges, the Grimms score.
When asked about specials on the jazz night menus, a staffer smiles and says, “Just extra sound.” That leaves two options: select from the raw bar or the regular dinner menus.
The former features oysters from New England and Canada, $3.75 per; an oyster sampler, $15; raw clams, $6 or $12; shrimp cocktail, $16; mussels cooked with wine, butter, and garlic, $4; and Seafood Towers made with lobster, snow crabs, mussels, and more, $65 to $125.
The latter has starters ranging from Artichoke Hearts Francaise, $10, to Steak Tartare, $18; soups and salad from Baked Five Onion Soup, $10, to Winter Citrus Salad, $14; sides, $8, onion rings or fries; steaks and chops, from Sirloin Steak, $28, to Prime Porterhouse for two, $119; and entrees, from Lobster Mac & Cheese, $19, to Boneless Braised Short Rib, $29.
Stand next to the bar, and it is easy to figure out that vodka martinis are the jazz night favorites. Price varies depending on the vodka, but there is something for every taste and budget.
The music tastes change, too, and while the Witherspoon online jazz schedule is still stuck in 2018, it reflects the general approach to music. So expect strong regional performers reappearing every few weeks or so. That includes Keith Franklin, Darla Rich, and the Carol Lynne Trio.
There’s no cover and no minimum, so the only additional expense is parking at the meters, $1.50 an hour until 9 p.m., or in the Spring Street Garage behind the restaurant, $1.25 per hour.
Witherspoon Grill, 57 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Jazz on Tuesday nights, 6:30 p.m. 609-924-6011 or www.witherspoongrill.com.
And if the above isn’t enough here is another area option:
Freddie’s Tavern in Ewing has some occasional jazz along with its rock and pop offerings. An area staple since 1933, Freddie’s focuses on Italian fare but is ready to mix it up. For example, appetizers include mozzarella sticks ($7), fried calamari ($10), mussels fra diavolo ($12), and pierogi ($11). Main courses run from prime rib ($37 for king cut), stuffed flounder with crabmeat ($25), Maryland crab cakes ($22), and veal or chicken marsala ($23).
There are also different style bar pies ($9 to $21), and a wide choice of burgers ($12 to $14). The $6 house wine is a tip off that the bar is fully reasonable. The mood is casual. The turnout is a mixture of regulars and those there for the show.
And with a parking lot that surrounds the restaurant, parking is a breeze.
Freddie’s, 12 Railroad Avenue, Ewing. Menu and musical offerings can be found at www.freddiestavern1933.com.
And finally here are two quick suggestions for those willing to go a little further afield.
Head south and over the Delaware to Yardley, Pennsylvania, to the Vault, where the former bank turned brewery offers free jazz on Friday and Saturday nights. And while there is no online schedule of performers, the music has been flowing over the past several years. But the vault does post its homebrewed list of beers ranging in flavors (sweet potato ale!), alcohol content (4 to 7.5 percent), and prices ($4 to $7). Regionally produced wines are also available (with glasses $8 to $11). And pizzas and sandwiches take up most of the menu with nothing over $17. And remember, small town street parking and casual dress.
The Vault, 10 South Main Street, Yardley, Pennsylvania. www.vaultbrewing.com.
Or head north to the New Brunswick Jazz Project, featuring weekly events at area restaurant throughout the city. Developed by a trio of jazz lovers, the long-running project hosts everything from nationally known veterans to young local newcomers. The free music is served at several downtown restaurants, including Due Mari, 78 Albany Street; the Hyatt Regency, 2 Albany Street; Tavern on George, 361 George Street; and George Street Ale House, 378 George Street.
On-street and lot parking are part of the cost, but it is still worth checking out the project’s website for the numerous jazz in restaurant events happening all year. www.nbjp.org.
So north, south, east, and west, all around the town, a good number of area restaurants will help when one has a craving for jazz — without the headache of traveling too far.
After all, as Fats Waller put it, “So easy, when you know how.”