When it comes to the expected lifespan of restaurants, it’s useful to think in terms of dog years: a ratio of seven to one. By that barometer, Princeton’s Alchemist & Barrister, which opened on January 1, 1974, has clocked in more than 280 and is still going strong.
Frank Armenante, the “barrister” behind the perennially popular bar-restaurant on Witherspoon Street, says that although the bar scene wasn’t big back then — the bar at Lahiere’s catered to older and wealthier patrons, the Hudibras (where Triumph is now) attracted the young crowd, and Rosso’s Cafe and the Ivy Inn were workingmen’s bars — “you have to remember that the market was much smaller, too. We got what I would call the comfortable crowd: the ones who didn’t want to get dressed up. They didn’t have to come in wearing suits, although we got those, too.”
Anyone in Princeton back then will recall that the bar scene fell far short of most college towns, in part because the real partying took place at the university eating clubs. But baby boomers were following good jobs into the area (this writer included), and were drawn to the A&B, which was the first place in town, for example, to offer Guinness on tap. Its back room had (and still has) the look and feel of an English pub. It served pub fare, offered live music, and, in its early days, chess boards on the bar ready for play.
“Back in the ’70s there weren’t many dining options in Princeton or the general area,” recalls Patrick Mooney of Hopewell, who recently retired as senior vice president and director of human resources at Mathematica and who was one of those baby boomers. “The A&B filled in the spot between Lahiere’s and the Grotto. It always had a good bar.” Mooney even recalls his favorite bit of quintessential Princeton graffiti in the men’s room during the early days: “Oscar Wilde, but Thornton Wilder.”
There was also a time when the A&B was the only place in greater Princeton that recognized St. Patrick’s Day. For 35 years now the A&B has hosted a “long beard” contest on that day, with proceeds going to various local charities. This year the beneficiary of the event is SAVE, the animal rescue center. The festivities, including the judging of the longest beard, will take place Tuesday, March 17.
Yet none of the above explains the A&B’s staying power. Armenante admits that over the last 40 years, “there’s been new competition every five years.” He cites as examples the Momo brothers, Carlo and Raoul, who are behind the Terra Momo stable of eateries, which include Mediterra, Teresa Caffe, and Eno Terra, and Jack Morrison, whose Blue Point Grill opened in 1999, followed by Witherspoon Grill in 2006. “But,” Armenante points out, “we were the ones who started outdoor eating in town, for one thing. I don’t care if people copy because Princeton was growing back then and it’s still growing.”
Asked how he accounts for the A&B’s longevity, Armenante begins with himself. “You know what a terrier’s like? You put a towel in its mouth, you try to take it out — well that’s me. You have to stay healthy, you have to exercise, you have to eat right in order to do this for 40 years. That’s where it starts. From there you have to have purpose, determination, and a plan of implementation for everything you want to accomplish. And I could never have done it without help, that’s for sure.”
Among those who helped is the “alchemist” behind the Alchemist & Barrister: Armenante’s cousin, Walter Krieg. “I was in my last year of law school when I began the process of buying this place,” Armenante begins. “I asked my brother Nick to come in with me. Nick said he’d think about it. Now, Nick’s a great guy and was a great bartender here for 10 years, but it would have taken him three years to make a decision. So I asked my cousin Walter. He had a Ph.D. in chemistry and was teaching at Rutgers. I asked him if he wanted to stay in teaching. He said no, but also said he couldn’t go into the restaurant business — he was too conservative.”
The two cousins had grown up together in the 1960s, streetwise kids from the same neighborhood in Newark’s Ironbound section where their extended families lived just blocks apart. “Walter said that in any case he didn’t have the money. I told him not to worry about it, I’d loan him the money. I didn’t really have any myself, but, unlike other people, I didn’t mind asking for money.”
Armenante first went to his parents, who refused because they didn’t think a restaurant was a good investment. At the time, Armenante was not only finishing up at Rutgers University, he was living with his parents in their Hillside home, along with his first wife, Carol, and their son, Frank. (Their second son, Damian, was born three days after Armenante’s graduation from law school.)
“So I said, fine,” he recalls. “Instead, I bought a house and told my parents I needed money for a down payment and they said OK.” Armenante promptly went to his bank and asked for a business loan using the house as collateral. Cousin Walter would eventually become a partner with him.
Armenante was 31 when he finished law school. Before that, he had earned a master’s in finance from Seton Hall University and worked in public accounting. He became involved in the restaurant business through doing work for his brother-in-law, and eventually the two became partners in six or seven restaurants across New Jersey, including the Cream Ridge Golf Club and the erstwhile Far Hills Inn. “Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons sang at the Far Hills Inn, which was a big place,” he says with pride. “Five thousand people came. It was a fun life!”
The Alchemist & Barrister represented his first solo venture. When his then-wife came across a listing in the Wall Street Journal for a place in Princeton called the King’s Court, Armenante came down to take a look. “So I walk in there around 1:30 in the afternoon and by 2:30 I notice that they’re closing up,” he recalls. The hours back then were 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., then 4 to 9 p.m. (10 p.m. on Saturday).
“Well, one of the management courses I took during my schooling used a restaurant as a case study. I learned that one thing applies to any restaurant: it is, in essence, a plant. And a plant must be operating at 100 percent capacity.” Once the self-described alchemist & barrister took over, he says, “we stayed open until two in the morning, which is the max” allowed by town ordinance.
Armenante’s accounting background and experience helped in other ways, too. At 23 he was a CPA working for Becton Dickinson, the medical technology company headquartered in Franklin Lakes. “I set up several systems for them, and the budget systems I developed there I brought here and have improved upon over the years,” he says. Another key, he says, is that he understood the relationship between having a good bar and a restaurant. “I knew you made more money on a restaurant if you had a good bar. But you cannot make money on bars alone — that is a fallacy — you have to have a good restaurant as part of it. And you don’t want your percentage of food sales to be lower than 60 percent — maybe 55 percent at the extreme — because otherwise you become simply a ‘bar.’ Even though this place now has two bars, it will never be a ‘bar.’ It’s always going to be a restaurant with a great bar. Restaurant first, bar — a big bar — second.”
That is why both Frank Armenante and his daughter, Amanda, who is the A&B’s general manager, both point to the A&B’s longtime chef and co-owner, Arthur Kukoda, as instrumental. “He’s the rock, really,” says Amanda. “He’s more hands-on than anybody.”
Her father adds, “I don’t want him to know this — because you always have to have an edge on people — but the thing is, you can’t reach that 55, 60 percent food sales unless you have somebody who’s good. Plus, he watches the current food movements, he’s into new products, and he’s able to make changes.”
Another key factor is that Armenante, as soon as he closed on the restaurant 40 years ago, decided he wanted to own the building. It took him three years to work out a deal with the owner, whom he describes as “a tiny, great little lady.” He told her he wanted to fix up the place but “couldn’t see investing more money in a building I didn’t own.” He showed her the plans he had already drawn up. “She was asking $1 million! I told her she was out of her mind, but she wouldn’t budge,” he laughs. So he waited — he says it may have been for a couple of weeks or maybe six months.
“One day she calls me and says, ‘Frank, I’m willing to sell you the property because I know you’ll do a good job.’” The new asking price was $300,000. “I said no — $250,000! She says, ‘For you, Frank, I’ll do it, but I want $50,000 in cash,’” and the deal was struck. The A&B partners eventually bought the apartment above the restaurant, where Armenante now has a small office. (The main office of his legal firm, Malsbury & Armenante, is in Allentown.)
Over the years the A&B owners maximized the productivity of their small footprint, enclosing the outdoor patio alongside Chambers Walk so it could be used year-round. At one point they applied for a zoning variance that would have permitted dining on a second floor space, but were turned down.
Frank Armenante is proud that he never lost money on the A&B except for one year: 2007-2008, when the recession hit. Amanda Armenante, 31, who started at her father’s restaurant when she was 14 and has worked her way up from buser to host to server and now general manager, recalls how her father responded. “We had a lot of competition at the time. Witherspoon Grill had just opened, Lahiere’s was still there, as was the Ferry House. But things were going downhill for everybody. We were struggling, and my dad hadn’t really been around here because he doesn’t micromanage. He had to come in and put his accounting and budget experience to work to get the restaurant back on track and that’s what saved us.”
Armenante explains that the biggest line item for any business, including restaurants, is labor. “So I came in and gave an ultimatum. ‘You’ve got two choices: we either cut salaries by 20 percent or I lay off 15 people.’” The staff elected to take the layoffs. “But I had to go further,” he explains. “The problem was paying the busboys. So we don’t have busboys anymore. That’s unique in the industry and that’s what saved the company — that and watching the food costs.” (Now the servers clear the tables.)
The Armenantes give all credit to Arthur Kukoda, who has been with them for 26 years, for being able to make adjustments, getting food costs under control, and adapting the menu to the changing times. “He quickly realized that people weren’t going to come in for $45 filets anymore,” Amanda says.
Last year the Alchemist & Barrister underwent a major renovation that dramatically changed the layout and character of the front dining areas. In contrast to the cozy, brick-walled pub in the rear, these had, throughout the first several decades, sported formal Colonial American decor, with floral wallpaper, Wedgewood blue walls, and brass chandeliers. In the early 2000s the space was redecorated in contemporary American bistro style. This time around, the interior walls were gutted — some all the way back to the building’s original red brick — and new, larger windows and sets of French doors were installed on the side that faces the Chambers Walk alleyway.
Dominating the center of the room is a large, new, four-sided bar with 52 taps, many of them spouting craft beers and microbrews. The basement directly below was excavated in order to install the lines directly from the barrels. The pub in the rear currently has eight taps, and there are plans to increase the combined total to 75. All are overseen by Jason Wilkins, the A&B’s young bar guru. “It has breathed new life into the place,” says Arthur Kukoda. “We get a vibrant, diverse crowd, including 20-somethings.”
There’s still live music many nights, and an open mic night. Kukoda recently introduced a seven-item bar menu that offers casual small plates for $5 (Monday through Friday, 4 to 7 p.m.). Some draw upon Kukoda’s mixed heritage, including smoked kielbasa sliders for his Hungarian/Czech side and chorizo empanadas for his Colombian and Puerto Rican ancestors.
Another key to the A&B’s stature as a Princeton institution is its appeal to a wide range of diners. “We are very careful about keeping the pub the way our regulars have always loved it, even while expanding,” Amanda says. “This doesn’t always happen successfully. We kept what people are really comfortable with, while bringing in new things.”
Frank Armenante likes to tell a story about the breadth of its customer base back from the years when his brother Nick worked there. “Nick was a sharp bartender, has a tremendous mind, and is comfortable with anybody. I used to see him talking with this really cool guy in the corner, a very distinguished looking gentleman who, over a period of three months, would come in for lunch every day. Finally I asked, ‘Nick, who the heck is this guy?’ He says, that’s David Rockefeller!’
“We do have some interesting stories. We’ve had marriages here, we’ve had divorces here, we’ve had fights here — and that’s not counting the battles we’ve had among ourselves,” he says. He tells of the time Brooke Shields got up to leave and accidentally knocked over her table. “Not one person looked up! Not one! She and her party just quietly walked out.”
Walter Matthau dined at the A&B every day during the filming of the movie “IQ” around 1993. Amanda Armenante was only a child back then, but she knew who Matthau was because she had watched him as Mr. Wilson in the movie version of “Dennis the Menace.” “I saw him sitting at a table in the back and told my dad I wanted to meet him,” she remembers. “But as we were walking up I started crying hysterically because I was afraid he was going to be mean like he was in the movie.” Matthau, of course, turned out to be, she says, “the nicest guy.”
The A&B has had several other partners, including brothers Tom and Jake Schmierer. It also survived the departure of its namesake alchemist, Walter Krieg. “I was always changing things, to make the place work better, but Walter had a different philosophy. He wasn’t really hands on, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says his cousin Frank. “But at one point, he didn’t want to go along with the changes and said he wanted to sell the whole thing. I told him I wasn’t selling, but would be willing to buy him out. We had a little bout about it over several years.”
The two men reached an agreement in 2010, with Armenante indeed buying out his cousin. (Krieg, who started his own IT and Internet company in 1995 and later became chief information officer of a large engineering firm, declined to reminisce about his “alchemist” days.)
These days Armenante lives in Seaside Park, where he owns two homes. “My parents lived down there when I was 10,” he says. His father was the president of Amalgamated Transit Union, having worked his way up from bus driver. His mother worked for 30 years for Liberty Mutual Life Insurance in East Orange, where she supervised a team of 40. Armenante has four children — two girls and two boys. Son Frank has an M.S. from Stevens Institute of Technology and works as district business manager for Novo Nordisk. Damian attended Mercer County College and is, Armenante says, “the artist in the family.” Daughter Alexis, who has a master’s in electronic publishing, bartends at the A&B occasionally, although her freelance work and two children keep her occupied elsewhere.
Amanda Armenante is the only one in the business. Her B.A., from Drexel University, is in English. “I always encouraged my kids to study English and history,” her father says proudly. He had hoped Amanda would follow him into corporate law, but instead she is just short of earning a master’s in public communication. “Amanda has the personality for this business,” her father says. “Potentially, she doesn’t have to buy a restaurant, but she says she wants a restaurant of her own.”
For her part, Amanda allows that “this place is my favorite and I would be devastated if my father ever decided to sell. I grew up here, truly. I would love to take over, but I also want to do more than that. I’m like my dad in that I have a lot of energy and I enjoy having my hands in a bunch of things at once.”
For now, Frank Armenante has no plans to slow down. “Retirement? I don’t know the meaning of the word! Why retire if you’re having fun?” he asks. “I’m exercising, I run, I do weight lifting and martial arts. I feel better than I did at 40.”
Plus, he says, “There are another couple of changes that still need to be made.” He has his eye on buying the currently vacant building next to House of Cupcakes on Witherspoon Street. “We may take that over. What I want to do is move the kitchen over there.” The kitchen is currently located in the middle of the A&B, between the pub and dining room. “But,” he says, “that’s down the line.”
Alchemist & Barrister, 28 Witherspoon Street, Princeton 08540; 609-924-5555. www.theaandb.com.