It’s no secret that for most of us the past 12-plus months have been like no other period in our lives. Weathering panic, anxiety, and in many cases tragedy, we have hunkered down, masked up, ordered online, and Zoomed with friends and family.
We have also developed a renewed appreciation for the everyday heroes on the front lines of the war on the global pandemic who have worked ceaselessly to keep us safe.
And lately (and thankfully) we’ve begun to roll up our sleeves for COVID-19 vaccine, and dare to feel a bit of optimism that there is finally a glimmer of light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.
Yes, spring is here, and summer is coming. And for many of us it’s finally time to once again enjoy life outdoors and return to a favorite dining spot.
The evidence of positive news is everywhere. Restrictions are easing somewhat. Retail establishments are beginning to open their doors. More folks can be seen out and about, whether strolling along the street or on the amazing variety of hiking and biking trails on the preserved acreage that we are fortunate to have at our doorsteps.
And (this being our Spring Dining issue after all) people are venturing out for a meal at their favorite restaurants, an industry that has been especially hard hit by the pandemic.
Many of us who’ve supported these struggling establishments throughout the fall and winter months by purchasing takeout meals are booking tables, both indoors and out, reacquainting ourselves with the simple pleasures of dining with family and friends in a convivial atmosphere. And leaving the washing up to others!
It’s in that spirit that we’re profiling the restaurants in this Wine, Dine, and Wander feature. So what do these five establishments have in common?
Very little, with respect to décor, cuisine, and price point. But a lot, when it comes to their ability to adapt their business model to the wildly volatile business environment of the past year, to concoct their own “secret sauce” on the fly that has helped carry them through.
They’ve also been chosen because their location offers an added incentive to those among us who are still reluctant to dine out; all are located a short walk or drive away from a swath of attractive parkland or stroll-able streetscape that affords a very pleasant outdoor activity before or after your meal. Bon appétit!
Note: Restaurant hours, capacities, and menus are still very much in flux. When booking a reservation, check with the restaurant for up-to-date information.
Blawenburg Bistro, Skillman
Who opens a restaurant during a pandemic?
Jennifer Cifelli and her husband, John, have had their sights on the historic building that once housed the fondly remembered Blawenburg Café since Jennifer spied the “For Sale By Owner” sign out front four years ago. The couple finally closed on the property in February last year. “We’ve had the idea of opening our own place for a long time,” she says. “This spot checked all the boxes for us.”
Jennifer is overseeing the renovation of the space and will run the restaurant. John is general manager of Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes.
Formally trained as an educator, Jennifer has also gained extensive experience in the food service industry along the way. “I’ve been working in all kinds of restaurants since I was 16, because I love food and the atmosphere of a restaurant on a busy night,” she says.
The Cifellis have two children, son Michael and daughter Easton. Jennifer happily reports that the she is also “building my third child.”
The space was still very much a construction site early this April, when I asked Jennifer about her vision for the look, feel, and vibe of the Blawenburg Bistro once all the pieces come together. “I want to honor the history of this building,” she says. There’s been a structure here since at least the early 1800s, probably longer. There are tree trunks holding up the corners of the foundation.
“We want to honor that Colonial vibe, but do a more modern take on it,” she continues. The captain’s chairs we sat on in the patio during our interview offered a concrete example: lower profile, cleaner silhouettes that paid tribute to their historic ancestors. In short, it is clearly 2021 but referencing 1821. Jennifer says the overall design and construction has been a collaboration between herself, John, and contractors Kevin LeBoeuf and Jack O’Donnell.
As one might expect, the menu is receiving as much attention as the renovation. “We’ll offer breakfast and lunch to start, and plan to offer dinner once things are rocking and rolling and running smoothly,” Jennifer says. “Patrons will order at the counter or in advance and have the option of takeout or dining in or dining outdoors on our bluestone patio.” Breakfast offerings will consist of coffee, homemade pastry, egg dishes, and more. Lunch will transition to salads, other prepared foods, and sandwiches freshly made to order.
The Bistro will also prepare food for the Unionville Winery, consisting of lunches and charcuterie for the tasting room for their weekend tastings. “We will in turn be offering Unionville wines here at the bistro,” Jennifer says.
Jennifer had nothing but good things to say about the support she has received from the municipality. “I’ve been truly floored by the level of support from everyone that I’ve spoken to from day one,” she adds. Everyone’s been so friendly, accommodating, helpful, and forthcoming with information.”
An official opening to the public is planned for Wednesday, April 28.
“I’m already getting inquiries from people stopping by and asking when we’re opening,” she says. “It’s amazing! I feel the energy, it’s exciting and motivating. I feel that this is the right place for us to be.”
Where to Wander . . .
Hobler Park — Just down the hill from the Blawenburg Bistro, Hobler Park offers flat walking trails, good views of the Princeton Ridge, Gallup Farm, and historic Blawenburg, and is home to a native butterfly garden and other natural attractions. njtrails.org/trail/hobler-park.
Skillman Park — Across Route 518 on Route 601, the 247-acre park features beautiful vistas, a 2.25 mile paved multi-use loop trail, chess tables, and a leash-free dog run. somersetcountyparks.org/parksFacilities/skillman/Skillman.html.
BORO Market Restaurant & Bar, Pennington
Big changes have come to the L-shaped space in the small shopping strip on Delaware Avenue that was once occupied by the fondly remembered Za restaurant and more recently by Cugino’s Italian Market.
Ben and Katie Sanford, the owners of Cugino’s (and also owners of Cafe 72 in Ewing) have obtained a liquor license, added a stunning dining space and bar to the market, and re-opened as BORO Market Restaurant & Bar
BORO officially opened its doors on December 8, 2020, in the thick of the pandemic. The interior has been totally transformed. “We call it Parisian modern as far as the design and the vibe,” Ben Sanford says, taking some Old World, rustic elements and combining them with trendier, hip, New Age ambiance, that’s expressed not only in the design but in the food and cocktail menus and the wine list.
“I categorize the menu as new American, offerings you’re not going to see everywhere, food that’s simply and tastefully prepared using high quality ingredients, with an equal emphasis on hospitality and a professional level of service,” says Ben, who has been in the restaurant business for 25 years starting as a busboy and working his way up the ranks.
The room where the bar is located had been the outdoor patio in the old “Za” days, although BORO does offer outdoor seating. The main dining room accommodates 45 patrons, another 16 in the side dining room, plus some additional seating at the bar. An outdoor patio seats 16 to 18 guests when weather permits.
With COVID going hot and heavy when it opened, Sanford relied heavily on the market to carry the day until things began to ease up. “We continued to operate the market throughout COVID,” he says. “That was the biggest advantage that we had, and we made adjustments and adaptations week-to-week as the situation evolved.
“We shifted from in-house prepared food to more of a ‘grocery store’ approach. We started to do delivery and curbside pickup, as a lot of places did. We started offering staples like orange juice, milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, and became a safe and convenient resource for people.”
As things began to ease up a bit the Sanfords used the time to their advantage to complete much of the construction work. “That’s not to say that there weren’t a lot of delays because of COVID, but we’ve managed to land on our feet and keep going,” he says.
Because the market continued to operate, Sanford says that he was able to retain all of his market staff throughout the past year. Hiring staff for the restaurant, tough enough in normal times, presented its own set of challenges, but sometimes unexpected benefits as well, he explains, as qualified staff from shuttered establishments were part of the applicant pool.
Sanford found Jason Santillo, BORO’s current chef as a result of COVID-related layoffs; he formerly worked at the Union League in Philadelphia and came to Sanford’s attention thanks to a contact from mutual friends.
As far as ensuring a safe dining experience is concerned, Sanford ensures that all staff are properly masked, and BORO makes hand sanitizer available for patrons in both the market and the restaurant. Points of contact are regularly sanitized before, during, and after each shift.
Sanford has a positive outlook for the months ahead. “I see people coming back out and being excited to dine out again,” he says. And as time pushes forward, the weather gets warmer, and the vaccine takes its course, things will only get better.
“The people of Pennington have been very supportive while we’ve been going through these tough times. They’re excited to have us here in their backyard.”
Boro Market Restaurant & Bar, 147 Delaware Avenue, Pennington. 609-730-4100 or www.boroeaterybar.com.
Where to Wander . . .
Woosamonsa Ridge Preserve —Nearby 146 acre Woosamonsa Ridge Preserve offers nearly three miles of trails and exceptional natural features; a mature hardwood forest, steep ridges and the upper reaches of Jacobs Creek in the valley below. njtrails.org/trail/woosamonsa-ridge-preserve.
Ted Stiles Preserve at Baldpate Mountain — Baldpate Mountain, part of the volcanic Sourland Mountain Ridge, is the highest point in Mercer County.
The forest is one of the largest and least disturbed tracts of woodland in our region, and a variety of rare birds and wildlife and the remains of historic structures are found there. mercercountyparks.org/#!/parks/baldpate-mountain.
Chambers Walk Café & Catering, Lawrenceville
From the days when it began a 15-year stint as a catering operation in Princeton (five years) and Trenton (10 years), to its incarnation two decades ago as Chambers Walk Café & Catering on Main Street in Lawrenceville, Mario and Laura Mangone have remained true to their primary objective.
“From the very beginning I’ve always tried to give our customers a feel of comfort with respect to the food as well as the ambiance,” Mario Mangone says, “and I believe we’ve achieved that. When people tell me that they feel comfortable here, that’s all I need to hear.”
And as to the cuisine? “I wouldn’t say we’re Italian, but there’s pasta on the menu,” he says. “New American? Okay, because that encompasses quite a few cuisines. ‘Fresh quality ingredients prepared simply in a comfortable atmosphere’ is how I’d describe Chambers Walk.’”
How would Mangone describe impact of the past year on his business? “One of the most incredible rides I’ve ever been on,” he says, “because the thing about the restaurant industry, even pre-COVID, is that it’s a tough business to be in. You do everything you can to make sure you’re thriving and doing the best that you can, but with the addition of a pandemic it made it harder for everyone.”
Inevitably, the difficulties included a reduction in staff. “People were laid off,” he notes. “We had to close for three weeks. This time last year were closed as the government mandated, until we were able to open on a limited basis and go from there.”
What have been the impacts been on the restaurant side and the catering side? “For about the first three months of the pandemic the restaurant was exclusively takeout,” Mangone says, “And I’m very happy to say that the surrounding community responded and supported us incredibly. It worked out fine, and I’m grateful to the community for that.
“As far as catering was concerned, it went to zero,” he continues. “Gatherings were not permitted, it was unsafe, and the direction the pandemic would take us wasn’t known. As time passed there were smaller gatherings we were able to help as far as food was concerned, but not service, and they were few and far between.”
Mangone says he has been staying on top of the latest directives to ensure a safe environment for employees and guests. “In addition to the normal food safety certification and safety protocols, everyone on my staff has received certification following an online class and successfully passing an examination regarding COVID-specific safety procedures.”
He adds that indoor tables are well-separated as per the latest guidelines, and that Chambers Walk’s outdoor dining space allows tables to be spaced even more than six feet apart.
“Overall, things are gradually improving,” Mangone notes. “We plan to be open for a special brunch and dinner on Mother’s Day. The coming of milder weather and an improving COVID outlook is bringing back regulars and new customers as well, but our lunch business will not be the same until the business community begins to come back. For example, the Bristol-Myers Squib campuses on 206 and Princeton Pike encompass about 6,000 people in the area that are currently working from home. Catering wise, my optimism is high, based on the inquiries we’re getting about upcoming events.
“The bottom line is that everyone has their own market; our market has been supportive and slowly but surely coming back to dine with us in person.”
Chambers Walk Cafe & Catering, 2667 Main Street, Lawrenceville. 609-896-5995 or www.chamberswalk.com.
Where to Wander . . .
Johnson Trolley Line Trail —Steps from Chambers Walk, the north section of the Johnson Trolley Line Trail runs one mile through a tree-lined neighborhood, between Gordon Avenue and Denow Road. The Trenton-Princeton Traction Company ran a trolley through this corridor from around 1901 until 1940. www.traillink.com/trail/johnson-trolley-line-trail.
Lawrenceville Hopewell Trail – The LHT’s 22-plus mile trail winding through Hopewell and Lawrence townships offers safe access to various sections of the towns for kids, families, bicyclists, joggers, hikers, and commuters. The family-oriented trail is designed to promote recreation, healthier lifestyles, better mobility and commuting, and a cleaner environment. www.lhtrail.org.
Jester’s Cafe, Bordentown
U.S.1 has been reporting on the charm, history, and vibrant dining scene in nearby Bordentown for years. On Farnsworth Avenue, the main street of town, Sandra and Michael Scotto have been offering casual dining with a friendly neighborhood vibe to the city’s 3,000 or so residents and visitors at Jester’s Cafe for nearly 21 years.
The restaurant was on a fairly steady course until COVID hit, according to Sandra Scotto. “Over the years we’ve called Jester’s an American bar with an Italian flavor,” she says, “But through the pandemic and beyond we’ve changed things up a bit. We’re now doing a lot of takeout and family style meals.”
Sandra says that she and Michael held a fundraiser featuring the fixed-price family style meal just as the pandemic was beginning to hit. “The 15 families who participated purchased three takeout meals a week from us, and basically carried us through the summer,” she notes. “They stayed on with us through COVID. It was a real convenience for them and a real lifesaver for us.”
Meals may be ordered online or by calling the restaurant. Jester’s currently prepares up to 80 takeout meals per week, Sandra notes. Offered in two small (serving up to three people) and large (serving up to six) sizes, entrees tend to be Italian favorites, like chicken parm.
But Sandra is careful to point out that the menu has evolved from its Italian roots. “We’re not just an Italian restaurant,” she says. “We offer fish and chips, shrimp tacos, charcuterie boards, a variety of healthy salads. We have a popular appetizer called a Sweet Potato Nacho, a twist on your typical nacho, where a sweet potato base replaces the traditional nacho, that I think it is kind of cool.”
In addition, the cafe started serving breakfast two months ago, featuring excellent coffee and freshly baked bagels and pastries.
Like most other eateries, the impact of the pandemic has been devastating. “Our staffing went to zero,” she says. Husband Michael, age 55, took over as chef. In the restaurant business since he was 10 years old, he started out in his father’s business, Scotto’s pizzeria in West Windsor.
Sandra says another lifesaver during the pandemic has been the fact that Jester’s has a liquor license that permits both on-premises and retail sales of alcohol. The Scottos took advantage of their COVID enforced down time to renovate Jester’s and convert a dining room that had been used for private parties into a wine and spirits shop. She credits their son, Frankie, with the clean, contemporary design. The space opened in late October.
Sandra notes that customers often stop in to purchase an adult beverage to bring to one of several BYO restaurants in Bordentown. The focus of the shop’s inventory is on an eclectic selection of moderately priced, food-friendly wines and spirits produced in New Jersey and elsewhere.
“I also offer fun things popular with younger customers, like canned cocktails,” she says. “I’m not looking to be just another liquor store, I’m aiming to be a boutique, a place where I can express my own preferences and pass along what I’ve learned to our customers”
When it comes to what lies ahead, Sandra is optimistic. “I think with the coming warmer weather and more people getting vaccinated, I see more willingness to come out. We feel good about the future, and I think that people are going to feel a lot better once they start getting out again.”
Jester’s European Cafe and Wine Shoppe, 233 Farnsworth Avenue Bordentown. 609-298-9963 or www.jesterscafewineshoppe.com.
Where to Wander . . .
Stroll the quaint historic streets of Bordentown, a town whose roster of famous residents in days past includes Joseph Bonaparte, ex-king of Spain and Naples and brother of Napoleon. Plans are afoot to preserve Point Breeze, Bonaparte’s 60-acre estate and turn it into a public park. www.downtownbordentown.com.
New Jersey Transit’s River Line stops at Bordentown. Ride along the scenic Delaware River to historic Roebling and attractions along the Camden Waterfront including Adventure Aquarium, Battleship New Jersey, BB&T Pavilion and Wiggins Waterfront Park, and Camden Children’s Garden. www.njtranshit.com/schedule/16/riverline-light-rail.
Centrally located at street level across from Hinds Plaza and the Princeton Public Library, Mistral, and its sister restaurant Elements upstairs, share a common dedication to offering exceptional yet distinctively different dining experiences, according to Daniel Tucker, wine director for Elements and Mistral.
“Elements is the kind of place where the decor, the ambiance, the service, the vibe, and the food are all in tune, all working together as one symphony, if you will,” Tucker says. “The way in which the chef, the staff, everyone, works together is awesome.
“You’re going to receive a memorable dining experience whether you dine at Mistral or Elements,” he continues. “I guess the biggest difference is that the experience at Elements is a bit more elevated, a bit more personal. Elements features a prix fixe menu, we offer a wine paring that complements menu. The focus is to present guests a style of service you can’t find anywhere else around here. Our chef pays meticulous attention to the preparation, to the ingredients. I’ve never been with chefs at both Mistral and Elements who spend so much time foraging, spend time at the farm with their hands in the soil. It’s amazing to see.
“Mistral is a bit more casual, more laid back,” Tucker says. “You’re going to receive amazing food, but the menu is a bit more eclectic. Upstairs at Elements the food has more of a French flair as far as technique is concerned; the ingredients tend to be a bit more Asian, and expect to spend two and a half to three hours at your table.
“At Mistral the experience can be a bit more dramatic; you’ll find Indian and Asian influences and others as well. The service is just as professional, but the atmosphere is more relaxed and casual. Many of the plates are meant to be shared.”
What challenges has Mistral faced during the pandemic? What’s the “secret sauce” that’s kept things moving ahead?
“We shut down completely for the first month or more of COVID, and then decided to move forward with takeout,” Tucker says. “We noticed that a lot of restaurants weren’t having a lot of success with (takeout) at the beginning of the pandemic, because people were reluctant to venture out, but five or six weeks into it, people started to order takeout, and not have to worry about doing dishes.”
Providing takeout presented unique challenges for an establishment with Mistral’s reputation. “Packaging was a nightmare in the beginning,” Tucker says. “A significant part of what we offer our guests is the service, the presentation. Now we’re offering takeout without those components. We did our due diligence and didn’t simply put food in plastic takeout containers, we chose biodegradable, earth-friendly options that were aesthetically pleasing, and we provided re-heating instructions for our customers.”
Support from the Princeton community at large and from the local authorities has been extremely gratifying, according to Tucker. “We’re fortunate to have this location, and fortunate that we’ve built a great clientele over the last 10 years, people who want to see the restaurant succeed. Once word got out that we were reopening and offering takeout, people supported us. The town has been great, facilitating the outdoor dining space and offering guidance as to what we can do as the seasons and regulations change.”
As with other establishments, the transition back to sit-down dining has presented its own set of obstacles. “It wasn’t until September that indoor dining at 25 percent capacity was allowed, but a lot of people were uncomfortable dining inside, and it was a challenge to execute our style of service outdoors. It was interesting, to say the least.”
Is Tucker seeing signs that things are beginning to return to normal? “Guests are returning as more people are vaccinated and the weather improves. They miss being able to see the chef and the staff working in the kitchen, that’s an important component of dining at with us. We recently put out a new menu (available online) and I’m making a lot of changes to the wine lists for both restaurants, in keeping with the change of seasons. Last June people were out in droves enjoying themselves. I hope we’ll see a repeat this year.”
Mistral, 66 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. 609-688-8808 or www.mistralprinceton.com.
Where to Wander . . .
Visit Princeton / Mercer Convention Visitors Bureau offers scores of options for wandering around historic Princeton and environs. www.visitprinceton.org.
In a bit of shameless self-promotion, this publication offers what we believe to be one of the best calendars of coming events in the area. In print, or visit www.princetoninfo.com/events.
As noted before, bon appétit!