Princeton Restaurants Revisited – A round up of what’s good and what isn’t

My first ever blog post was about Princeton restaurants, it was more a gripe about the lack of a decent food scene than a review of restaurants. Since I wrote that post and lamented the real lack of good choices in the area, a lot has changed. Thankfully for the better! Back then I couldn’t understand how an area that seems to have the right mix of ingredients for a great restaurant scene didn’t have much to offer. Princeton had and has local farms that can sustain a great locavore movement, covering the gamut from meat, veges, fruit and dairy, an affluent base of potential customers, an international community driven by the university and relative proximity to both New York and Philadelphia. Despite this we were stuck with a series of mediocre bars, dated restaurants and restaurants that catered to the student population. My one standout was Witherspoon Grill which was a relative newcomer at the time.

Over the last 6 years since that post many new restaurants have opened. And the great news is that you can now find restaurants that are innovative, on trend and generally much better. In the past year alone Mistral, Agricola, Despana and North End Bistro have opened, adding to the already good options of Elements, Eno Terra, Mediterra (yes, Mediterra has been around since my last blog but the food is worth writing about now) Nomad Pizza and yes, Witherspoon Grill. Collectively we now have a real restaurant scene in Princeton with variety and overall good quality.

What follows is by no means a comprehensive list but rather restaurants that have stood out for me for one reason or another, good or bad. There are still many restaurants I have yet to try including the reputedly wonderful Peacock Inn. Ok, here goes and in no particular order:

Eno Terra – One of the 3 restaurants in NJ that are in the TOP 25 NJ restaurants annual list in NJ Monthly. This is one of my favorite places. It’s Italian, locally sourced and has a great bar. You can eat in the main dining room and also the bar area which has a full dinner menu. The food is generally good or very good. They have a great selection of wines. I’m prefer sitting in the bar area, just a little more casual and the staff is great and knowledgeable. They do have a happy hour menu, not exactly wings and fries but much more refined and much better.

Salt Creek Grill – American Bar and Grill. This is a tale of 2 cities. The bar is extremely popular with the local businesses. Dow Jones is literally across the street and we’d all end up at the happy hour here. They have different deals during happy hour including a cheap eats menu, half priced wine, etc. The sliders, SCG Chips are my favorites. The Goat Cheese dip isn’t bad either. Unfortunately I can’t say much good about the main restaurant menu – it’s over-priced and the food is bland. The only thing I really enjoy is the grilled chicken with succotash. This explains why the restaurant is usually empty and the bar is packed. But, I love the bar with it’s huge wooden table in the center and the staff there is great. Huge call out to Chad and Stefanie.

Pind – Relatively new addition to scene. Used to be an old Charlie Brown’s which was converted to an Indian Restaurant and sports bar. They have separate entrances. I haven’t eaten in the restaurant where the food is described as “Eclectic Indian”. What the heck does that mean? I have been to the bar a couple of times. It’s dark, the menu has the usual American bar eats but also some Indian American fusion stuff that fails to work. While Eno Terra and Salt Creek are packed and a stone’s throw away, this place has a few die-hards and not much more. This place has potential but needs a fundamental rethink. If the owners are reading this, email me and we can talk.

North End Bistro – Global comfort food is what the website calls it. The concept is great – burgers, tacos, steaks, meatballs, pasta, mac & cheese, mussels and a lot more. BTW, love the French Fries! The food is unpretentious (comfort) and generally well done. There are hits and misses but overall the food is decent. I’ve been about 4 times since it opened and while not wowed, I haven’t been too disappointed either. The place is BYOB though they do have a selection of wine from a local winery which works in a pinch.

Agricola – The opening of this restaurant was the big event in town. It occupies the space previously inhabited by the 100 year old Lahiere’s which shut down about a year ago. The space is gorgeous, absolutely love the space. The food concept is hyper local with most of the food ingredients coming from the owner’s farm. The whole local thing was great a couple of years ago but seems like everyone is doing it now. I love the idea of sustaining local farms but it almost seems gimmicky now, more marketing concept that anything else. The food itself was good, not great. Polished but no wow factor. Service was impersonal and not as refined as you would expect based on the environment and prices. I haven’t tried the bar menu yet, but plan to. Overall, decent, good but over-priced.

Witherspoon Grill – This place has been around a while now. It was the shiny new place when I first moved into the area and I’ve always liked it. The food is good, consistent with great service and reasonable prices. The menu is steakhouse style with a good seafood selection and they probably have the best burger in the area. Absolutely brilliant! After taking some time away from Witherspoon Grill the last few years I have rediscovered it and lately have gone quite often, either for lunch or dinner.

Mediterra – This is another restaurant I’ve stayed away from for a while but have started going to more often, particularly the $2 tapas menu during happy hour. Over the years the chef has changed frequently so the food has been inconsistent. Currently, the food is decent, not great though I am partial to the paella. They have a good wine selection and a killer location by Palmer Sq.

Teresa’s Café – This along with Mediterra and Eno Terra it is owned by the Momo Brothers who also own The Terra Momo Bread Company, a local bakery which I can’t warm to. I just expect better bread and croissants. Back to Teresa’s, it’s essentially a pizza and pasta place. Decent place to hit those carb cravings, along with a very reasonably priced wine list. It’s good for an occasional meal.

Element’s – To me, this is the best restaurant in town and possibly NJ. I think Scott Anderson deserves at least a Michelin Star. The food is inventive, beautiful and WOW! Great service, great food, beautiful restaurant. My only gripe has been the too small bar area, but they recently expanded it. This is a great special occasion place, or if you want something familiar but different and really well done. Have I said how great this place is? Love it!

Mistral – This is Scott Anderson’s new place. The food is global tapas in a BYOB setting (come on, get a liquor license). One word – WOW! The food is simply amazing. It’s more casual than Element’s but there is nothing casual about the food. The prices are less intimidating than Element’s and has to be on everyone’s must try list. They’ve recently had some good reviews, including one from the NY Times. Trust me, go check it out.

Metro North – I like the décor of this place, particularly the bar area. It’s significantly better since it changed owners a few years ago, with the old owners giving it a confused identity, but overall not a go-to place if culinary experience is a requirement for dining out. I’ve been here a couple of times and unlikely to return.

One 53 – This is local neighborhood restaurant and a real welcome addition in Rocky Hill. There’s a nice mix of steaks, seafood and pasta along with a number of daily additions. The pork chop is unbelievably good, probably the best pork chop I have ever eaten. And love their Cassoulet. The restaurant is always packed with regulars, which says a lot.

Nomad Pizza – This may be the best damn pizza you can eat anywhere. I’m not joking, it really is absolutely fabulous. The pizzas are thin crust made in a brick oven. Along with pizzas they have salads. I’m even thinking about cutting back on eating pizza anywhere else and just going here every month and indulging myself – it’s that good.

Alchemist & Barrister – What can I say about this place? It’s been here forever and it’s just plain awful. Seriously, how can you screw up nachos? Just awful.

Despana – Tapas and paella café that opened a few months ago. You can also buy Spanish groceries here. I’ve tried the tapas and haven’t had a chance to try the paella yet but will be back to try it soon. The tapas weren’t great, including the patatas bravas that had way too much garlicky sauce. Won’t be back for the tapas but will try the paella.

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