Gems Unearthed by a Culinary Journey to Princeton, New Jersey


Fork in the Road thinks you should get out of town on occasion, since dozens of destinations lie within just a couple hours of the city. In this Excursions column, we’re covering the best places to eat in popular weekend trip locations.

If you’ve ever leafed through Take Ivy, the cult tome of 1960s all-American collegiate chic that’s spawned a thousand Tumblrs, you had to wonder whether the model students loitering in Barbour and Bean along Nassau Street in Princeton ever ate. Before falling leaves give way to falling snow, there’s no better time for a day trip exploring the Princeton dining scene that expands well beyond the university’s historic eating clubs, and where the cooking’s as ambitious as the students. You’ll want to check out the modern techniques of Mistral, greenmarket cocktails at Agricola, ice cream at The Bent Spoon, and the fat cheesesteaks stuffed with tacos and french fries at Hoagie Haven.

Should you still be grumbling from a lack of caffeine as you rumble into town, make your first stop Small World Coffee (14 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-4377), one of the state’s finest indie coffee shops. It serves up pumpkin spice lattes with house-made syrup that’s also for sale by the bottle. Just be warned it’s cash-only, and the Wi-Fi password only lasts an hour; you’ve got places to go anyway.

Carry your coffee out to The Little Chef Pastry Shop (8 South Tulane Street, 609-924-5335), and quickly, because the Haitian baker’s buttery, flaky croissants, piled high in gingham-lined baskets, disappear early.

If you need more of a morning sugar fix than pain au chocolat can provide, make haste for The Bent Spoon (35 Palmer Square West, 609-924-2368). While the neighborhood’s dotted with enviable gourmet shops, few line up as neatly as the row of Palmer Square storefronts housing this bakery and ice cream parlor plus olive oil purveyor Carter & Cavero, chocolatier Thomas Sweet, and artisan coffee purveyor Rojo’s Roastery. The get here is the croissant ice cream sandwich, a split pastry stuffed with a seasonal scoop like Pumpkin Mascarpone, Cran-Pear, or Jersey Ricotta flavored with cream and produce from local farms and dairies.

If you’re craving something homegrown and savory, head to Agricola (11 Witherspoon Street, 609-921-2798), where your brunch scramble’s sourced from chickens at the owner’s farm in nearby Skillman, and local produce brightens libations like a house-made autumn apple soda and a kale martini no one back home will ever know you enjoyed.

And while Agricola is steeped in history (the restaurant was formerly Lahiere’s, a favorite hangout of Albert Einstein), you’ll only find modern cooking at Mistral (66 Witherspoon Street, 609-688-8808), the small-plate-centric sibling restaurant of New Jersey’s hidden molecular gem, Elements, reopening here in the new year. There’s international inspiration behind the seasonal menu of shareable dishes at Mistral. Beets and blini are beyond Russian; the tender root vegetables dress a charred hanger steak, and the caviar-topped rye pancake is not only warm and fluffy, but as thick as most blini are wide. The dollops of salty fish eggs find balance in the cool smoke of cod butter and tartness of sauerkraut.

When the night sky matches every navy blazer on the sidewalk, trek against the tide to the informality of Despana (235A Nassau Street, 609-921-2992). The Noho Spanish market’s New Jersey location is a full-service BYOB tapas joint after dark, so carry in a bottle of a sangria-friendly wine from nearby shop Public and settle into late-night plates of Serrano croquettes and Iberico pork paella.

Had too much wine? Sober up with a many-meats stuffed sandwich from Hoagie Haven (242 Nassau Street, 609-921-7723). At this hour, it’s not the Ralph or Brooks that looks best, but the Sanchez, overloaded with chicken cutlets, french fries, and mozzarella sticks, all sealed together with melted American cheese.

Just don’t ask any of the kids in line how to find your way back to the train. No one ending their night getting wise with a grease bomb should be giving advice at this hour.