PRINCETON — From the imposing wrought-iron gates of its university’s Nassau Hall to the students sunbathing on the lawn just behind them, Princeton’s aesthetic lands somewhere between elite and easygoing. But there is far more to see here than Jersey’s jewel of Ivy League.
Restaurants acclaimed by the New York Times speckle Princeton’s bustling main streets, while family-owned farms off the beaten path serve up fresh produce and homemade wines. Locals also fancy a complicated, indie-coffee-shop drink while they admire elaborate outdoor art exhibits.
We spent a recent — and sweltering — Friday traversing the pre-revolutionary town and its niche hotspots surrounding the campus and beyond.
PJ’S PANCAKE HOUSE
154 Nassau St., for fluffy flapjacks
We kicked off our morning at PJ’s Pancake House, which has been dishing out early morning eats to locals since the ’60s. PJ’s is, of course, famous for pancakes, so we went with blueberry. They were thick and fluffy with a lightly crisped exterior. PJ’s also offers a pancake sampler, so if you’re not feeling brave enough to order an entire stack of Oreo, s’mores or tiramisu pancakes, you can try just one of each. We also ordered avocado stuffed with scrambled eggs and a sprinkle of chopped bacon on top — the savory flavors paired perfectly. The building retains a log cabin feel, with names and initials carved into its wooden tabletops.
- Pancake sampler, $9.85 for three (try s’mores, peanut butter chocolate chip and blueberry)
- Huevos ranchero breakfast wrap, $9.95
122 Nassau St., for some serious reading material
A stone’s throw from PJ’s is Labyrinth Books, an independent bookstore where you’ll find more than popular young adult novels here (although you can find those, too). Labyrinth offers sections that specialize in African American, Islamic and Marxist studies, as well as a variety of linguistics sections. Here, heavy topics seem a bit more manageable when human-sized yellow spoons and brightly colored decorations are hanging above them. And the books on Labyrinth’s tables are staff picks relating to current events — right now, books about Palestine and government surveillance on display.
- Picking a book from an unfamiliar section — you might just learn something
8 S Tulane St., for fresh pastries
As we walked away from Labyrinth, we were met with an unmistakable smell — fresh baked goods from The Little Chef, a pastry shop just around the corner. But better than all the treats in the store’s glass display case were the Chef’s croissants — plain, raspberry, chocolate and almond varieties all contained in a wooden box. Serve yourself — the raspberry and almond croissants we grabbed were still warm. They don’t accept credit cards, so make sure to bring some cash.
- Raspberry croissant, $2.50
- Apricot danish, $2.50
20 S Tulane St., for vinyl, new and classic
Included in Rolling Stone’s list of best record stores in the U.S., we had to check out Princeton Record Exchange. Nestled on a thin side street, PREX has been the spot for buying, selling and perusing music for nearly 40 years. Looking for a record from that unsigned band you saw at a basement show? PREX probably has it, along with plenty of mainstream albums, collector items and obscure, older 45s. You could waste hours sifting through the dollar bins on the ground — we even found the “I Love Lucy” theme song on vinyl.
- Flipping through the dollar bins under the main record shelves
14 Witherspoon St., for wholesale java
“Support your local everything,” reads a bumper sticker for sale in Small World Coffee. That’s the mantra of the indie coffee shop, whose mission for the past 20 or so years has been to build a tight-knit community through quality coffee and fun festivities, like poetry readings and in-store art galleries. The line that wound out the door of the store rivaled that of the Starbucks around the corner. On this morning, dozens of locals took to the hip shop, some with iPads and some with books, to work and relax. We tried the coffee of the month over ice — an “indie blend” — a sweet and smooth choice on a 90-degree day. It’s another cash-only shop, though, so bring some bills with you.
- The current coffee of the month, $2.95 for a large
- Iced latte, $4.80 for a large
330 Cold Soil Rd., for wine tasting
Famous in the fall for its apple orchards and hayrides, Terhune Orchards is a year-round spot for wine tasting, fresh produce and homemade goodies. From the two yellow labs who bask in the sun on the porch (their names are Apple and Peach and they love people) to the cut-your-own flower garden out front, Terhune’s bucolic, country charm is irresistible. We picked up some homemade apple donuts inside the farm store before heading over to the wine tasting room, where we sampled six of the orchard’s own creations. Front Porch Breeze, a blush wine, was nice and sweet. Harvest Blues, a mix of Terhune’s apple wine and blueberries, was crisp and fruity. Vanessa Calu, who poured our drinks, said some people even use the wine over cheesecake instead of a traditional blueberry sauce.
- Wine tasting, $5 per person
- Apple cider donuts, $4 per bag of six
164 Nassau St., for Indian cuisine
We drove back into town for an authentic Indian lunch at Mehek. The name roughly translates to “aroma,” a fitting appraisal for the delicious smells that wafted out from the restaurant. We opted for the buffet option on the main level, though quick takeout is available downstairs is you’re looking to eat on-the-go. The chicken dishes (makhani, tandoori and curry style) were all incredibly tender and paired well with a side of jeera rice (with cumin seeds and spices). Channa masala, a chick pea dish with onions and tomatoes, was a bit spicy, but a side of warm naan was the perfect palate cleanser.
- Chicken makhani, $15.95
- Chicken curry, $15.95
1 Nassau Hall, for a bit of Princeton history
We walked off our huge lunch (we couldn’t help but to go back for seconds) around an ivy-covered, Ivy League building: Nassau Hall, the oldest building on the Princeton University campus. During the Revolutionary War, the Congress of the Confederation met in the building’s second-floor library, and the hall suffered from cannonball impacts at the Battle of Princeton in 1777 — you can still see some damage today. Starting in 1869, each graduation class has added a new sprig of ivy to climb up the walls of the building, as well as a stone plaque dedicated to each year’s class. The hall was built on land donated by Nathaniel FitzRandolph, after whom the university’s famous FitzRandolph Gate is named.
- Finding the oldest plaque from a graduating class on the building
166 Nassau St., for authentic bubble tea
To cool down, we ducked into Fruity Yogurt, a frozen yogurt and bubble tea shop down the street from Nassau Hall, on Nassau Street. This colorful shop offers innovative fro-yo flavors like thai tea, rose lychee, red bean and kumquat. We opted for bubble tea, a traditional Taiwanese drink with boba — chewy tapioca pearls. The black milk tea flavor was as close to 50 Lan (one of Taiwan’s top boba shops) as we’ve found in America, while the mocha flavor served as an elevated iced coffee.
- Black milk tea bubble tea, $4.21
- Strawberry papaya fro-yo, $0.53 per ounce
1 Palmer Square, for elevated bar fare
Winberie’s was up next, a pub-style restaurant that chronicles bits of Princeton’s past through old college photos, flags and athletic uniforms hanging on the walls. The decorations, along with the bar’s dark-wood interior, allows it a casual yet sophisticated aesthetic. Dinner was slated for later, so we stuck with appetizers — the spinach dip was so savory that we ended up dipping our pub pretzels in it instead of the cheese sauce they came with.
- Spinach dip, $8.50
- Short rib grilled cheese, $13
Princeton University, for a bit of culture
Next was Princeton University Art Museum — who could ignore those 18-foot-tall stained glass panels? The imposing new outdoor exhibit, called “(Any) Body Oddly Propped,” leads an array of impressive art on display. Since 1755, Princeton’s wealthy benefactors have donated and commissioned pieces for the museum, including prints by Pablo Picasso and a Turkish mosaic from Antioch, dated year 387 of the Common Era. The museum’s campus collections include sculptures, paintings, monuments and memorials all over Princeton’s grounds. The best part? Admission is always free.
- Surfaces Seen and Unseen: African Art at Princeton, runs through October 9
- A Material Legacy: The Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Collection of Contemporary Art, runs through October 30
138 Nassau St., for beer brewed in-house
We darted back across the busy Nassau Street and walked a block or so until we saw the yellow flag of Triumph Brewing Company. This brewpub has served up its own craft beer since 1995 — you can see the two-story, glass-enclosed brewhouse where it’s made right from your table. We tried a flight of seven 8-ounce beers from the Triumph tap. The petite framboise was our favorite — it boasts a light raspberry taste. Superior beer isn’t the only thing on the menu beneath Triumph’s cathedral ceiling. The restaurant also offers locally-grown food, like grouper tacos ($13) and blistered green beans in a ginger hoisin sauce ($6). The spicy and sweet tastes paired perfectly with our brews. You can take a virtual tour of the restaurant here.
- Beer sampler, $13
- House-made pretzels, $9
23 Palmer Square E, for inventive entrees
Once we had our fill of beer, we trekked to Teresa Caffe in Palmer Square for an Italian-inspired dinner. There was a 20-minute wait — despite the humidity, every table on the outdoor patio was still packed. Once we were seated, we understood the hype. We ordered mezze rigatoni balsamico — pasta and chicken in a balsamic cream sauce. Bartender Paul Hough said the dish is so popular that at the demand of its diners, its sister restaurant, Mediterra, put the pasta on its menu while Teresa Caffe was briefly undergoing renovations. At Hough’s recommendation, we also tried a bourbon peach julep with fresh-picked mint sprigs, a refreshing choice for such a warm evening.
- Mezze rigatoni balsamico, $17
- Peach julep, $12
35 Palmer Square W, for our readers’ favorite N.J. ice cream
Lauded by the New York Times for its artisan ice cream and clever hot chocolate concoctions, The Bent Spoon puts focus on locally-sourced ingredients for its creative ice cream flavors. The cash-only shop recently won our readers’ choice award for best ice cream in New Jersey. On this evening, dozens of locals lined out the door and into Palmer Square, looking to satisfy their sweet tooth. Ice cream server Julia Bannon recommended lavender ice cream — “It’s similar to vanilla in the sense that it goes with everything.” We paired it with blueberry ice cream, and the results were mouthwatering.
- Lavender and blueberry ice cream, $4.75 for a scoop of each
- Basil ice cream, $4.75 for two scoops
242 Nassau St., for greasy goodness
Hoagie Haven has been Princeton’s late-night nook since the ’70s, serving up loaded specialty sandwiches for those who are often… well… a little loaded themselves. We tried a Sanchez, complete with a chicken cutlet, American cheese, mozzarella sticks, French fries and Hoagie Haven’s famous Sanchez sauce — the only sauce the shop serves by-the-bottle. It was equal parts greasy-delicious and excessive. It’s another cash-only joint, so make sure to have some on hand.
- A Sanchez, $11.50
- A Middle Finger, $5.75
*This story was originally published on NJ.com and in The Star-Ledger.