How to Eat Dinner in Princeton

Step 1: Very slowly and carefully, leave Princeton.

Step 2: If leaving Princeton is impossible, proceed as directed below. But don't say I didn't warn you. Princeton is a medium-sized city with an affluent population, lots of students from all over, and a pretty, pedestrian-friendly downtown. There ought to be a lot of good restaurants here. But there aren't. The unguided visitor is almost certain to release a few twenties in a place that looks like it should be good, but is, well--not. So join me, won't you? as we go out for dinner in Princeton...if you dare.

Warning and Reassessment

The reader should know that I moved from Princeton to Madison, Wisconsin in August 2005; this page will no longer be updated. The reader should also know that, over time, I really came to like eating dinner in Princeton. The food situation improved a lot over the time I was there; I promise that, if you know where to go, flight is not necessary.

Worthwhile places

Carousel (182 Nassau Street; 924-2677) My most-visited restaurant in Princeton is this straightforward diner, which has now moved to an even more convenient location near the corner of Nassau and Washington; the new space is big enough to eliminate the long waits that used to be standard on Sunday mornings and lunchtimes. A lovely place to eat a sandwich and drink your coffee. French fries are especially good here. Fun fact: the owner is a Hightstown city councillor. Best dish: patty melt.

Kalluri Corner (235A Nassau Street; 688-8923) This two-story restaurant location has hosted three restaurants in three years, most recently the unspeakably depressing Alma Mater Bar and Grill. Now it's a very good Indian restaurant, whose trim menu features the usual favorites and adds some less well-known regional dishes. An Indian friend tells me that the style is "North Indian food cooked by South Indians." The lunch buffet is well-varied and at $6.95 is among the best deals in town. Best dish: paneer tikka masala.

But if you think $6.95 is too much for any meal, you should do as the students do and get fed at Hoagie Haven (242 Nassau; there's a phone number, but why would you call Hoagie Haven?) No seating here; order your gigantic greasy delicious hoagie at the counter, hand over five bucks, and find yourself a bench. Open until 1:00 am. Best dish: chicken parmigiana hoagie.

Halo Pub (9 Hulfish Street) This is an ice cream shop, not a restaurant, but since it's Princeton's only really outstanding food vendor of any kind, I cannot skip it. Excellent and stunningly cheap ice cream from a local dairy. Here you will see happy yuppie moms and their kids, but not so many Princeton students, who seem tragically to prefer Thomas Sweet. Best dish: ice cream cone. UPDATE: (July 2002) The owner of Halo Pub is building a new, larger Halo Pub! This should reduce the Andropov-era lines at the front door.

Downtown Deluxe (48 Leigh Avenue; 921-3052) Good soul food in the John-Witherspoon neighborhood north of Nassau. This restaurant is really just one guy who takes your order and cooks for you; if people are already there, expect to wait a good long time. The standouts here are side dishes like corn bread and okra, but the fried fish is just fine. Avoid the boring macaroni and cheese. Best dish:sweet potato pie. UPDATE: (June 2002) I am sad to say that Downtown Deluxe is now closed.

Lucy's Ravioli Kitchen (830 State Road; 924-6881) If you're in North Princeton, nothing beats Lucy's Ravioli, where for seven bucks a pound you can pick and choose from home-made pastas and vegetable dishes which change by the day. Take home a package of eponymous ravioli for the missus; the porcini and goat cheese is especially good. It's hard to go wrong at Lucy's, but avoid the lasagna, which seems to recognize its obligatory status and to therefore adopt a sullen, unpleasantly dense quality. Best dish: grilled artichoke hearts.

Fedora Cafe (2633 Main Street (Route 206), Lawrenceville; 895-0844) Fedora is the place to take a bunch of people when you don't know what they like. The menu is made up of items like grilled panini with roast beef, roasted red peppers, and gorgonzola, which is to say, you know more or less what the sandwich will taste like, you know it will taste good, you are satisfied that whatever is signified by the presence of roasted red peppers and Gorgonzola has been signified to you and to all around you.... Glass dragonflies on the ceiling, chai milkshakes in mismatched plastic glasses, and waiters in ironic T-shirts make for an unthreateningly artsy room. Your friends from New York can squint and pretend they're downtown.

Which, in an extreme sort of way, they are.

DeLorenzo's Tomato Pie (530 Hudson St., Trenton; 695-9534) The best pizza east of the Rockies is not a pizza! Here they make "tomato pie", with tomatoes on top of the cheese instead of underneath. The result is a glorious pie with a thin, crackly crust and a beautifully sweet sauce. (We now only buy Redpack tomatoes because that's what DeLorenzo's uses.) Warning 1: DeLorenzo's doesn't serve lunch. Warning 2: DeLorenzo's only serves tomato pie, and if you ask for a menu they will deliver you an uncompromising beatdown. Warning 3: DeLorenzo's is actually a 20-minute drive from Princeton. So get going. Best dish:guess.

Trenton Farmer's Market (960 Spruce St., Lawrenceville; 695-2998) You cannot eat dinner here and it is not in Princeton, but if you're spending any serious amount of time here you might want to know about the best place in the area for your summertime shopping. Consistently good tomatoes, melons, peaches, berries, herbs, corn, and everything else the farmers of the Garden State see fit to provide. I'm a fan of arugula from Cedarville Farms, so cheap and good we buy bunches of it every week. Also features a good small Italian grocer, Porfirio's, with fresh mozzarella made daily, a pair of bakeries, the Halo Dairy (where they make Halo Pub ice cream) and a new Mexican store. Saturday morning is crunch time, but they're open every day except Sunday.

OK, I guess

The restaurants in this category are all places one should be perfectly willing to eat.

If you need to eat Chinese food, I think Tiger Noodle on Nassau Street is fine. If you don't need to sit, I have a soft spot for the strangely named Ye Old English Fish and Chips Shoppe, which does sell fishe and chippes but primarily does a brisk takeout business in ye old Taiwanese foode and bubble tea. (Update: Ye Shoppe has been replaced by a restaurant which claims to be a sushi bar and presumably actually sells barbecue or something.) If you are willing to drive a bit, Happy City, south of town on Route 1, is a pretty good (but uneven) restaurant in the Hong Kong style, and King's Castle in Princeton Shopping Center makes decent dim sum on weekends. (Update: King's Castle, which was starting to grow on me, has closed!) Back on Witherspoon, Ichiban serves good sushi at high prices; just down the street, tempura and soup can be had at Sakura Express. Based on one visit, I'd say Ajihei has better sushi at yet higher prices. (Not to be confused with Ajihei Too on Nassau street, which serves good Japanese food but doesn't, I think, justify the cost.) Chuck's on Spring Street serves big cheap plates of buffalo wings; across the street Moondoggie's serves the only good carrot juice in town. Maybe you want a hamburger. You can get a good expensive one with a microbrew under a cathedral ceiling at Triumph, or you can have one 80% as good with an 80% as good beer in an 80% as nice room for 70% of the cost at J.P.Winberie. Mediterra is the best expensive place in town when it's good, but sometimes it's bad. For an expensive dinner, you might to best to go to Acacia, in Lawrenceville, co-owned with Fedora Cafe. The food's quite good, and the comically complicated menu makes great reading while you wait. Teresa's on Witherspoon Street is acceptable Italian. There's no pizza in Princeton anything like DeLorenzo's, but Tri Colore (formerly Pizza Colore) on Nassau Street is just fine. Many people say Old World is the best in town, and you won't go wrong either way. Conte's pizza, a ways up Witherspoon from campus, is worth a trip for good, traditional pie and Jersey atmosphere. The Mediterranean takeout Olives has no seats but is an adequate place to get a quick lunch if the weather's nice and you're on Witherspoon. If you're on the eastern end of Nassau and the same situation obtains, get a gyro and a curried-lentil salad at Zorba's and eat lunch like the engineers do. I have to say that the $6.95 grilled cheese sandwich at Small World is a really top-notch grilled cheese sandwich. But when you eat it you feel like all the grad students drinking coffee at the other tables are nudging each other and saying, "Look, that guy's eating a $6.95 grilled cheese sandwich!" (Update: Small World no longer sells hot food, but I like this joke so I'm leaving it in.) If you're into egg salad, Witherspoon Bread Company makes a very good sandwich. But get two if you're hungry. (Update: WBC hasn't had the egg salad the last few times I've been here, but the antipasto sandwich and the tuna provencal are both good choices.) For Mexican, I favor Sabor de Mexico in Princeton Shopping Center, but be aware that this is a controversial opinion; most people like the dry and overpriced Mexican Village. La Oaxaquena #2 in New Brunswick is far better, and cheaper, than either. Update: The new Guatemalan-Mexican restaurant on Witherspoon, across from the cemetery, is another fine choice; cheap, good, and an easy walk from campus. I have heard great things from multiple reliable sources about the grilled tuna sandwich at Nassau Street Seafood and Produce.

Abort! Abort!

If you are planning to eat at one of these restaurants, I think you should change your plans.

Lahiere's is cataclysmically expensive and cooks an innocent fish until it is a sad dry dishrag cowering under its julienne of something or other. Ferry House is almost as expensive, has bad service, and food that would be acceptable at a lower price. (A recent second visit confirms this assessment.) Ditto Alchemist and Barrister, though I don't object to the service there. Blue Point Grill was on the "OK, I guess" list until I ate there for the second time: the new enlarged room is unpleasantly loud, service is slow, and the fish, while competently done, is not nearly good enough for the $24 it cost. No one I know particularly likes Thai Village. Burrito Royale has the look of a hidden gem, but decidedly isn't. (Update: Two people have told me that having dinner here was a big mistake, and that at lunchtime it really is a hidden gem.) Masala Grill is not terrible, but you should go to Kalluri Corner instead. Think twice before you get a sandwich at Wild Oats. (Hint: the second thought should be "I think I will have lunch somewhere else.")

Back to Jordan Ellenberg's home page

Jordan Ellenberg * * revised 8 Mar 2005