Everyone knows the image of the anonymous city. It’s just an image, of course, and even in the biggest cities, no one is anonymous for long. Cities break down into neighborhoods, neighborhoods break down into blocks, and blocks break down into enclaves of people who know — or at least know of — each other through daily routines or common meeting places.
One of those meeting places is the bar, a point of social contact for old timers, newcomers, for those passing through, or for those who suddenly face a change in circumstances through a divorce (for example) or the last kid leaving the nest (a happier example). The bartender, like the letter carrier, knows more people than anyone in the room. And the best of them know when to introduce a patron to another patron, and when not to.
I learned this lesson years ago when I was starting out as a writer, living in a single room in a house on Bayard Lane, with a single room office across town at 240 Nassau Street. Between my office and Bayard Lane were a half dozen bars, and they became my dining and living room between the end of the work day and bedtime. The patrons and bartenders at those bars became an extended family for a guy who would otherwise be a lonely freelance writer.
One of my bar buddies was Charlie Huth (pronounced “youth”), who worked as a waiter at the Nassau Inn. Like many of the waiters at the inn, Charlie had a back story. He had gone to Columbia, a recruited football player. After an injury sidelined him, he dropped out of school, tended bar around Columbia for a while, and then followed a girl to Princeton.
When the relationship fizzled Charlie decided to return to New York, tend bar again, and possibly go back to school. He gave me the names of three bars where he had close connections — he would be either hanging out or working at one of those three places. I should look him up next time I had some spare time in New York.
I went into the city often in those days, trying to hustle assignments from the big magazines or do day work for one of the Time Inc. publications. One afternoon with some spare time on my hands, I decided to visit Charlie.
I went into the first bar and announced I was looking for Charlie Huth. “Never heard of him,” said the bartender and some of the regulars. Thinking that I must have gotten the name of the bar wrong, I moved to the second bar. The name didn’t ring a bell there, either.
At this point I began to think Charlie may have overstated his presence in the bar scene near Columbia. At the third bar I didn’t bother to ask if anyone knew him. Instead I just became another anonymous drinker in the big city. Halfway through my beer the phone rang, the bartender answered it, looked in my direction, and asked my name. I told him. “Wait right here,” he said. “Charlie’s on his way.” Everyone knew Charlie.
Princeton is nothing like Manhattan, and the bar scene around Princeton University is nothing like the one around Columbia. In fact, the bar scene in Princeton is unlike that of most college towns. In Princeton the university takes care of its own with on-campus social events and more substantial partying at the undergraduate eating clubs.
But the bars in Princeton still offer a window into the community, and the view can be vastly different depending on your vantage point. Let’s go get a drink.
The Hotel Bars
Nassau Inn, the Yankee Doodle Tap Room, 10 Palmer Square East, 609-921-7500, www.nassauinn.com. Bar opens at noon daily and keeps extended hours, typically to around midnight. The bar offers a late night menu Friday and Saturday from 10 to 11 p.m. Happy hour Monday to Thursday 4 to 7 p.m., Friday noon to 6 p.m., Saturday 4 to 6 p.m. The Tap Room features a dozen or more beers on tap and sports on a half dozen televisions. There is also an outdoor patio — one of the few places in town where you can drink outdoors.
In a town like Princeton the hotel bar serves not only as a place to kill time for out-of-towners but also as a gathering place for folks who live nearby. The Taproom does just that — there’s a little here for everyone.
One recent late afternoon, the lobby was filled with Asian visitors, and the bar had a few retirees holding forth under the famous Norman Rockwell mural (shielded in glass, it is comforting to know). It wouldn’t take you too far into your first drink before you would be qualified to strike up a conversation with someone further down — or across — the U-shaped bar.
A tourist comes in and takes a photo of the Rockwell mural. A head-to-toe portrait of Bill Bradley in his Princeton basketball uniform — with a forlorn look on his face — graces the opposite wall.
Various drink specials are offered during the 4 to 7 p.m. happy hour — a $2 mug of Yuengling gives you the idea. And on “craft” beer Tuesday you can get any craft beer for $5.
There is also live music on Thursdays from 6 to 8 p.m. It’s comfortable, and a solo drinker at the bar can get involved in the bar talk — or not — depending on his or her mood and circumstances.
The Peacock Inn, 20 Bayard Lane, 609-924-1707, www.thepeacockinn.com. Bar open from 5 to 10 or 10:30 p.m. Happy hour Monday through Friday, 5 to 7 p.m. Received the Wine Spectator “Award of Excellence” for five consecutive years from 2011-2015.
The Peacock Inn isn’t a big hotel (just 16 rooms) and the bar is not a big bar (11 seats plus a half dozen tables around the room). In addition the place is known for its restaurant more than for its bar or hotel rooms. For all those reasons I wouldn’t recommend the Peacock as the place to hang out and get the community vibe. But I would recommend it as a quiet place to meet a business colleague or take a date.
Depending on the time of day, you might want to have your car valet parked. Once settled at the bar you can appreciate the art on the walls, including a collection of prints by Ben Shahn, the prominent 20th-century artist who lived in nearby Roosevelt, New Jersey. Shahn’s work is complemented by another Roosevelt-based artist, Stefan Martin. His images — including a portrait of Shahn and cameo-like sets of famous writers — extend down the stairs and unexpectedly into the restrooms.
The collection comes from the Peacock’s owner, Barry Sussman, who has been collecting the works of Roosevelt artists for years.
When Sussman renovated the basement of the hotel, where a second bar, the Peacock Alley, once existed as a speakeasy with its own private entrance on the left side of the hotel, workers discovered three drawings on the room’s plaster walls. The artist was believed to be John Held Jr., an illustrator for the New Yorker and also the creator of the cover for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tales from the Jazz Age.” The murals — including one of Princeton mathematician John von Neumann driving a car while reading a book — were cut from the wall, moved upstairs, and hung over the fireplaces.
Late Night Places
Triumph Brewing Company, 138 Nassau Street, 609-924-7855, www.triumphbrewing.com. Open seven days a week until 2 a.m. Happy hour Sunday through Thursday 10 to 11 p.m. ($4 pints, $5 appetizers, $6 well drinks) First Wednesday of every month: A barrel tapping of a new handcrafted beer at 6 p.m. During weekday afternoon baseball games, pints are $3 and hot dogs are $2.
Technically Triumph isn’t a bar at all but a brew pub — accordingly it serves only its own craft beer brewed in one of the big vats towering over the bar (as well as full bar service for wine and liquor and substantial lunch and dinner menus). What I find amazing is how many people show up from out of town. Moreover, while the craft beer movement is playing out at most every bar in town, with the only limitation on brands seemingly the number of exotic words in the dictionary, the brew pub aficionados are yet another breed of beer drinker.
One recent night I see a chalk board advertising a new offering from the pub: Nutt’s Brown Ale at $6.50 a glass. I order one. Nicole, the bartender, grabs a handle at the bar and pulls the lever. Really pulls. It’s a pump engine or hand pump, and you need it to pull this naturally carbonated beer out of the keg below.
The name “Nutt” rings a bell. Sure enough, it’s named after Triumph’s general manager, Eric Nutt. There’s nothing out of town about this place.
Bar talk: Will Triumph follow through on its announced move to the building that used to house the Princeton Post Office on Palmer Square in front of the Nassau Inn?
Maybe not, according to some in town. The deal was announced in March, but the sale of the building from the U.S. Postal Service to the California-based investor who would become the brew pub’s new landlord apparently has not yet closed. And a “for rent” sign still hangs from the wall of the old post office.
The Ivy Inn, 248 Nassau Street, 609-921-8555, www.ivyinnprinceton.com. Open seven days a week, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-2 a.m., Sunday noon until midnight, Monday 11 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Monday night features craft beer of the week, 7 p.m.-close, $3 cans. Friday and Saturday nights: music including live bands and DJs, $3 cover charge. Bar includes eight televisions, darts, pool, and a juke box.
Happy hour: None. As the management says (and claims it has trademarked the phrase) “every hour is happy hour” at the Ivy.
Everybody asks: Who goes to the Ivy? The answer: Anyone seems welcome at this casual bar created out of an old gasoline station a few blocks down Nassau Street from the heart of town.
On one recent Saturday afternoon, some of the oldtimers are chatting at the bar, with baseball games playing out on the TVs. The discussion is about “quaits,” the way old time Princetonians pronounce the name of the game most people know as “quoits.” They are comparing it to horseshoes — the big difference is the distance between pins: 21 feet in “quaits” and 40 feet for horseshoes.
You can tell these guys are from a building trades background. They refer to someone as a good mechanic, but they aren’t talking about cars or engines. They could be talking about a plumber, electrician, or a roofer. Long before there were cars to fix, the word “mechanic” referred to people who worked with their hands. Oldtimers in Princeton still use it that way.
While the old guys are gabbing, a young guy walks in with three young women behind him. Heads are turned, conversation stops. The guy and his young friends are taking a break at the outdoor seating area behind the bar. That’s the kind of place the Ivy is — a healthy mix.
The Ivy will celebrate 50 years in business Saturday, August 6, from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. I remember its original space in the building where the second Small World Coffee is now. I mention to the bartender that the original spot had a portrait of Bill Bradley on the wall, with another forlorn expression that possibly exceeds the sadness of the Nassau Inn portrait. The bartender points to a wall in the current space: There it is — same sad look.
Bar talk: Do the au pairs in town still like to hang out at the Ivy? Yes, now it’s usually Thursdays and Fridays.
Alchemist & Barrister, 28 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-5555, www.theaandb.com. The bar is open until 2 a.m. every night but Sunday, when it is midnight. Late night menu: Sunday through Thursday 10 p.m.-midnight, Friday and Saturday 10:30 p.m. to midnight. Happy hour Monday through Friday 4 to 7 p.m., and Sunday to Thursday 10 p.m. to closing time. Happy hour specials include $5 select draft beers and house wines, as well as appetizers including empanadas, pork sliders, blackened shrimp, and chicken quesadillas, among others — all for $5.
Until recently the A&B was a remarkable two-headed drinking establishment. In the front, facing Witherspoon Street, the quiet old dining room has been replaced with a big U-shaped bar. Windows were installed on two sides, televisions hung from the ceilings, and the place was transformed into a modern day, high volume craft beer emporium.
If you were looking for a quieter, darker spot, with some leisurely food or conversation, you would walk up the alley alongside the bar and enter what people referred to as the pub, a room that had changed very little since Frank Armenante (a lawyer) and his cousin Walter Krieg (a chemist) took over the place in the early 1970s. Friends who are familiar with real English pubs thought of the A&B as Princeton’s closest equivalent to a “snuggery,” a cozy portion of the bar where people could spend a quiet moment or two.
No more. Earlier this year Armenante ripped out the old bar, raised the ceiling, extended the walls to the alleyway, and created an even bigger room than the one in the front. Judging from the crowd on a recent Saturday night, Armenante has assessed the market correctly. A noisy throng of 20 and 30-somethings mixed and matched themselves and the dozens of craft beers on tap. The old bar flies are long gone.
Looking at the crowd I realize that bars in town are not just establishments that support and complement the university, cultural venues, and historic sites that are commonly considered tourist attractions. These watering holes are destinations of their own.
J.B. Winberie, 1 Palmer Square, 609-921-0700, www.princeton.winberies.com. Open seven days a week, bar open Monday through Saturday, noon to 2 a.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Happy hour: Monday 4 p.m. to close, Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. to close, Friday 4 to 8 p.m.
The website promises that Winberie’s offers “27 taps that are always changing,” with “hard-to-get, limited edition beers.” One recent night I saw a “Southern Tier Gemini Blended Imperial Ale,” priced at $20 for a 22-ounce bottle. With it rated at 9 percent alcohol, that seemed a little stiff in more ways than one. I opted for Southern Tier IPA, just 7.3 percent alcohol and $7 for a normal sized serving.
Joe, the bartender, has been there since Winberie’s opened in 1984. I think that’s over 30 — possibly the longest tenure of any bartender in Princeton. Winberie’s was the new kid in town when Joe started there, loud and appealing to the young professionals moving into the corporate offices on Route 1 as well as in Palmer Square. It has changed very little in 32 years, but the Princeton bar scene around it has changed a lot. Today you would call Winberie’s quiet.
Mediterra, 29 Hulfish Street, 609-252-9680, www.mediterrarestaurant.com. Bar open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight, Sunday noon to 10 p.m. Flamenco on Tuesdays and Latin pop/jazz on Thursdays, 7 to 10 p.m.
Happy hour Monday through Thursday 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. and 9 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 8 to 10 p.m. Menu includes special $2 tapas.
In the heart of Palmer Square, Mediterra offers a lively bar area opposite its always busy dining room. A flamenco-style trio livens the scene on Tuesday evenings and the joint is jumping on Thursday nights, when the musicians return as a pop/jazz ensemble. Jumping? Yes, people have been known to dance (!) in the small spaces between the tables.
The website refers to the bar here as a taverna, and if you were allowed to sip your drink or cappuccino leisurely in the outdoor seating area you would think you were in Italy.
But this is Princeton, not Pettoranello, and the economics don’t permit a place this big to pass up dinner customers for some casual drinkers. (Unless you come at the quiet time between lunch and dinner and ask nicely.)
Mistral, 66 Witherspoon Street, 609-688-8808, www.mistralprinceton.com. Bar hours: Monday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to closing, generally around 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to midnight. Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Happy hour Monday 4 p.m. to closing, Tuesday through Thursday 4 to 6 p.m. Wines by the glass, $5; house cocktails, $7, $1 off draft beers. Daily food specials.
It’s not often that a bartender makes news of any kind, and it’s even less often when a bartender makes news by leaving an establishment, but that’s what Jamie Dodge did at Mistral.
Dodge, a self-taught connoisseur of cocktails and spirits, became the bartender at the original Elements restaurant on Bayard Lane. Dodge attracted attention with his flair for unique cocktails and his appreciation of the history of mixed drinks. When Elements moved to the space above Mistral on Witherspoon Street, the bar was expanded to serve both establishments, and became a prominent presence on the street.
Dodge left Mistral and Elements earlier this year to become “mixology craftsman” at the trendy Barrio Costero in Asbury Park.
Back at Mistral the “craft cocktails” continue to pour forth, under the skilled hands of “mixologists” like Russ Howell, a 2007 U. Mass-Amherst graduate who got on-the-job training at the Corkscrew wine shop on Hulfish Street and then worked for most of the past year under the tutelage of Dodge.
My companion and I venture in on an early Friday evening and Howell introduces us to Barr Hill Gin, which comes from a honeybee farmer in Vermont. We pass on the gin, but my companion orders a sazerac (a rye or cognac-based cocktail — $11 at Mistral). Russ doesn’t blink and mixes one up perfectly from memory.
Since I go to the bar more for the conversation than the cocktails, this could get tiresome. When a guy like me orders a gin and tonic, you don’t want to endure a test question: “Which gin do you prefer?” Really, gin is gin. But at Mistral it all plays out smoothly. Suggestions are made, samples are provided for tastings, the back stories of each spirit are shared.
It’s a nice interlude of about an hour. A couple of drinks each, two small plates of food to share, and a tab of about $100, including tip. In a town like Princeton, I realize, this is a modern day working person’s bar, and you had better be working to be a regular. Incidentally, one of the patrons during our visit is Laurent Chapuis, the owner of Corkscrew wine store, who is presumably a discerning drinker when he gets time off from his own business.
Teresa Caffe, 23 Palmer Square East, Princeton. 609-921-1974. www.teresacaffe.com. Brunch is Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Lunch Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Thursday 4 to 11 p.m., Friday 4 p.m. to midnight, Saturday 3 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 3 to 10 p.m. Happy hour: None.
Meet another bartender who makes restaurant news when he moves from one place to another. Back in the mid-1980s, Chris Canavari, a Hoboken guy, and his wife moved to central New Jersey when his wife’s Merrill Lynch job was transferred from Manhattan to the new campus on Scudders Mill Road. Canavari, whose father was a meat purveyor, might have gone into that business if he hadn’t started bartending for a relative’s catering business in Secaucus. When he arrived in the Princeton area he heard that Lahiere’s, the high-end French restaurant where Agricola is now located, was looking for a bartender.
He was hired there in 1987 and was the bartender until the Christen family closed the business in 2010. Under Canavari’s direction, Lahiere’s was one of those bars where you could spend an hour or two and soak up as much of the local scene as you wanted.
With one of the top three wine cellars in the state, as ranked by Wine Spectator magazine, Lahiere’s attracted a top tier clientele. When asked to name some of the celebrities who stopped by for a meal and a drink at Lahiere’s, Canavari breaks them down by category. Sports: Franco Harris, Keith Hernandez, Edwin Moses, Steve Garvey. World leaders: King Hussein and Queen Noor. Entertainment: Bruce Springsteen, Barishnykov, Glenn Close, Donald Sutherland, Carol Burnett, James Taylor, Russell Crowe, Meg Ryan, Walter Matthau, Beverly Sills, and so on.
When Lahiere’s closed, one of the local weeklies did a story: Where did Chris the bartender go? The answer, for a while, was the Peacock Inn, but, as he says now, he wasn’t “comfortable” there. Now he is at Teresa’s and very comfortable.
In nearly 30 years tending bar in Princeton, Canavari reports that the biggest changes are the transformation of quiet places like Lahiere’s into more high volume places, with lots of beverages flowing; the emergence of craft beers (he is an investor in Brix City Brewing, a craft brewery in Little Ferry, New Jersey); and the advent of specialty cocktails.
What hasn’t changed is that some bars are conducive to conversation. Some are not. One thing that helps is a bartender who can remember your name. Canavari is one who does. Another factor: If the bartender is a good conversationalist, then the bar patrons are likely to be the same. Canavari says that at a restaurant the comfort level begins at the top and flows down to the staff. I think it may flow across the bar as well.
Witherspoon Grill, 57 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-6011, www.witherspoongrill.com. Open Sunday and Monday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 or 11 p.m.
Happy hour Monday through Friday 3 to 6 p.m.: $3 drafts (Yuengling, Stella Artois, and Amstel Light only), $4 wine, $5 sangria, mojitos, and Dark and Stormy (rum with ginger beer). Food specials: pub pretzels $3, “lamb lollipops,” $6, and more. Jazz ensemble Tuesday, 6:30 to 10 p.m.
A year ago or so a neighbor of mine, recently divorced, found herself alone in town without the kids. Not wanting to eat by herself at home, she dropped in at Witherspoon Grill and ordered from the bar menu. A man commuting home from work that evening had the same thought and ended up sitting next to her. They ended up fast friends.
Then in last year’s U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue I read a short story about a middle-aged guy eating at Witherspoon, catching the eye of a woman working there, and making a connection. I wandered over to the Witherspoon Grill and discovered that the place was packed.
The explanation could be that it is a meeting place for middle aged singles. It could also be the grill — known to some as “Jack’s place,” in recognition of owner Jack Morrison — has one of the best happy hour deals in town for people of any age or marital status. But — a word to the wise — it tends not to be not a dress down kind of place.
Agricola, 11 Witherspoon Street, 609-921-2798, www.agricolaeatery.com. Bar menu: Sunday 2:30 to 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 2:30 to 5 p.m.
Happy hour Monday through Friday 2:30 to 6 p.m. with cocktails ($8), wines ($7), and beer ($5). The bar food is eclectic. For example, the old workingman’s bar standby of a hard-boiled egg has been turned into a deviled egg with “truffled” yolk and pickled mustard seeds — a $10 delicacy.
With its big windows facing out on Witherspoon Street, the Agricola bar is a light and welcoming place, where you can expect to find business professionals and university people in the early evening and a progressively younger set as the night wears on.
The heaviest thing about the place is the stool on which you sit — it is tough to maneuver if you feel the need to adjust the spacing with your next door neighbor. The barroom also features open table seating. If you and your companion are seated at a table near the window, for example, you may well find another few people joining you. For some this may be a great conversation starter. Not so much for me, and if I showed up alone I could not imagine joining any group of people at any table.
Bar Talk: Why did Momos (owners of Teresa and Mediterra) back out of running the Dinky — now under the direction of Agricola owner Jim Nawn?
Word on the street is that the liquor license did not come cheap for the new bar and restaurant that will occupy the space at the old Dinky train station waiting room and the adjacent baggage handling facility, near Princeton University’s new arts neighborhood: The university reportedly bought it last year for $1.5 million from Jack Morrison, owner of the Witherspoon Grill and Blue Point Grill.
Presumably the university would at least want to recoup its investment. At that price the Momo brothers may have decided that the capital investment was too great for a part of town that was not yet tested as a destination for dining and drinking. See below more about the new bar, which just opened in the last week of July.
A Short Drive Away
The Dinky Bar and Kitchen, 94 University Place. 609-681-2977. www.dinkybarandkitchen.com. Sunday and Monday, 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to midnight, Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
The same people who bring you Agricola on Witherspoon Street (and also Main Street Bistro at the Princeton Shopping Center) have just opened a new bar in a new space in Princeton (a rare event). The Dinky takes its name from its location: The old ticket and passenger waiting room for the “Dinky” train that runs the short stretch from Princeton to the main line at Princeton Junction.
The actual train was relocated several hundred feet further away from the town. The leftover building is now in the heart of Princeton University’s new $300 million arts neighborhood and across the street from McCarter Theater.
The bar offers the designer cocktails and craft beers that most people now expect from a bar in Princeton. In addition there are some firsts (at least for me): Sake of various types and portions, ranging in price from $8 to $15. And among the non-alcoholic choices is a “house-made” ginger beer for $4.
On opening night the bartenders acquainted themselves with some of the craft beers on tap by pouring small samples, swirling the beer in the glass, sniffing, and then sipping — like sommeliers at a fine French restaurant. For some reason I thought of all the old neighborhoods in Princeton that had lost their bars: Andy’s on Alexander, Cenerino’s on Leigh Avenue, Rosso’s on Spring Street. Here was a new bar hoping to find a neighborhood. My guess is that it will.
Metro North, 378 Alexander Street, 609-454-3121. www.metrogrills.net. Monday through Thursday bar open until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday bar open until midnight, Sunday bar open until 10 p.m. Happy hour Sunday through Friday 4 to 7 p.m. Specials include some mixed drinks and house wines for $5, and $3 drafts of Flying Fish and (beer connoisseurs will turn up their noses) Miller Lite. A good selection of appetizers are priced at $5.
If you are coming into Princeton from Route 1 the first bar you pass is Metro North, which for years had been the Rusty Scupper and then a short-lived time as JL Ivy.
It has always been a comfortable place, with an upstairs bar that complemented the busier and more public first floor bar adjoining the main dining area. And it continues to draw the Route 1 professional crowd (from places like Blackrock, for example), as well as Princeton University coaches. It makes sense: The nearest bar to Princeton Stadium and Jadwin Gym used to be Andy’s Tavern, a few blocks north on Alexander Road. Andy’s is where revered Princeton basketball coach Pete Carril used to show up after home games, often with his predecessor, Butch van Breda Kolff. Andy’s is a BYOB sushi place now. Metro North is a place to go after the game.
Conte’s Pizza, 399 Witherspoon Street, 609-921-8041, www.contespizzaandbar.com. Open seven days a week, Monday until 9 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday until 10:30 p.m., Sunday 4 to 9 p.m. Happy hour Monday through Friday, 1 to 5 p.m., $3 beers, $6 all other drinks.
Conte’s, at the other end of town from Metro North, has the longest bar in Princeton and it may also be the longest running bar with a consistent theme — a mix of pizza, sports, and beer that dates back to the 1950s or earlier.
Conte’s offers a nice Italian beer, Peroni, served in an ice cold glass for $6, but otherwise it doesn’t even pretend to hold a candle to the craft beers at the power bars uptown on Witherspoon Street. But it does have one bar item that — as far as I can tell — is unique among Princeton bars: bar snacks of potato chips, pretzels, and peanuts offered at 75 cents a bag. It’s a vanishing species — both the snacks and this kind of neighborhood bar.
Main Street Euro-American Bistro & Bar, 301 North Harrison Street, 609-921-2779, www.mainstreetprinceton.com. Bar open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. Main Street’s Clocktower Cabana outdoor restaurant bar open Memorial Day through Labor Day, 4 p.m. to close. Happy hour is Monday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m., with $2 discounts on drinks and menu items.
Given the plethora of destination bars in town, the quiet indoor bar at Main Street at the Princeton Shopping Center — with 12 seats, a half dozen tables, and just one television that is kept to low volume — is another one of the few bars in town that still approximates a “snuggery.”
But the small size of the bar doesn’t mean that it is devoid of craft beers. Main Street offers, for example, Neshaminy Creek Churchville Lager, a Pennsylvania beer billed as “a farmhouse ale with notes of tropical fruit brewed with Munich and Vienna malts.”
I flip through the cocktail menu and notice a drink made with Barr Hill Gin, which comes from that same honeybee farmer in Vermont referenced by the mixologist at Mistral. Oh no, I think to myself, I’m beginning to know one gin from another. Pretty soon I might be asking for samples of the newest craft beer so that I can smell it before ordering it. Maybe it’s time to end this pub crawl.
Bar talk: It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m not at a bar but at a picnic, chatting with a former ad salesperson at U.S. 1, who moved with her husband several years ago to South Carolina. We reminisce about her former clients, and she mentions Nassau Interiors, owned for many years by Leonard LaPlaca. She wonders if Leonard — who would be in his 90s by now — was still around. I have never met Leonard, I tell her, but I know the name. If he had died I probably would have heard about it.
The next day I stop in at Teresa’s after work. Chris Canavari is at the bar, and one of the patrons — sitting one stool away from me — is John Durovich, an IT guy who now lives in town. We get talking — bar talk is the subject — and John brings up a theory he has about “synchronicity.”
Synchronicity? John sees my puzzled look and offers an illustration, which he asks Chris the bartender to verify. One day a few weeks ago John came into Teresa’s with a coffee table book of classic sports photos. Just as Chris the bartender was passing by, John turned the page to a photo of Jim Brown, the great running back, covered in mud and fighting his way through the opposing team.
For some reason Canavari became intrigued by the photo and tried to guess the identity of the opposing team. Could it be the San Francisco 49ers? Mention of the football 49ers led to the San Francisco baseball Giants. The bartender got talking about “the shot heard round the world,” Bobby Thompson’s home run that gave the New York Giants the 1951 National League pennant.
As they were reminiscing, Chris and John tell me, an older couple sat quietly a few seats further down the bar. But at the mention of Bobby Thompson’s name the woman spoke up: “That man was my father,” she declared.
Both the bartender and the patron with the sports book were dumbfounded. Your father is the famous Giant? Yes, she said, and when he died just before the 2010 World Series and she and her sister were invited by the team to throw out an opening pitch in his honor.
That, says Durovich, is an example of “synchronicity.”
As he and Chris shake their heads in amazement at that serendipitous moment, a spry but elderly gentleman enters the bar and takes the seat between me and Durovich. Chris the bartender, always good with names, greets him. “Leonard, what can I get for you today?”
“Leonard LaPlaca,” I exclaim to the no longer anonymous man next to me. “Somebody’s been asking about you.”