This article was originally published in the August 2017 Princeton Echo.
When Princeton University’s new arts and transit neighborhood around the old Dinky train station was just a massive construction site, skeptics wondered how anyone would be able to turn that off-the-beaten-path area into a stage for a viable restaurant.
After all, Elements restaurant had already tried to run against the prevailing tide by establishing itself in a sleek but out-of-the-way building on Bayard Lane at the corner of Leigh Avenue. It eventually relocated to the space above Mistral in the heart of the central business district.
Soon after came word that the Momo organization, which had originally signed on to operate the two new restaurants in the new Lewis Center for the Arts, had pulled out. Some wondered: Is the Dinky site, a good 10 or 15-minute walk from the bright lights of Palmer Square and Witherspoon Street, just not commercially viable for a full service, large-scale restaurant?
Into that valley of doubt walks Jim Nawn of Fenwick Hospitality Group, which already operates Agricola on Witherspoon Street and Main Street Bistro/Cafe in the Princeton Shopping Center (more about that below) and produces some of its food supplies from its own Great Road Farm. Last fall Nawn opened the first piece of the arts center dining puzzle: The Dinky Bar at the site of the old ticket office. And just last month Nawn opened the culinary centerpiece of the project: Cargot Brasserie, a French themed, full service restaurant open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The name, Cargot, is pronounced like cargo — the baggage that used to be stored in the 100-year-old stone building — and it is a deliberate play on the classic escargot found at French restaurants. But Cargot is not a formal French restaurant. “We serve a seasonally changing menu of French inspired brasserie classics,” says the website, “classic dishes with contemporary interpretations.”
Since the new restaurant is located in the same orbit as McCarter Theater and the university’s new arts center, it seems appropriate that the menu set the stage for some surprises and a little mystery. At dinner you might find some entrees not offered anywhere else in town: The black seabream, served with potato gratin and truffle, $25; or a traditional French bean and grain cassoulet with melted leeks, mushrooms, and brie brulee, $23, for example.
At breakfast there’s a torte Provencal, with egg, spinach, peppers, and mushrooms, $11, that resembles a quiche. At dinner recently two Princetonians with many miles of world travel under their belts were stumped by the $12 menu item called “Pas de Deux,” in which diners can choose two of three items: Dolin Blanc, Bonal Gentiane Qiuna, and Genepy des Alpes. One of our world travelers suspected they were an assortment of cheeses. The other didn’t have a clue. We asked the server: They are aperitifs.
Along with the food drama, there’s the business drama — will the arts neighborhood provide the critical mass needed to sustain the full service restaurant and the cafe-style bar? “Nothing is going to be as busy as the center of town,” says Nawn. “It would be foolish to think that.” In fact, Cargot has 130 seats inside and another 60 or so outside, compared to Agricola’s 205.
But if you think of concentric circles moving away from town, he says, it’s reasonable to expect spots on those circles to attract patrons both from the town itself and from the outskirts. Cargot and the Dinky Bar, he says, are both likely to draw some people coming into town from Route 1. At the same time the new restaurants will be sitting smack in the middle of a park-like setting (only now becoming clear to a visitor) that will house the new Lewis Center.
“There will be a lot of constituencies that will come in,” says Nawn. The area will also include some spots for outdoor performances and informal busking. “There will be a lot going on in this neighborhood and someone is going to need food” — just as the Broadway crowd needs Sardi’s.
The fact that the university planned for two restaurants here is a good thing, Nawn says. “The Dinky is a very small building and it’s tough to make a restaurant work economically in that small a space.” But in conjunction with Cargot, Nawn feels there is a workable balance particularly with respect to staffing, which can “scale up and down” as necessary. And he doesn’t need to keep the big restaurant open until the last guy at the bar has nursed his last drink. Cargot doesn’t stay open past 10 p.m.; the Dinky Bar and its late night, cafe menu is open for “after” parties until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; to midnight Tuesday through Thursday; and to 11 p.m. Sundays and Mondays.
Another initial concern, parking, is being addressed. Meters at 26 spaces on University Place are expected to be changed soon from 14-hour limits to 3-hour, enabling more turnover for potential Cargot customers.
All that has to factor into the balancing act that Nawn and his company perform to keep their venues running in a sustainable fashion. “The risk is getting caught up so much in the food and the service that they don’t line up with revenue,” Nawn says. “I’m trying to balance all these things. I know I have to get to a certain level of revenue to break even.”
One place where the balance has not worked out is at the venerable Main Street Cafe in the Princeton Shopping Center. Nawn bought that restaurant, along with its Rocky Hill-based catering operation and its Kingston cafe in early 2016 from John Marshall, son of the original owner, Sue Simpkins. “At Main Street we tried to make some changes” to bring the business into balance and “we spent some money on renovations.” But after 16 months “the regulars didn’t like it,” Nawn says, “and — guess what — the changes didn’t attract any new people, either.”
So Nawn is turning his attention, and the Main Street liquor license, over to his next act, the opening of a new restaurant at 277 Witherspoon Street, in the building now under construction next to the AvalonBay apartment complex at the site of the old hospital. The name: Two Sevens. Once again Nawn is betting on a location that’s in a concentric circle from “restaurant row,” roughly the same distance away from Nassau Street — but in the opposite direction — as Cargot is.
Nawn says Two Sevens will be unlike Cargot and Agricola. The term “affordable” is overused and means different things to different people, Nawn says, but Two Sevens will be on “the value side.” The interior will have a “light industrial feel, with open ceiling and concrete floor,” he says. “We will try to be minimalistic. If you come in and want a beer and a couple of tacos you could do it. If you want a composed meal with a plate of fish as the entree you could do that too.”
Nawn says that he and his chefs are deliberating about the “food niche” for the new restaurant. “It’s been formed in my head,” he says, “and now I’m trying to articulate it. We’re probably a week into a two-week process.”
Given that Nawn is just weeks into the opening of Cargot, you might think that Two Sevens is another year away from opening. Probably much less, he says. The landlord is ahead of schedule on the building and expecting the new restaurant to take occupancy before the end of the year. Time is of the essence.
You realize the restaurateur is sometimes the guy on the high wire, doing his balancing act. At other times he’s the director, with one show up and running and the next show moving into rehearsals. Playing off the old theater good luck greeting, and mindful of what’s needed to make an omelet, someone should tell Nawn to “break an egg.”
Cargot Brasserie, 98 University Place, Princeton. 609-772-4934. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week. A “cafe menu” is available daily from 3 to 5 p.m.