This article was originally published in the June 2018 Princeton Echo.
My morning commute used to take me past PJ’s Pancake House on foot. Early on weekday mornings there is no line out the door, the way there is at brunch time on weekends, so the Nassau Street landmark would have faded into the landscape most days were it not for the usually mouthwatering smell of greasy, freshly cooked bacon that wafted out of the restaurant.
It’s been five years since I last made that commute, and while PJ’s still serves bacon, the landscape has changed. Under its old-fashioned awning, those eager weekend diners are now waiting in a line where they can see and smell the bacon. A faux grass carpet covers the sidewalk just outside PJ’s front door with tables set for diners to enjoy their pancakes al fresco.
PJ’s is a one of a growing number of Princeton dining establishments that offer outdoor dining, and that’s no coincidence. The town’s “Streetscape Design Standards” published in 2016 specifically encouraged outdoor dining in areas with sidewalks at least 16 feet wide — as they are on Nassau Street in the central business district. The study, with the stated goal of enhancing the appearance and pedestrian-friendliness of downtown areas, recommended outdoor dining directly adjacent to restaurants or in the sidewalk’s “furnishing zone,” adjacent to the curb and so named because it is intended for furniture: places for people to see and be seen — and eat.
PJ’s, next door to one of the town’s busiest intersections, serves that purpose, as do the various fast casual establishments that line Nassau Street. Panera has a handful of tables outside, as does Jammin’ Crepes and Cafe Vienna. Patrons of other establishments — the new and perpetually crowded Tacoria, FruttaBowls, and 30Burgers, to name a few — take advantage of benches located at regular intervals along the sidewalk. Tacoria also has two newly installed picnic tables right outside.
An astute observer down by Hoagie Haven will notice that the trash cans near the benches there are adorned with stickers for the restaurant’s famous Sanchez sauce — a sure sign that diners there have adopted the benches as their own.
Witherspoon Street does not benefit from 16-foot sidewalks, but it does not lack for benches near Mamoun’s Falafel, Olives, and Small World Coffee. Small World has the added benefit of the newly reinstalled “parklet” occupying two parking spots right outside its door. Witherspoon Street also benefits from Hinds Plaza outside the library and its array of benches and freestanding tables and chairs.
Some people eat outside as a way to see and be seen. Others can dine outdoors in relative seclusion. Tucked behind Taste of Mexico — next to the small alleyway that runs between Nassau Street and the parking lot behind CVS — is a small outdoor seating area. A patio behind Nassau Sushi allows patrons to eat outside while also avoiding the hustle-bustle of the eponymous street. Also invisible from the street is the backyard of Ivy Inn, where people can eat and drink outside.
Tucked just past the back end of the Palmer Square is a secluded outdoor seating area that belongs to the Yankee Doodle Tap Room. The entrance from Palmer Square West has its own hostess stand, so there is no need to pass through the Nassau Inn’s lobby and main dining room if the goal is to eat outside. The tables are shaded by umbrellas, and a side door to neighboring Lindt Chocolate is accessible from the courtyard to tempt diners who saved some room for dessert.
In the small alleyway off Witherspoon next to Alchemist & Barrister are a couple of benches and a few small tables. It can be tempting to bring your beer outside on a nice day or temperate evening but be warned: the majority of people taking advantage of those seats are doing so in order to smoke while they imbibe.
At the end of the alleyway Teresa’s has cut out its own nook that offers a decent number of tables, about half of which are protected from the elements by an overhang from the building. But on a recent busy night with rain clouds threatening overhead, eager diners didn’t hesitate to accept tables in the section fully exposed to mother nature.
You can also hide by going up. One story up from Nassau Street, Spanish emporium Despana offers patio seating overlooking the street-level outdoor dining at the other ethnic spots on the block — Thai Village and Efe’s Mediterranean Grill. You can also experience international flavors and New Jersey air quality on the other side of Nassau Street at Eps Corner (Chinese), Cafe Vienna, and Mehek (Indian).
Across the street, Blue Point Grill is a prime spot for being seen, but its new glass-enclosed facade also offers rooftop seating, accessible from a staircase on Pine Street, with 10 tables available from 5 p.m. on weekdays. The glass enclosure itself offers a happy medium for ambivalent diners: the glass offers a mostly unobstructed view of the world going by, but there is a roof overhead and the enclosure, with its sliding doors, offers some measure of climate control.
The enclosure extends to Small World Coffee’s smaller Nassau Street cafe, which serves hot breakfast and lunch items, and on a cold, rainy recent morning, there were still patrons enjoying their coffee and croissants in the semi-outdoor space.
But if your goal is to be seen, chances are you want to be seen at Princeton’s more upscale establishments. Adjacent to the open space in Hinds Plaza is Witherspoon Grill’s own outdoor seating area, roped off to keep non-diners out, prohibit smoking, and — critically — allow alcoholic drinks to be consumed. In cooler months portable heaters are stationed among the tables to allow al fresco dining beyond the warmest months.
Across Witherspoon Street, Mistral offers a few outdoor seats that are partially protected by an overhang and also benefit from outdoor heaters. Additionally, the seating area past the bar — where Ichiban once was — features large glass doors that can be opened to let in the fresh air, even if the view is just of a parking lot.
Continuing down Hulfish Street is Mediterra’s front door flanked by a full complement of tables for outdoor dining.
The Central Business District is not the town’s only spot for outdoor dining. Metro North, on Alexander Road, and Trattoria Procaccini, next to the Whole Earth Center, have outdoor patios.
Prior to its closing Main Street’s Cabana Bar at the Princeton Shopping Center offered an easy place to park, grab a drink, a settle in a comfortable outdoor seat. The bar is gone — and with it the only full liquor license in use at the center — but there are still places to eat outside.
Nomad Pizza added to the gas station that once stood at its site with a seating area that can be enclosed in bad weather and opened when the sun comes out. And while it’s technically BYO it offers a small selection of area wines. And the center’s inner courtyard offers benches and tables for customers at Pizza Star, Cross Culture, Surf Taco, Lilipies, and Bon Appetit — where diners inside and out have the added bonus of music being piped through speakers and into the courtyard.
That Main Street liquor license, by the way, went to Two Sevens on Witherspoon Street, where there is a patio for diners to “meet eat repeat” — as signage at the restaurant suggests — outdoors.
Two Sevens restaurateur Jim Nawn’s first Princeton establishment, Agricola, offers no outdoor seating, but his recent additions at the site of the former Dinky train station do. The Dinky Bar has a mix of traditional table-and-chair as well as couch-like seating around lower tables to serve the after-work, pre-theater, and easier-to-park-here-than-downtown crowd. Next door Cargot offers patio seating, covered with a tent during recent warm-but-rainy weather.
If dinner is over but you can’t get enough of that fresh air, there’s always dessert. The courtyard next to Thomas Sweet Ice Cream offers tables and chairs that also serve customers of the Say Cheez grilled cheese shop there. Kids can play on the grassy front lawn of 185 Nassau Street next door.
People who have braved the line at the Bent Spoon can eat their ice cream and cupcakes at small tables across the street in the Palmer Square green and also hear live music on Saturdays in July and August from noon to 2 p.m.