- Debra Bruno Special to The Washington Post
Home to both Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, draws smart people from all over the world. That creates a small world of cuisines close together - dozens of Chinese, Indian, Thai, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Italian, French, Spanish, Austrian, Mexican and Guatemalan offerings, as well as all-American pub food - within a few blocks of the main commercial drag of Nassau Street. Princeton also is in the middle of the Garden State's farm country, so farm-to-table restaurants have blossomed. Keep in mind that Princeton's impressive brainpower seems to be fueled more by caffeine than booze, as New Jersey's complex alcohol laws mean that many restaurants don't have a liquor license. Even so, most restaurants are willing to let you bring your own.
Small World Coffee (smallworldcoffee.com, 609-924-4377, ext. 2) has been a Princeton institution since 1993. This cash-only cafe on Witherspoon Street (with a smaller location a few blocks east on Nassau Street) offers seriously delicious coffee from its own roaster, including flavors such as Crispy Hippie and Love ($3.60 or $4.85 for latte), and a "tough chai" tea ($3.40 or $4.65) that is assertively spicy. To go with these drinks, you could opt for the cafe's popular carrot cupcake ($4) as long as you acknowledge that it's carrot cake for breakfast, not that there's anything wrong with that, but you could also pick up some delicious baked granola in a to-go cup, steel-cut Irish oatmeal ($3.50 for a small, $4.75 for a large), a breakfast burrito ($5.75) or egg-and-potato sandwich ($5.50). Other popular drinks include mango lassi ($7), Mexican hot chocolate ($4.15) and hot caramel cider ($4). The place is so popular that there are often long lines, but the cafe displays local art for sale to ponder while you wait and there's live music on Saturday evenings.
Marhaba Middle Eastern Restaurant (marhabaprinceton.com [website not fully operational yet], 609-423-2850) has only been open for a few months on Nassau Street, Princeton's main commercial drag, but it's already a town favorite judging from the crowds - and the sometimes-sluggish service. The halal dishes are mainly Egyptian, but you'll find Moroccan and Tunisian influences. Prices are reasonable, the quantities are generous and the bread - including pita and a kind of Egyptian calzone called ouzi - is made in a clay oven in the back of the room. Add in golden lamps, latticed cherry wood and plenty of tables add to the charms. A super-smooth hummus appetizer ($6.50) is dotted with harissa and served with hot pita; the fatush salad ($9.90) is entree-size and customized with golden raisins and almond slivers; and the falafel sandwich ($6.90) comes stuffed with lettuce, tomato, cucumber and tahini.
Confession: I have issues with places that describe themselves as an "eatery" - and in this case a "community eatery" - but in the matter of Agricola Eatery (agricolaeatery.com, 609-921-2798) the food really is good enough to overcome the pretension and friendly enough to warrant the "community" feel. Agricola - whose name means "farmer" in Latin - has its own organic farm, for the restaurant's vegetables, about 20 miles from Princeton. This spot has a liquor license and specializes in cutesy but tasty cocktails. Try the popular Queen Bee - camomile-infused vodka, honey, lemon, mint and sparkling wine ($12). For dinner, two great choices are the spice-braised short ribs ($32), with red cabbage, cauliflower, and red wine sauce, or the scallops ($32), served with parsnips, pears, Brussels sprouts and speck (a smoked meat). Desserts include an autumn apple crisp ($10) made with apples from nearby Terhune Orchards and pumpkin pot de creme ($10) with maple caramel, pumpkin pecan brittle and ginger chantilly.
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Bruno is a writer based in the Washington. Find her on Twitter: @brunodebbie.