I hope that the 2,000 residents who call Hopewell Borough home consider themselves lucky when it comes to dining-out options. Within their minuscule eight-tenths of a square mile exists an interesting assortment of eateries that span the range from an inexpensive, old-time luncheonette to high-end, of-the-moment restaurants offering ultra-seasonal, ultra-local, and often ultra-organic fare. Best of all, these places are locally owned, independent, highly differentiated enterprises with strong ties to the community. I could hardly be more envious.
It is the yin-yang aspect to the range that most captivates me, partly because it mirrors the makeup of the town’s population perfectly. Compare and contrast, for example, Chubby’s Luncheonette and Boro Bean (formerly the Failte Coffeehouse).
Many Hopewell residents still refer to Chubby’s (1 Railroad Place) as Rose & Chubby’s, since that was its name until Chubby, a decidedly slim, silver-haired woman (whose real name is a mystery to all) bought out Rose a few years back. (Rose still comes in to help out on Saturdays, when the luncheonette is open until 1 p.m.)
The entrance to this throwback of a lunch counter at the corner of North Greenwood Avenue and Railroad Place is so unprepossessing that it’s easy to walk right by it and not realize what’s inside. No doubt about it, inside and out, Chubby’s is weather-beaten, from the beat up linoleum floor and the layer of dust on the old wooden school desk that is part of the decor to the missing trim at the base of the counter.
I wouldn’t change any of it. Chubby’s is the kind of place that proudly displays photos of the local kids fighting in Iraq and keeps pork roll and scrapple on the breakfast menu. It’s the kind of place where certain regulars feel free to step behind the counter to pour themselves a cup of coffee, for which they get rebuked by Chubby or one of her silver-haired minions. Which leads to the kind of good-natured banter rarely heard in these parts nowadays.
Regulars include just about everyone in town, especially those over a certain age, from firefighters, farmers, and politicos, to Wall Street brokers and senior vice presidents of major consulting firms. Chubby’s is also a favorite of Betty Johnson, whose first husband was Robert Wood Johnson and whose son is the owner of the New York Jets. It was while enjoying a turkey burger at Chubby’s that Ms. Johnson was interviewed recently by the New York Times.
All of the above makes Chubby’s worth seeking out for breakfast and lunch (it’s not open for dinner), but on top of it all the no-nonsense food is often good — especially the breakfasts. And the prices, like the setting, are decades behind the times. A recent breakfast for two, comprising French toast and bacon; a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich on a squishy roll, and coffee with refills came to $11. Just don’t expect such frippery as brewed decaf — apparently considered misguided and wimpy, since Folgers crystals are the only option — or real maple syrup, when Mrs. Butterworth’s will do just fine.
To get an idea of what Boro Bean (9 East Broad Street) is like, imagine exactly the opposite of the above, except that both eateries are locally owned and serve Thomas Sweet ice cream.
In May townies Doreen and Lewis Kassel bought what had been Failte Coffeehouse from fellow townies Jean and Chris Crowell. The Kassels have retained much of the same fare, including baked goods, soups, sandwiches, wraps, energy bars, and smoothies, and their coffee and beans are still those of Small World Roasters in Rocky Hill (the people behind the Small World cafes on Witherspoon and Nassau streets). They have added a Boro Bean burrito, made with refried black beans; a chicken quesadilla; and Mediterranean flatbread. Live entertainment is offered on some Saturday and Sunday afternoons, while singer-songwriter “Miss Amy” (Amy Otey) still entertains kids at 10:30 some Monday mornings.
The Kassel family is an artistic one, so the biggest changes they have wrought are to the decor. “We have a super new sign,” Doreen Kassel says. “It has a sculptural, three-dimensional element.” The Kassels also painted the interior in powerful shades of primary red and blue; a display case features small, colorful clay-and-wire figures that Doreen creates. She is also an award-winning illustrator of children’s books, with clients ranging from National Geographic and UNICEF to HBO and Nick Jr. magazine (doreengay-kassel.com).
Lewis Kassel is a noted photographer based in Hopewell. Their children, all grown, are also photographers, artists, and musicians. Doreen, who walks to work each day, will be adding gourmet gifts for the holidays, including specialty chocolates and jams.
The erstwhile Failte is not the only Hopewell dining spot to change hands recently. Residents still bemoan the loss this summer of Soupe du Jour, the quaint, brick-floored former three-car garage on Blackwell Avenue, where Patty Phillips had been ladling out soups; baking bread; and constructing sandwiches, egg dishes, and other goodies for 27 years.
When Phillips balked at a rent increase owner Alec Gallup proposed, the two wound up in Superior Court. Reportedly 1,000 customers signed a petition to keep the place open and in Phillips’ hands but she lost the case and Soupe du Jour closed its doors in July. The irrepressible Phillips now makes her bread and soups for Pennington Market.
Also gone is Taste of the Town, nee Badger Bread Company, on Railroad Place. But if that’s a closed door then the open window is the new Peasant Grill (21 East Broad Street), on Hopewell’s main drag, Route 518, which is called Broad Street within the borough limits.
Given its name, its small size (680 square feet), the fact that it was last a bait-and-tackle shop, and its menu of mostly sandwiches, soups, and salads, I assumed it would be nothing special, especially for amply endowed Hopewell. So a friend and I were pleasantly surprised by the interesting variations, the freshness, and the care with which everything here is made.
We purposely chose two challenging sandwiches: grilled flank steak with roasted red peppers, mozzarella, and pesto, and crab cake on brioche with chipotle mayo. Owner/chef Barry Klein came through on both, especially the steak, which was surprisingly rare yet tender and flavorful. Sandwiches come with a choice of salads, and both the pasta and the potato were above average.
Klein’s wife of two years, Michelle, makes the potato salad and the desserts, with her father helping out with the latter. She describes his cheesecake as “a cross between New York style — it has cream cheese and sour cream — and Italian ricotta cheesecake.”
Everything at Peasant Grill is made from scratch and in small batches. Barry Klein has been a caterer for years, and prides himself on tweaking the classics, such as with his take on the French dip: turkey with havarti and cranberry au jus. It also explains the revolving dinner entrees that are offered strictly as take-out each evening from 5 to 8 p.m. Michelle Klein says that customer favorites in this category include shepherd’s pie (“we can’t keep it stocked”), chicken parm (“gone immediately”), crab-stuffed portobellos, and teriyaki salmon.
The Kleins live in South Brunswick but are hoping to move into Hopewell in the near future. They named their enterprise Peasant Grill “to evoke homey, home-cooked food at everyday price points,” says Michelle Klein, who decided to open an eatery because she had grown tired of the corporate world (she worked in the corporate travel department of Bristol-Myers Squibb until November, 2001) and because she wanted to showcase her husband’s gift for cooking and entertaining.
The couple says they are working “more than full time” and have two full-time and two part-time employees but they seem to relish it. Says Barry Klein: “We like to joke that some of our food is so fresh it hasn’t been made yet. Clearly, we offer sarcasm at no additional charge.”
Bistro & Inn
Virtually next door to Peasant Grill is the venerable Hopewell Valley Bistro & Inn (15 East Broad Street), which holds the distinction of being one restaurant in the borough where you can get a cocktail, beer, or glass of wine with your meal. Its decor and some of its menu reflect the Hungarian roots of the Molnar family, the second generation of which is now in charge. With its hearty fare, stucco and faux cross-timbered walls, and old-country tchotchkes, it is especially enjoyable in winter. One brisk January day, after a hike in the nearby Sourland Mountain Range, I enjoyed a lunch of salad, broccoli quiche, and palacinta (thin crepes) with apricot filling.
Hopewell Valley Bistro falls squarely in the old-timey rather than the new-agey category, and I’m told that the Eastern European dishes, such as potato pancake, chicken paprikash, schnitzel, and sauerbraten aren’t what they used to be.
On Saturday nights the bistro offers live jazz in its Starlight Room, which really does have a ceiling full of tiny, twinkling lights. In the past, performers have included jazz guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli and the Cab Calloway Orchestra. On Saturday, November 3, Stringzville performs, a local band that features Bo Child, whom many area residents know from Lawrenceville’s Village Bakery, where his wife, Karen, is the baker.
Blue Bottle Cafe
Hopewell’s premiere serious dining venues are the Blue Bottle Cafe and Brothers Moon. Even a town significantly larger than the borough would be fortunate to boast just one of these BYOs; that Hopewell supports two is a source of envy for those of us who are not so blessed.
Blue Bottle Cafe (101 East Broad Street) has filled up virtually every evening since it opened its doors 18 months ago. It is a labor of love for husband and wife Aaron and Rory Philipson, and a family affair, since their partner is Rory’s mother, Joyce MacKay. MacKay’s collection of blue glass bottles and vases provide the restaurant’s signature decor.
The Philipsons are Culinary Institute grads with experience in such high-profile restaurants as La Cote Basque, Kinkead’s, Olives, and the Ryland Inn. He is chef; she runs the front of the house, and makes the restaurant’s excellent desserts.
Its tightly focused, seasonal New American menu is tweaked every three months. Handmade potato gnocchi is a signature dish. In spring Philipson may flavor the little dumplings with herbs and pair them with mushrooms, English peas, asparagus, and truffle brown butter. In fall, though, the chef makes them from sweet potato and surrounds them with duck confit, caramelized Brussels sprouts, apple reduction, and sage brown butter.
Bold flavors and fresh ingredients are hallmarks, and the Philipsons use as much local product as possible. Menu items are thoughtfully tagged vegetarian or gluten-free when applicable. Rory Philipson’s desserts are not to be missed, especially her pavlovas and financiers, both of which are paired with interesting flavors of ice cream from Princeton’s Bent Spoon.
Down the road a bit, smack in the middle of town, chef/owner Will Mooney of Brothers Moon (7 West Broad Street) recently put another Bent Spoon flavor to deliciously different effect in his late summer menu. He created a salad of Bent Spoon avocado ice cream, which he paired with sea-salted local tomatoes and lemon, drizzled with citrus juice emulsion, and accompanied with corn chips. Mooney was among the very first New Jersey chefs to seriously commit to using local, organic, sustainable produce and natural, grass-fed meat and poultry when he opened his popular restaurant six years ago, and he has remained true to that vision.
Bright flavors and a certain lightness infuse his dishes year round, even when they employ lush ingredients, as in his filet mignon with Stilton or goat cheese and caramelized onion tart with arugula and aged balsamic vinaigrette.
Mooney has a particular way with soups and I am equally addicted to his lobster bisque and corn chowder. Brothers Moon also serves lunch — if lobster roll on brioche with herb mayo is on the menu, get it; it’s worth the $15 price tag. Brunch, too, is excellent, and here you can count on real maple syrup with your homemade buttermilk pancakes.
In its decor the restaurant plays up the celestial theme its name implies to pretty, serene effect. Water tumblers, for example, are the color of the night sky and sport gold moons and stars, while gauzy curtains are interspersed with tiny white lights.
All of the above eateries are located within walking distance of each other inside the borough. Although Hillbilly Hall (203 Hopewell-Wertsville Road) is neither of these — technically it’s in Hopewell Township, a few miles up North Greenwood Avenue from Broad Street — I include it because it perfectly represents the rural, farm-and-mountain aspect of Hopewell’s past and present.
The red-sauce Italian menu is a holdover from its days as Mignella’s, before Charlie Mignella turned it over to his daughter, Kathy Wagner. The food is not the draw here though; it’s the authentic country roots and rough-around-the-edges quality to the bar. Country line dancing takes place on Tuesday nights; biker night is Wednesdays. Hillbilly Hall is an official deer hunter’s check-in station, and during hunting season hunters do, indeed, bring their “harvest” right into the restaurant.
For several years Hillbilly Hall was home to the Sourland Music Festival until the festival outgrew the space. The festival’s organizers, the award-winning folksingers and songwriters Jr. Bliggins and Reverend Truman Goines, have composed and recorded a song called “Hillbilly Hall,” the refrain of which goes, “Take a left at the light, go up the mountain and on your right, and if you get into a fight well that’s all right.”
It’s a far cry from smoothies, duck confit, pavlova, avocado ice cream, and boutique coffee, but I relish that tiny Hopewell is big enough to embrace them all.
Pat Tanner is a Princeton-based freelance food writer. She is the restaurant critic for New Jersey Life magazine. Her reviews can be found at www.newjerseylife.com.
Blue Bottle Cafe, 101 East Broad Street. 609-333-1710, www.thebluebottlecafe.com.
Boro Bean, 9 East Broad Stree. 609-466-6681.
Brothers Moon, 7 West Broad Street. 609-333-1330, www.brothersmoon.com.
Chubby’s Luncheonette, 1 Railroad Place. 609-658-2623.
Hillbilly Hall Tavern and Restaurant, 203 Hopewell-Wertsville Road (North Greenwood Avenue). 609-466-9856, www.hillbillyhall.com.
Hopewell Valley Bistro & Inn , 15 East Broad Street. 609-466-9889, www.hopewellvalleybistro.com.
Peasant Grill, 21 East Broad Street. 609-466-7500.