Editor's note: With school starting up again, we'll be sharing our favorite campus eats at universities across the country.
Princeton, New Jersey, may be a charming town attached to a strikingly beautiful campus, but it's still a small New Jersey suburb: meaning, no one expects the food to be great. And given Princeton's close connection to the university, its affiliates and its alumni, there are some institutions—PJ's Pancake House comes to mind—that hang on well past what seems like a logical expiration date (did that place ever serve a good brunch, or is it just that Preston Witherforth '81 will still come back to campus and subject his wife and kids to pancake memories?). A French restaurant that shut down a few years back seemed to be solely patronized by grey-haired professors and their similarly professorial-looking guests.
Still, there are good eats in Princeton if you know where to look—from an ice cream shop that I prefer to any in New York, to excellent soups and sandwiches at an always-lively coffee shop, to genuinely avant-garde fine dining. (That last one, to me, is the biggest surprise. I shook my head in amusement the first time I took a train from New York down to Princeton for dinner. I'd spent several years accustomed to it being the other way around.)
Here's my guide to good eats in and around Princeton. Others you love? Chime in, in the comments.
Best Late-Night or Morning After: Hoagie Haven
Any self-respecting college town needs a greasy late-night food stop, preferably with quarterback-filling portions, 2 a.m. crowds, and rich local legend. In Princeton, that place is Hoagie Haven—or, more often, just "The Haven." It's not just for students, in fairness—the town of Princeton is more than the university that shares its name, and Hoagie Haven is as throwback Jersey as a sandwich shop could be. But no one needs a good Saturday hoagie like a college undergrad.
A Princeton institution since the 1970s, the Haven is about as no-frills as an eatery gets: fluorescent lights, no seating, cash only. The menu, on a row of old-school signs, lists the Haven's original sandwiches by number: the Bacon Cheese Steak, #16; the Meatball, #23. Inspired by the Grease Trucks at Rutgers University up in New Brunswick, Hoagie Haven invented its own line of super-greasy novelty sandwiches. Like the Phat Lady, a veritable graduation requirement—a cheesesteak with mozzarella sticks and French fries right in the bun. Or the infamous Sanchez, which stuffs fried chicken tenders, hot mozzarella sticks, and fries in a hoagie roll, with an extra blanket of cheese and tangy, spicy Sanchez sauce.
There's not really a wrong order at the Haven, but remember: it's not a sub, or a hero, or a sandwich you're ordering. It's a hoagie. If you misspeak, you will be loudly and promptly corrected.
Runner-Up: Villa Pizza
Okay, I would never claim that Villa Pizza is good pizza. There's a branch of this chain in the ground-floor student center food court, and as it's open until 3am on weekends (and it's only place other than convenience store WaWa—sorry, "The Wa"—that is), it's pretty much the most popular thing going.
Here's the thing. Get a slice for lunch, and it's just on this side of serviceable. The crust is a little stiff, the cheese a little gluey. But get a slice at 2:30am on a Friday and not only will your inebriation make it seem better, but the insane pizza turnover—pies are coming out of the oven every minute, and cut up and slices flung across the counter just as quickly—that you're getting a melty, drippy, too-hot-to-eat slice every time. Which is all I really want in late-night pizza.
Villa Pizza, Frist Campus Center (map)
Best Breakfast and Desserts: The Little Chef
I've already written my love story to the Little Chef half a dozen times on this site, so I'll just point you over to this article. Every morning, the Haitian-born Edwige Fils-Aimé (or "Pouchon," to friends and regulars) makes a few hundred croissants, brioches, and danishes that inevitably sell out before they fully cool from the oven. One of those and a Lavazza cappuccino is my idea of a perfect morning. (Which is why I went there just about every day, second semester of my senior year.)
8 South Tulane Street (map); 609-924-5335
Best Coffee Shop Vibe: Small World Coffee
Small World looks like the hipster coffee shop of just about any mid-sized town, but not only is the coffee excellent—the prepared foods are, too. For pastries I'll always hit the Little Chef, but for steel-cut oatmeal, a memorable spicy sweet potato soup, or egg sandwiches with Nueske's bacon, I'm there.
Best Ice Cream: Take Your Pick
If there's one thing Princeton does right, it's ice cream. And we've got to start with The Bent Spoon, which I prefer to any ice cream shop in New York. Opened in May of 2004 by Gabrielle Carbone and Matt Errico, The Bent Spoon is less an ice cream shop than a lab of ingredient wizardry. Sure, they have a few standard house flavors—no, not chocolate chip and strawberry; more like chocolate habanero and cardamom ginger. But "seasonality" doesn't quite capture the philosophy behind the rest of their rotating offerings. It's not "Where can I get the best ingredients for this ice cream?" Rather, "This is what I want to be eating right now. Let's make an ice cream out of it!"
The Spoon works closely with surrounding farmers and dairies, milking the most out of their New Jersey location. Princeton may be a straight shot down the Northeast Corridor from New York, but wander half a mile outside the town proper and the farms pop up around every bend.
But it's not the only great ice cream in Princeton. For those who love classic rich dairy flavors, go for Halo Pub, a totally old-school Northeast creamery; and if you want ice cream that's a little more fun, a huge sundae with six toppings or Oreos blended into your sweet cream ice cream, say, Thomas Sweet (or "T Sweets").
Best Date Night: Teresa Caffe
When I was an undergrad, I wouldn't exactly say that students dated. You might be "seeing" someone or "hanging out with" someone or, eventually, in a relationship with someone, but actually dating—as in, "I am asking you on a date"—was exceedingly rare.
Still, Teresa's is such a date-y place that I ended up on a good dozen dates there by the time I graduated. It's a bustling Italian restaurant with a lively bar, decent wine list, pizzas flying out of the wood-burning oven, and a menu that's a good bit more interestingly current than you might think, given that it's mostly pasta and pizza. Many of the ingredients are grown on the restaurant group's own farm, so in warmer months it's a fantastic place for vegetable-heavy specials. What's more, it's insanely consistent: I've spent 10 years eating the chicken Penne all' Arrabbiata and it's never let me down.
Great weekend brunch, too.
Take The Parents: Mediterra
Owned by the same folks as Teresa's, Mediterra is a more upscale restaurant with wider culinary influence, its roots in Italy but its Mediterranean scope including Spain, Greece, southern France, and the Middle East. (The pasta is excellent but the meze are too.) My parents insisted on eating here every time they were in town, which suited me just fine.
Actually Interesting: Elements
Before Elements opened in October 2008, after my time at school down there, there wasn't much in the way of fine dining in the area, at least in terms of places you'd want to spend your time or money. But Elements is a genuinely exciting place, and chef Scott Anderson a genuine talent. Believe me, it's the only place in town you'd order a tasting menu; and the only place where beef tongue or Japanese herring or a morcilla brownie would end up on your plate. Definitely a place for the food-obsessed (rather than those just looking for a nice dinner)—the menu at Elements is challenging, in a great way.
Best Indian: Masala Grill
Princeton has three Indian restaurants in its downtown area alone, each with their own particular strengths. When I was there, I liked Kalluri Corner for its buffet, Mehek for its affordability, and Masala Grill for the food itself. Real heat in the curries, real range in the options, and nut-stuffed Afghani na'an that I still find myself thinking back to sometimes. Bonus: they're BYO. (Princeton has a good number of BYO restaurants, which I'm sure is entirely due to local beverage license quirks and not at all to do with the fact that 19-year-olds love toting in their own booze.)
15 Chambers Street (map), 609-921-0500
Tradition I've Never Understood: PJ's Pancake House
I don't wanna bash my alma mater's traditions*, but every time I see lines down the block for brunch at PJ's Pancake House, I sigh. It's a totally decent-and-nothing-more diner where the pancakes themselves are... fine. There aren't that many bad diner pancakes out there, but there aren't many excellent ones, either, and PJ's just falls firmly into that wide swath of mediocrity.
But, wow: looking them up, I just realized they have the domain "pancakes.com." Pretty precocious, PJ's.
*This is pretty much the opposite of true. It's pretty easy to make fun of Princeton.
And A Little More From A Local....
Friend of Serious Eats and former contributor Tam Ngo, who lives near Princeton, recommends Nassau Street Seafood (for the oyster po' boy, soft-shell crab sandwich, fish tacos, and seared sea scallops); Blue Point Grill (particularly grilled sardines, octopus, and whole bronzini); the Spicy Beef Noodle Soup from Tiger Noodle; Taiwanese breakfast foods from Shanghai Park; and the cider slushie, cider doughnut holes, and Griggstown Chicken Pot Pie from all-around awesome farm Terhune Orchards.
Where do you like to eat in Princeton? Or, if you're an alum, where do you fondly remember? Let me know in the comments.