Monday, July 11, 2011

Our Favorite Al Fresco Dining Spots In Mercer County

 The patio at Rat's in Hamilton Township makes diners feel as 
though they've stepped into an impressionist painting. 
Photo by David W. Steele, courtesy of Rat's

It’s no secret that Mercer restaurant goers love their al fresco dining. Whether its sidewalk bistro tables a mere feet from tailpipes coughing exhaust, or lushly landscaped patios tucked away amongst the trees, the demand for outdoor seating certainly exceeds the current supply. 

Mediterra in Princeton.
Photo by GSOAP

We’ve surveyed Mercer’s options and selected a few restaurants that offer their customers a choice of inside, or out.  While the outdoor décor may vary amongst the dining spots on our list, what they all have in common is the quality of their kitchens. Simply put, we would be just as likely to reserve a table inside during the chill of December, as outside on a humidity free evening in July. 

Great people watching is on the menu at 
Witherspoon Grill in Princeton.
Photo courtesy of Witherspoon Grill.

We’ve limited our list to Mercer restaurants that offer an ambience beyond simple sidewalk seating. Therefore our apologies to these fine establishments: Chamber’s Walk Café and Acacia along Lawrenceville’s restaurant row on Rt. 206; Princeton’s seafood standout Blue Point Grill; and to a restaurant that could be credited as the catalyst for turning tiny Hopewell Borough into a culinary destination, The Brothers Moon.

Patio dining at Za Restaurant in Pennington
Photo courtesy of Za.

Feel free to add your suggestions for outdoor dining in the comment section. We will also be adding to our list as we discover new restaurants.

18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton, NJ 08619 609-584-7800
Try as you might, you will not find a more lovely setting for outdoor dining than Rat’s patio overlooking Seward Johnson’s art venue Grounds For Sculpture. While the scenic view may evoke 19th century impressionist paintings, the cuisine is decidedly present day. Currently managed by Philadelphia’ Stephen Starr Events, Rat’s is offering Tuesday through Friday happy hour from 4PM to 7PM with reduced price drinks and specialty appetizers, including a rare, south of the Canadian border version of Poutine (French fries, gravy and gruyere). 

147 West Delaware Ave., Pennington, NJ 08534 609-737-4400
Za, which describes itself accurately as “cross cultural comfort cuisine,” offers 48 seats nestled in a wisteria-trellised garden with ceiling fans, French styled bistro chairs and small water fountain. The eclectic menu of French Culinary Institute trained chef and owner Mark Valenza includes appetizers Smoked Paprika Hummus and Sweet and Spicy Crab Cakes, and entrees such as gluten free items Sesame Tuna Royale and Chateaubriand.  BYOB-beer, wine and sparkling wine.

29 Hulfish St. Princeton, NJ 08542 609-252-9680
They had us at the fountain. Yes, the plumes of water spouting from the circular fountain that anchors the plaza on Hulfish Street and welcomes patrons to Mediterra restaurant is the star of the patio. While reservations are accepted for indoors, it’s first-come, first-serve for the 75 seats outside. One of several establishments under the highly regarded Terra Momo Restaurant Group, Medittera draws inspiration from the cuisines of the 21 countries surrounding the Mediterranean as evidenced by Roasted Butternut Squash & Arugula Risotto and Pork Saltimbocca. Pasta Night on Wednesdays and “dinner and a movie” specials on July 19th and August 16th (in conjunction with the nearby Princeton Public Library) are currently offered.

57 Witherspoon St., Princeton, NJ 08542 609-924-6011
Located at the rear of Hind Plaza with its neighbor the Princeton Public Library, Witherspoon Grill wins first place in the people watching sweepstakes, and although we’re concentrating on outdoor spaces, we would be remiss if we neglected to mention the fabulous indoor design of the bar and restaurant inside. This classic American steakhouse serves fine, aged Prime Angus beef that reminds us with every bite that we ordinary consumers simply don’t have access to the best meats on the market. There are 46 additional seats for dinner out front. A side patio, which handles overflow outdoor seating during lunch, is staffed with a cocktail server on Friday and Saturday evenings for drinks and appetizers.

234 West Upper Ferry Rd. Ewing, NJ 08628 609-882-1150
Sitting at one of the umbrella tables on the front patio of Paulie’s Anna Rose is a little like dining at a romantic Victorian “summer cottage” in Newport. Although it faces the road, its elevation and distance from the curb keeps any disturbance from passing cars to a minimum. The menu is standard, Italian-American fare well prepared. Make sure you get on their email list as they may be the most prolific direct to consumer coupon distributor, and the deals are great. They also offer weekday happy hour with complimentary pasta station.

Eleven Front Bar & Grill
11 W. Front St., Trenton, NJ 609-392-6900.
The newest bright light in the evolving dining scene in Trenton.  This family owned restaurant in downtown Trenton is quickly becoming the place to be seen (and overheard). Though not a concern for evenings, the covered, well designed, outdoor seating area of blonde concrete and tall white fencing is somewhat stark during harsh sunlight. Some added greenery (which we will assume is on order considering the thoughtful design of the interior) will help. The kitchen does justice to their “passed down through generations” signature tomato sauce by serving just the right amount (no soup please) over piping hot, perfectly cooked, al dente pasta. Hold off on the salt, pepper and cheese, as the dish is precisely seasoned when it arrives.

301 North Harrison Street, Princeton, NJ 08540 609-921-2779
Main Street offers one of the largest and most spacious outdoor dining options in the area.  Carved out of the central courtyard of the rectangular shaped Princeton Shopping Center, the dual purposed space includes Main Street Bistro’s recently renovated terrace  with umbrella tables and the adjacent Clcoktower Cabana bar with lounge seating. Well-known for years as a top notch corporate and social caterer, Main Street’s blend of classic bistro dishes, (Mac’N Triple Cheese) and current flavor trends (Moroccan Lamb Sliders) earned it a selection on Bon Appetite Magazine’s list of “America’s Best Neighborhood Restaurants.”

Princeton Shopping Center, 201 N.Harrison St., Princeton, NJ 08540 609-252-0608
Also located in the Princeton Shopping Center, a mere stone’s throw away from Main Street’s Clocktower Cabana, this charming Italian-American trattoria leans more toward Italian than the American side of their culinary equation. And that’s fine with us. It is nearly impossible to walk past the restaurant without stopping to read the menu, and if you do, be prepared to stay a while as items such as Papparadelle with Sausage Ragout, Pecorino and Truffle  Oil and Branzino Braverese are hard to resist.

(A version of this article was originally published in the July/August issue of Mercer's County Woman Newspaper. Copies of the newspaper are free and available at sites throughout Mercer County.)

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