When you live in New York City, sometimes you've just got to escape. I'm not talking about the kind of escape where you hop a flight and ditch the noise, crowds, and chaos for a couple of weeks, although those are great. I'm talking about the quick getaway, the I've-slammed-into-too-many-people-and-need-some-freaking-space escape.
City folk that we are though, we don't always want to head for the boonies and its wide-open spaces. We still want some form of life going on around us, coffee-houses, shops, people, and especially good food. And, we want getting there to be easy. No rental car necessary, a train will do.
Only an hour from Penn Station, Princeton is one of those quaint little Northeast towns that's full of Rockwell-esque charm, only it also has great shops, and thanks to the university, interesting people and places, and surprisingly good food.
While there's not a huge choice of lodging to stay over in Princeton, to me, there's really only one place, The Peacock Inn. An old establishment, The Peacock's come up to date with a complete renovation that brings modernity to the antiquity of the original building (it used to be bright purple). Rooms are sleek, large, luxuriously appointed (a bed from heaven), and some rooms even have large jacuzzi bathtubs (romance, anyone?). Plus, you can walk to The Peacock Inn from the Princeton train station.
The bar at The Peacock is a local watering hole gone posh, where the bartender knows people by name, and their favorite drink. And while he doesn't call himself a "mixologist" he's nevertheless created some great cocktails you'll only find here, and that you'll definitely want to sample.
But for us New York foodies, perhaps the best thing about The Peacock Inn is the restaurant. It was actually a lunch at The James Beard House that introduced me to Executive Chef Manuel Perez, and motivated me to head out to Princeton after a particularly stressful couple of weeks.
Always seasonal, Perez's menu offers both á la carte choices and two different Chef's Tastings. My meal at The Peacock Inn began with an amuse of silky Sweet Potato and Coconut soup with lobster. Then it moved on to a Bison Carpaccio served with tasty biscotti made with Parmigiano; Day Boat Scallops with a savory-sweet parsnip and apple purée; a Foie Gras Terrine with peanut-butter shortbread; a rich butter-poached Maine lobster with celery root tagliatelle (cooked perfectly al dente); and finally a crispy Berkshire Pork Belly and moist Loin with a walnut-chestnut purée.
The meal was so good that I'd even venture to say that if the Michelin Guide for New York City included surrounding areas (like the San Francisco Guide does), The Peacock Inn Restaurant would be a serious contender for one star. Best part of it, while the food is as good as any one Michelin star restaurant I've been to in the city (and even better than some), the price is nearly half as much as you'd pay in Manhattan for the same thing.
Around the tiny town of Princeton, there's a few other must-haves.
For a great latte and hip intellectual atmosphere, head to Small World Coffee at 14 Witherspoon Street, where the aroma of java hits you as soon as you pull open the door. Small World also showcases and sells the work of local artists, and has live music on Saturday nights.
Also on Whitherspoon, at #30, is House of Cupcakes. I'd like to tell you all the flavors they offer, but there's just too many really. House of Cupcakes is locally owned, and its bakers won their episode of Food Network's Cupcake Wars, and from what I tasted (Fudge Truffle, Mum-Mum's Vanilla, Kahlua & Coffee, Boston Cream, and Carrot Cake), they must have deserved it.
Another not-to-miss stop in Princeton is PJ's Pancake House, for breakfast. Located at 154 Nassau Street (the main drag), PJ's is very much a diner, and they dole out good grub for when you drank too much at The Peacock Inn the night before. Whatever you order at PJ's, make sure you get their "Mashed Brown" Potatoes. A cross between hash-browns and mashed potatoes, they verge on the addictive (I wanted to take a bucket of the stuff back to the city with me).
While you have your pick of good wine shops around the village, the one that impressed me most for its eclectic selection was The Princeton Corkscrew at 49 Hulfish Street. There I found my favorite after dinner drink, Mas Amiel Maury Cuvée Speciale. This isn't an easy bottle to find, in fact I still haven't stumbled across it in any wine shop in Manhattan (if you know where to find it, tell me please!).
Princeton may be the size of Century 21 if it were all laid out on one floor, but that's just the beauty of it. On foot you can explore the whole place, the gorgeous university, and more wine shops, bakeries, and high-end boutiques and galleries than you would think to find in such a small area.
With all of this, plus its convenient proximity to the city, its romantic and intellectual aura, and its peace and quiet, Princeton is the best escape from the city I've ever had in one hour's travel time. What's more, during the holidays, Princeton lights up like a quaint and cozy village you would expect to see in a painting hanging in one of its art galleries.
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