Destination: New Brunswick

By William Uhl

View of New Brunswick across the Raritan River, Shutterstock.com.

Nestled by the Raritan River in New Brunswick, Rutgers University is home to a diverse range of history and traditions. An intercollegiate rivalry with Princeton University, a real-life armored and mounted Scarlet Knight, and a romantic ritual connected to the legendary Passion Puddle are all classic traditions — and so is eating a Fat Sandwich, a sub roll packed with enough French fries, chicken fingers, and mozzarella sticks to earn the name. That mix of thoughtfulness and playfulness is everywhere in New Brunswick, and you can find plenty of both in just a day’s travel.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team, 1897, Wikipedia.

Starting the day at Rutgers’s New Brunswick campus offers a bevy of options. If you’re feeling quiet, the Zimmerli Art Museum hosts eight revolving exhibits at once, ranging from galleries of paintings commemorating the Russian Revolution, lithographs from 19th-century Paris, or photographs capturing everyday working life in 1970s America. The museum’s permanent collection contains over 60,000 works, ranging from 20th-century American sculptures and Italian Renaissance paintings to Soviet nonconformist art. The PaparazZi Café is also conveniently located nearby.

Venturing from the abstract to the concrete, the Rutgers Geology Museum houses a 2,400-year-old mummy, fluorescent minerals, and a mounted mastodon skeleton. Founded in 1872, the museum has kept its Victorian aesthetic intact as local geologists have donated more and more samples of fossils, rare minerals, and Native American artifacts.

Rutgers Geology Museum, Shutterstock.com

If you’re more interested in venturing outside and appreciating a beautiful day, grab a Fat Sandwich from a grease truck and walk it off in the Rutgers Gardens. Dozens of seasonal flowers are in bloom at a time, and over 20 specialty gardens like the Shade Tree Collection and the Bamboo Forest blanket the expansive garden grounds. Rutgers Gardens is open 365 days a year and is one of the few botanical gardens in the country that does not charge an admission fee. Heylar Woods, adjacent to the gardens, has winding trails through nearly 70 acres, along with features including a stream, an old quarry, and a labyrinth. Be sure to stop by Passion Puddle before you leave campus — old Rutgers legend has it that if student couples from Cook and Douglass dorms walk three times around the pond together, they’ll live happily ever after.

Rutgers Gardens, courtesy of Yelp.

For lunch, the options are similarly diverse. Hansel ‘n Griddle offers snappily-named wraps like the veggie-filled Crop Circle and the cheese-packed Mouse Trap, quesadilla-like crisps, fresh-pressed paninis, and the “Best Wings in Town” (“And we mean that!”, the menu adds). Open from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m., breakfast or lunch are ready whenever you need it. For a more formal sit-down meal, the highly acclaimed The Frog and the Peach is only a 15-minute walk away from Rutgers. For smaller meals, the restaurant offers fancy treats like Chicken Liver Pâté, Za’atar Spiced Flatbread, and Peekytoe Crab Salad; for larger appetites, there’s Black Truffle Ricotta Gnocci, Pork Loin Schnitzel, and Braised Spanish Rabbit. Between its high-class menu and relaxing atmosphere, The Frog and the Peach has a small-city sophistication to match the abundance of art and entertainment New Brunswick has to offer.

For evening entertainment, New Brunswick has year-round offerings in the many theaters in town. The Crossroads Theatre, “the nation’s premiere African American theater,” offers energetic performances, such as the off-beat comedy Back to the Real or the NAACP Image Award-winning musical Fly. Similarly, the George Street Playhouse’s 2018-2019 season is packed with both thoughtful plays, like the courtroom drama The Trial of Donna Caine and The Immigrant, and playful musicals like Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical, which weaves together jazz singing and civil rights activism. In addition to its theatrical seasons, the State Theatre New Jersey also hosts performances like classical violinist Itzhak Perlman, the Brooklyn Paramount Reunion Jubilee of Stars, eclectic performer Alan Cumming, and improv comedy duo Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood. Stepping out of the theaters, the streets of New Brunswick are lined with culture from the past and present. The New Brunswick Jazz Project organizes musical performances all throughout the year, with the Central Jersey Jazz Festival taking place mid-September and featuring musicians like Teri Lyne Carrington, Dave Stryker, and Carla Cook, with venues ranging from the Historic Court House to the open-air stage on George Street.

Before heading home, you can stop by one of the many eclectic restaurants for dinner. The Frog and the Peach’s dinner options are just as formidable as lunch, but KBG, the Korean barbeque and grill, poses a more casual alternative. Its menu combines Korean classics like kimchi and bulgogi (literally “fire meat”) with tacos and burritos, bringing an East-meets-West spin to its savory meals. And for $9.45, the I Want KBG Bowl has everything but the kitchen sink.

However, if you want to recapture that college night-on-the-town feel, Stuff Yer Face has the perfect combination of beer, burgers, and signature strombolis. Its menu boasts over 30 kinds of “bolis,” including the Meatball and Eggplant Boli, the Vegetaboli, Big Mac Boli, Barbecue Chicken Boli, and the build-it-yourself My Favorite Boli. What it lacks in high-class ritz, it makes up for in nostalgia — you can practically taste the youthful energy, looming exams, and camaraderie of college life.

A city shaped both by Rutgers’ students and scholarly educators, New Brunswick bridges the gap between exuberant adventure and thoughtful tradition in its art, entertainment, and food. While you might have missed the chance to meet a college sweetheart by Passion Puddle, there’s still time to take your love to see New Brunswick’s gardens and galleries — right after you get a Fat Sandwich.