The Ins and Outs of Alfresco (and Almost Alfresco) Dining

Rat’s Restaurant

By Wendy Greenberg

A sure sign of summer is when tables and chairs are set outside at restaurants, frequently punctuated by colorful umbrellas and accompanied by succulent summer menus. Whether you prefer an awning, an old-fashioned porch, or are a purist who shuns any barrier to the elements, now is the time to take advantage of the many alfresco dining options in the area.

We love to celebrate the better weather by eating in — or near — the open air, even when clouds hang low. Patios are “great for people watching people, and people want to be seen too,” points out Carlo Momo of Mediterra in Princeton.

If Princeton is a walking town, it is also an alfresco town. The streetscape is bursting with small tables and chairs at establishments along Nassau Street from east of Harrison Street at Trattoria Procaccini to outside at the Blue Point Grill, EFES Mediterranean Grill, Café Vienna, and PJ’s Pancake House; around to Palmer Square’s Winberie’s Restaurant & Bar, Teresa Caffé, Mistral, Mediterra, and Yankee Doodle Tap Room; down to Jammin’ Crepes; and many places in between. The Princeton Shopping Center on North Harrison Street has its own alfresco scene with Nomad Pizza, Surf Taco, and more. 

The tables and chairs don’t fold up at borough boundaries. In Lawrenceville, alfresco dining is part of the Main Street scene at Acacia, Fedora Bistro Café, and more. Sometimes patio dining appears when you least expect it … driving on West Upper Ferry Road in Ewing, past the New Jersey State Patrol headquarters, the red and blue umbrellas of Blooming Grove Inn pepper the neighborhood landscape. And Labebe in North Brunswick features authentic Mediterranean cuisine in a lovely outdoor setting.

Mediterra

Popular Princeton Patios

Patio dining is often favored by guests at the Terra Momo Group restaurants. Mediterra at Palmer Square, Teresa Caffé, on Palmer Square East, and Eno Terra in Kingston, just up Route 27, each offer distinctive patio dining experiences.

The curved outdoor space at Teresa Caffé winds from Palmer Square East toward Witherspoon Street and seats approximately 30 guests. It is very popular, reports chef and manager Toni Charmello, and the patio often develops its own waitlist. “During a busy dinner service, we may turn the patio over at least three times, serving 90-100 guests in that one section for the evening,” she says.

A S-shaped bamboo half-wall contains the intimate patio, which is away from street traffic. The patio is perfect for a table of two or four guests, notes Charmello, and a great place to enjoy a glass of vino or prosecco, pizzetta or pasta, or a cappuccino with friends.

Weather is always a challenge with alfresco dining. The patio at Teresa has a roof and outdoor heating, but in heavy rain and wind, no restaurant can shield outdoor diners completely, and, occasionally, diners ask to move inside. For a restaurant, an increase in the dining area — for Teresa, by a third — means extra  planning on the part of the management.

But patios are a welcome challenge, because they increase seating, and thus number of meals served, despite investments in architecture, permits, furnishing, and labor, and intricate kitchen planning.

Teresa Caffé

Named for family matriarch Teresa Azario Momo, Teresa Caffé features seasonal Italian fare such as Funghi Syle Pizza with Cherry Grove cheese, wild mushrooms, roasted pearl onions, thyme, and truffle oil; and Primavera Pasta with gemelli pasta, sweet peas, asparagus, mushrooms, basil pesto, and shaved Grana Padano, on both the lunch and dinner menus. The food and drink menus are seasonal, and during summer more dishes, cocktails, and wines are offered that complement patio dining. The bread is baked fresh, twice daily, at the nearby Terra Momo Bread Company.

The Mediterra patio — which has a view of a courtyard, fountain, and Palmer Square West — can’t be beat for ambiance, especially with its romantic lighting at night. The patio is mostly enclosed and seats 60. “It’s the best patio around because it is set back from the street and the sun never really pounds it,” says Carlo Momo. The menu celebrates the cultures surrounding the Mediterranean with emphasis on Italian and Spanish flavors, paired with local farm offerings. For example, there is the Campanelle with local arugula, summer squash, goat cheese, parmigiano broth, black pepper, and pangrattato; and the Pasta-less Lasagna made with eggplant. Or for lunch, a Smoked Falafel Bowl or Veal Meatballs from the tapas menu. And, reminds Momo, “Sangria was made for patio dining.”

Eno Terra, where the menu is based on global wines and the produce and catches from local farmers and fishermen (plus the harvest from the Eno Terra Canal Farm), has a cozy patio secluded from the street. Bamboo fencing is enhanced with flowers and plants. “It’s tranquil and serene,” says events staff member Evan Beidler.  The menu features global wines and menu items such as an Asparagus Potato Soup, Lamb Meatballs, and, among the entrees, Whole Branzino with tri-color cauliflower, cauliflower purée, saffron potato, and lemon caper beurre blanc.

Mistral

The patio at Mistral in Princeton is very popular with both nightly a la carte and group diners, says Beth Rota of the marketing staff. The area seats about 30-40 guests depending on the configuration, and a structured pavilion cover and large fireplace for heat and ambiance extend the patio beyond the summer into three seasons.

“Our full a la carte menu can be enjoyed out on the patio,” says Rota. “Mistral has a menu that frequently changes with the seasonal availability of our area’s local farm products. The Mistral bar also has an extensive list with classic and house-created cocktails.  We also have a really good brunch menu.”

Chef Scott Anderson, also of Elements restaurant, is a four-time James Beard Foundation Award semi-finalist for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic. Cooking with Chef de Cuisine Joe Mooney, they emphasize fresh, local ingredients and artistic plating, all with an international flavor. For example, the dinner menu (depending on the night) can offer such eclectic items as Matzo Ball Soup with miso broth, tofu, shiitake, and wakame; and Wild Ramp Tagliatelle with Jonah crab, asparagus, turnip, and lemon.

Yankee Doodle Tap Room at the Nassau Inn

The din on Palmer Square West could well be from the Yankee Doodle Tap Room at the Nassau Inn, which is great for people watching while being sufficiently tucked away for a peaceful meal outdoors at one of the 58 seats. You can often catch live music on the patio Thursday evenings throughout the season, and for those who enjoy a seasonal cocktail or craft beer, high top bar tables and interactive games are set up off to the side, allowing guests to bring their cocktails outside.

While staffing and the weather are the universal challenges, “we’ve learned to watch the radar closely and make adaptations based off of forecast and past experiences,” says Jamie Volkert of the Nassau Inn. “The seasonality of the menu and the flavors that we introduce are emphasized with a little sunshine and fresh air.”

A staff favorite is the new Mexican Street Corn Barbacoa Salad featuring romaine lettuce, roasted corn, frizzled onion, tomatoes, slow roasted beef, queso fresco, avocado, black bean, and ancho chile lime crema.

“Alfresco dining makes people happy, and essentially that’s what we are in business to do,” says Volkert.

Lambertville Station

Lambertville Canal-Side

New Jersey is blessed with waterfront dining, and that doesn’t just mean a location with an ocean view. In Lambertville, the outdoor tables at Hamilton’s Grill Room and Lambertville Station Restaurant and Inn overlook the Delaware and Raritan Canal.

At the charming Lambertville Station, the outdoor area is very popular. Owner Dan Whitaker says that reservations are only accepted for indoor dining, but if the weather turns out to be nice, then “we do our best to accommodate outdoor requests first. We keep up to the minute with the weather, and if there is a sudden rain, there are other dining rooms we can use for seating,” says Whitaker.

According to Whitaker, the customer base lives an average of an hour away, and 85 percent are repeat customers. “That says the most about a restaurant,” he says. “The food and service are consistent.”

Of the many return patrons, a good number enjoy the Lambertville Station patio facing the street and canal. It is partially covered with an awning overlooking the restaurant’s own herb garden, and it’s dog-friendly. Many dog walkers stroll along the canal and want to take a lunch break. The dogs are welcome to sit by their owners, and are sometimes given water and snacks.

Lambertville Station seats about 100 outdoors in what Whitaker describes as a “tranquil area” with landscaping. “People love it,” he said. The restaurant opened in a refurbished train station in 1985 but the outside area started slowly, about seven years ago. “When it’s a nice day, there’s nothing better,” he says.

Lambertville Station has two seasonal menus, fall/winter and spring/summer. Guest summer favorites include, for brunch, Lobster and Crab Salad, Greek Shrimp Salad, homemade Gazpacho with farm to table vegetables, Seafood Crepe, and French Lobster Roll on a croissant. And, for a summer dinner, Scallops and Shrimp, Teriyaki Salmon (finished with cashews and a teriyaki glaze), and Chesapeake Style Lump Crab Cake. Lambertville Station is adjacent to the Lambertville Station Inn on the Delaware River, and the two work together for events.

Right over in Pennsylvania, restaurants including Francisco’s on the River in Washington Crossing and The Landing, with its waterfront patio, and Martine’s RiverHouse — both in New Hope — overlook the Delaware River. The dining scene at Nektar on Aquetong Creek is framed by a sweeping weeping willow.

Rat’s Restaurant

Patio as Art

In Hamilton, the warm weather brings visitors to the scenic Grounds For Sculpture, and to the 70-seat terrace at Rat’s Restaurant, which is named for the character Ratty in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. The entire restaurant is a vision from New Jersey-based artist J. Seward Johnson, and the outside terrace is inspired by works of art. Artist Claude Monet’s Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies was completely recreated, explains Rat’s General Manager Michael Kurtz, including the weeping willow trees and light mist. When guests dine at Rat’s “they truly become part of the experience of the art,” he says.

Echoing the challenges inherent in alfresco dining, he notes the unpredictability of weather, and accommodating the high volume of guests who wish to eat outside. “It’s a challenge and a reward to have such an incredible outdoor space that guests travel near and far to come experience,” he says. “We seat as many as we can on the terrace when the weather is cooperating, which means that on a beautiful day it can reach capacity quickly. The reward is truly being able to provide exceptional service to our guests. The space itself is so remarkable, and we love being able to provide a backdrop for guests to create memories and celebrate special occasions.”

Some mouthwatering seasonal dishes to try include Seared Sea Scallop made with sweet pea puree, orange, and pistachio-pancetta relish; as well as the Rat’s Seafood Salad made with poached shrimp, calamari, lump crab, arugula, crispy shallots, and a lemon-herb vinaigrette. This is best paired with Rat’s seasonal “frosé,” which is made with Juliette Rose, Exclusive Vodka, strawberry puree, and fresh lemon juice.

Outdoor dining choices abound. Wherever you dine, enjoy the warm nights, and the special atmosphere. There is a limited window until it’s time to fold up the tables and chairs.