Road Trip: Exploring Frenchtown
The Delaware River, winding its way through five states on its path from New York’s Catskills to the Delaware Bay, is a spectacularly scenic setting for camping, fishing, biking and tubing when the warmer seasons allow. But any time of year, many of the towns that grace its banks provide an ideal getaway, especially for those intent on epicurean pursuits.
I live in Easton, a river city, so the quaint towns along the Delaware are part of my regular path. Heading south often means taking 611 through Riegelsville to River Road (Route 32), and then braving the narrow crossing over to Frenchtown, New Jersey.
Located about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, this 1.36-squaremile borough derives its name from the French-speaking settlers who moved here after Paul Henri Mallet-Prévost, a Swiss fugitive from the French Revolution who purchased the land in 1794. These days, its 1,473 residents are a mix of the creative class and urban expats. To wit: Elizabeth Gilbert, whose globetrotting explorations are detailed in her bestseller Eat Pray Love, could live anywhere; she chose Frenchtown as her home and the site for her shop Two Buttons, an eclectic Pan-Asian emporium.
Frenchtown is much smaller than the better-known Lambertville a few miles south, but instead of bypassing this quaint town as you zip around the region, get out of the car and explore it on foot or bike, via sidewalk and the towpath. There are no meters, and the two-hour free parking limit may or may not be marked by chalk lines on your tires.
Where to Eat
On weekends, the long wait at Lovin’ Oven is more than worth it for brunch, but you can come for breakfast, lunch or dinner, too. Your reward? Inventive, flavorful dishes that incorporate as much local food as possible, and that happily and heartily satisfy vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diets. (Think: roasted chickpea tacos, huevos rancheros, quinoa breakfast bowls.) Julie Klein (and former co-owner Mike Quinn) opened the oven doors in 2010, relocating a few miles away from Milford. There’s a funky, airy vibe in this former electrical warehouse, with tables made from Balinese fishing boats furnished from its attached neighbor, Two Buttons. Whatever you do, order the sweet potato biscuits.
For straight-up diner fare served in classic digs—a wood counter with stools, black-and-white checkered floor and matching sepia-tinged photos of the town—head to the Frenchtown Cafe. It’s so old-school it has no official web presence. Arrive early for breakfast, try a fluffy threeegg omelet (sourced from Rick’s Egg Farm in Kintnersville) for lunch or indulge in nostalgic, hearty fare such as meatloaf. The dishes are scratch-made and slightly modernized: Think homemade veggie burgers and gluten-free French toast. Specialties include Bliss (scrambled eggs with bacon, chives, cream cheese on English muffin) and the Mess (scrambled eggs with onions, ham and potatoes, served with toast).
Many of the tables at long-running Bridge Cafe offer views of just that—the bridge over the Delaware along with walkers and cyclists on the towpath just a few feet from the dining room. Ken and Lisa Miller have been operating the café, housed in a former train station with pressed-tin ceilings, since its inception in 1987. He’s the chef; she’s the baker responsible for the yeasted doughnuts and giant cookies that greet you upon entering. The Bridge Cafe is known for its spinach cake, akin to a veggie burger, loaded with spinach, lentils, brown rice and feta cheese.
Around the heyday of the railroads, the Frenchtown Inn, which dates to 1805, used to be called “the lower hotel.” (The National was the “upper,” and the “middle” burned down at some point.) Like many riverside inns, this one no longer offers rooms for weary travelers. Instead, its classically trained chef-owner Andrew Tomko has been dishing out continental cuisine since 1996, working alongside his wife Colleen. Exposed brick adds charm to the formal dining room, whereas the relaxed Bar and Grill Room features local art on the walls. Dishes are sourced as locally as possible, from the rolling farmlands of Bucks and Hunterdon Counties. In warm weather, the front porch is prime people-watching real estate.
Where to Drink
Everyone knows everyone at What’s Brewin’ at Maria’s, but even if you don’t, that’s okay—they’re a friendly lot. Named for its proprietor, Maria Battimelli, a retail veteran who opened up the café six years ago, Maria’s features coffee from Barrie House Coffee Co. in Yonkers and baked goods such as apple walnut cake and banana cream pie that are whipped up in-house. (She also happens to sell vintage postcards for a friend; people in Frenchtown truly follow their idiosyncratic bliss). Sit inside by the large window or grab a seat at an outdoor table, facing the street. It’s the nexus of activity, any given day of the week: Maria’s is open daily 7am until 8pm.
Two doors over, you’ll encounter Pulp, a juice bar whose name also unintentionally evokes the region’s historic paper mills. Owned by Janet Forrester and Stephanie Smith, who met 20-plus years ago while working in restaurants in New York City, it’s a bright space whose posters from Civilian Art in nearby Milford share back-tothe- earth quotes from the likes of Alice Waters, Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry. Smith brings in produce from as many organic and local vendors as possible. Chef Donald Gray makes a mean black bean burger and a vibrant, flavorful miso soup; there’s a breakfast and lunch menu, too. In addition to the smoothies and juices (ask for the Mean Green, loaded with greens and just one apple), Pulp brews coffee (including pour-overs) from Homestead Coffee Roasters in Upper Black Eddy, just across the river.
On the first floor of The National Hotel, a pressed-tin ceiling and long, curved wooden bar dating to 1901 set the vibe for the standard gamut of cocktails, wines and beers poured here. Or descend the stairs to the cave-like warren of rooms in The Rathskeller pub, or “The Rat,” as it’s referred to. It’s one of only two places in town with a liquor license and there’s action most evenings of the week, in the form of open mic, karaoke and trivia contests.
Where to Shop
For such a small place, Frenchtown has a lot of businesses—more than 60—and is especially replete with retail, boasting a record store, bookstore, toy store, numerous chic clothing and home goods stores, a cycling shop, and a pet supply store. Highlights include the So- Ho-styled Modern Love, whose goods feel simultaneously vintage and contemporary and include kitchen wares; Blue Fish Clothing with an emphasis on natural, organic, and “wearable art”; and Delal-ware River Trading Company, a consignment business specializing in handmade items, a number of them edible.
Whether it’s Mary Janes, Squirrel Nut Zippers, or Whirly Pops from your childhood or the latest fancy chocolate, Minette’s Candies has it. Named for its owner, Minette Reading, this elegant candy boutique trades in equal parts nostalgia and hard-to-find items, so you’ll find BB Bats taffy pops and an extensive selection of licorice (much of it imported) alongside artisanal honey-based products from Savannah Bee Company. Reading makes the sweet confections in the case on the premises, using both American and European chocolate; the sea salt caramels are a best seller.
A recent addition, Olive with a Twist is a friendly space selling about 20-plus organic olive oils from northern and central California—plus all-natural balsamic vinegars and other imported goodies. Choose among several organic olive oils and about 15 infused with fruits, veggies and herbs (porcini, blood orange, basil), plus head-scratchers such as bacon and butter.
Ask to try the blackberry reserve vinegar—it’ll make your taste buds sing. Self-declared foodies, the owners, Brian Terry and Chris Robinson, are happy to guide your sampling and offer suggestions for usage beyond the obvious (i.e., salad or pasta). Have you ever added an infused balsamic vinegar to sparkling water to make your own soda? This is what they do in Europe, says Robinson. Ah, oui. Frenchtown remains true to its roots.
If you’re in town on a Sunday between early June and late October, don’t miss the Frenchtown Farmers’ Market, which sets up from 10am to 2pm in the parking lot on Kingwood Avenue. There’s usually good music and activities for the kids, along with a plethora of local foods to buy.
Where to Stay
A turn of the oldest doorbell in Frenchtown, a hand-cranked one, announces your arrival at Widow McCrea House, which dates to 1891. This Italianate Victorian inn is less than half a mile from town. Named for its former owner, the widow Frances McCrea, the inn has six traditional rooms with feather beds and period antiques. Many offer modern touches such as Jacuzzi tubs and gas fireplaces; the Kase Family Cottage permits pets and children. Guests receive a complimentary bottle of wine and a three-course gourmet candlelight breakfast—French toast with house-made challah is a specialty. Fun fact: McCrea later sold the home to the Rittenhouse family of Philadelphia.
The National Hotel, which opened for business in 1851, is like many of its old-inn ilk: It’s a former stagecoach stop and a brothel dating to 1833. “They do go together, don’t they?” laughs Marie D’Costa, who owns and operates the boutique hotel with her husband Pete. The pair took it over in fall 2009 after extensive renovations, outfitting its lobby and ten rooms in stately, neutral tones with bamboo, rattan and dark black trim. Some rooms have private balconies and all feature the original, gigantic windows. The details add up: Old black-and-white photos line the bar area’s tin walls (imprinted with fleurs-de-lis, naturally), and the D’Costas uncovered and restored the original pumpkin pine floors.
WHERE TO EAT
Bridge Cafe 8 Bridge St.
Frenchtown Cafe 44 Bridge St. 908.966.0663
Frenchtown Inn 7 Bridge St.
Lovin’ Oven 62A Trenton Ave. (Rte. 29)
WHERE TO DRINK
Pulp 2 Race St. 908.752.5798
The Rathskeller 31 Race St. 908.996.3200
What’s Brewin’ at Maria’s 52 Bridge St. 908.996.7258
WHERE TO SHOP
Frenchtown Farmers’ Market June through October,
Sundays, 10am–2pm Parking Lot, 4 Kingwood Ave.
Minette’s Candies 43 Bridge St. 908.966.5033
Olive with a Twist 8 Race St.