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Preprandial Potions in New Jersey

Consider this rather interesting scenario: You and your spouse/significant other are on your way to a highly recommended BYOB – appropriate vintage from your cellar at the ready – or you're bound for a highly-touted eatery that does serve the fruit of the vine (and sundry other forms of liquid libation) but is, unfortunately, the proud possessor of a service bar only. And it just so happens that, on this particular occasion, you're very much in the mood for a bit of pre-dinner pleasantry. A cocktail before settling in at table might be just the thing to jumpstart your appetite, the evening's conversation, or, depending upon your culinary and chimerical inclinations, your libido as well. But where to find a suitable venue?

Sound familiar? In my wanderings hither and thither as New Jersey Online's hired belly, my wife and I (and our various dining partners) have encountered this problem on more than a few outings. So in the interest of gastronomic and libationary self-preservation, I've made some rather copious notations over the years. Listed below are a number of establishments that may be of benefit to you in your quest for a suitable and (hopefully) civilized site in which to enjoy the pleasurable pursuit of the preprandial potion. Obviously, this is not meant to be an exhaustive compendium. Should you have any suggestions in this regard, please feel free to forward them along: artfuldiner@verizon.net.

BACCHUS CHOP HOUSE & WINE BAR – 318 Passaic Avenue, Fairfield www.bacchuschophouse.com . – Upon entering, you are confronted with a bustling lounge area replete with a glass-topped bar that, through the miracle of fiber optics, dazzles (and dizzies) patrons with a continual change of colors. True to the Bacchus theme, there is an excellent selection of vintages, as well as numerous possibilities available by the glass. While the enological options are quite cosmopolitan, the local habitués appear to prefer less complex forms of liquid libation. Management quite obviously set their sights on a suave and cultured clientele. . . It would appear, however, that these best-laid plans have gone somewhat awry. Food is something of a mixed bag. Steaks are quite good; for more sophisticated fare, I highly recommend Bruschetta (same proprietor) just a few doors away. Full review: www.artfuldiner.com/bacchus.html.

BARNACLE BILL'S – 1 First Street, Rumson – Casual and chaotic are the two words that come immediately to mind. Here you may hob-knob with the locals, sip a cold one or fancy-schmancy cocktail, and enjoy the luxury of devouring free peanuts and tossing the shells on the floor. There's a beautiful view of the Navesink River and, be advised, this eatery turns out the best burgers for miles around. If you eventually feel like settling in at table, be sure to take a gander at the blackboard seafood specials. A personal fave for many years.

BARNSBORO INN, THE – 699 Main Street , Barnsboro – Situated he intersection of five main roads in Mantua Township, the inn has undergone numerous changes since John Budd built the original log structure in 1720. The bar dates from the 18th century, is low-ceilinged, and is kept company by a host of rickety wooden chairs and old metal radiators. The décor is somewhat tacky but charming nonetheless. If you happen to find yourself wandering in the wilds of Gloucester County, this is a good spot for a libationary stopover. . . However, since a change in ownership and chef Danielle Crocket's departure, the food has consistently received failing grades. My original review, with Ms. Crocket in residence, may be found at www.artfuldiner.com/barnsboroinn.html.

BARONE'S RESTAURANT – 77 Route 206 Byram Township, www.barones.com – Depending upon your inclinations on a given evening, there are two venues in which to enjoy your liquid libations. . . Upstairs, Barone's sports an elegant ambiance and a menu that features excellent Italian cuisine. Here you may plop down at the handsome bar and, in between sips of your favorite potable, peruse the highly acclaimed wine list. On the other hand, if you're feeling a bit more casual and free-wheeling, pay a call downstairs at the rustic and rollicking Lockwood Tavern, savor a brew, and check out the live entertainment Wednesday through Saturday.

BASIL T'S – 183 Riverside Avenue, Red Bank, www.basilt.com – This microbrewery is almost always crowded and noisy. . . and a helluva lot of fun. The bar's the thing; it's big and bold and bustling and attracts an interesting cross-section of tipplers from Red Bank and the surrounding area. Beer is the obvious beverage of choice, and the options are legion, including several of Basil T's specialty brews: Rocket Red Ale, Short Order Porter, and Maxwell's Dry Stout, just to name a few. The food – pub grub with Italian footnotes – isn't bad either. Better for a (comparatively) quiet late lunch than fighting off the angry mobs at dinner. . . Go for the simpler fare and you won't be disappointed.

BLACK FOREST INN, THE – 249 Route 206 North, Stanhope, www.blackforestinn.com – Rich dark wood and floor-to-ceiling stained glass panels predominate the rustically elegant German country inn décor. The bar/lounge is particularly tasteful and the perfect spot to enjoy a quiet and comfortable preprandial libation. This is one establishment where you should undoubtedly plan on settling in at table following your sojourn to the bar. The cuisine is German-Continental, and all offerings are exquisitely prepared and presented. Sauerbraten and Wiener schnitzel head the list of possibilities with seafood specials running a close second. Homemade desserts are equally up to the mark. A class act.

BOAT HOUSE, THE – 8 ½ Coryell Street, Lambertville – Sequestered away in what is known as the – Porkyard,– a complex of buildings that once housed a slaughterhouse and meat smoking facility, the Boat House may be difficult to find, but it is surely worth indulging in a spirited game of hide-and-seek. Here, among two rustic tiers of seafaring and historical memorabilia, you and your spouse/significant other may enjoy a cozy bit of pre- or post-dinner refreshment. In addition to the usual (and unusual) assortment of cocktails, there is also a compact and very reasonably priced list of vintages available by both the glass and the bottle. This charming hideaway is especially convenient if you plan to dine at Hamilton's Grill Room just across the courtyard.

BRADDOCK'S TAVERN – 39 South Main Street, Medford, www.braddocks.comBraddock's unique brand of casual romantic rusticity has been wooing patrons for two decades. And although this lovingly restored historic inn has grown significantly over the years, adding several banquet rooms and a second kitchen to adequately attend to their needs, the restaurant's charming ambiance has remained relatively unscathed. The diminutive bar/lounge is especially cozy and there are a number of excellent wines available by the glass as well as the usual assortment of other libations. If you're on your way to a BYOB – and there are several first-rate possibilities in the area – be sure to make Braddock's Tavern your first port-of-call. Full review: www.artfuldiner.com/braddocks.html.

BREAKERS, THE – Breakers Hotel, 1507 Ocean Avenue, Spring Lake, www.breakershotel.com – The cuisine at the Breakers, which majors in weddings and banquets of every conceivable description, has never been memorable. . . However, should you have dining plans for the Spring Lake area, this is a lovely spot to enjoy a cocktail before setting off to your ultimate destination. The view of the roaring Atlantic is quite lovely, especially in warmer weather when you may grab a seat on the porch and slug down a G & T while basking in the ebbing sunlight and taking in the refreshing ocean breezes. But be forewarned. . . imbibe here, ingest elsewhere.

BRUSCHETTA RISTORANTE – 292 Passaic Avenue, Fairfield, www.bruschettarestaurantonline.com – Owned by Chef Michael Frodella, also proprietor of Bacchus Chop House&.amp; Wine Bar, Bruschetta majors in creative Italian cuisine that is as sleek and alluring as the sophisticated décor. The top-notch wine list, which features excellent representatives from both Italy and California, also sports some very reasonable tariffs. . . so a sampling of libations in the handsomely appointed bar/lounge is very much in order. And you simply must stay for dinner. Whether chowing down for business or pleasure, this charming establishment always provides a most pleasant and satisfying dining experience. Full review: www.artfuldiner.com/bruschetta.html.

BUCKALEW'S – 101 Bay Avenue, Beach Haven – Boisterous, bustling, and super-casual, Buckalew's is the quintessential Jersey Shore happy-tappy. Locals and summer visitors of every size, shape, and persuasion put in appearances at the lively bar or drop by to wolf down a burger or other congenial comestibles in the greenhouse-style dining room. Strategically located just around the corner from Green Gables and across the street from Sweet Vidalia (both exceptional BYOBs), this is a good spot to slug down a cold one before heading off to more sedate surroundings.

CHOPHOUSE, THE – 4 Lakeview Drive, Gibbsboro – Bob Platzer, proprietor of the popular chain of P.J. Whelihan's Pubs, has made the tricky transition from "pub grub" to upscale steakhouse fare with a definitive sense of style. The Chophouse is a palpable and palatable success. Of course, the sophisticated ambiance doesn't hurt. The interior is a far cry from the typical dark and murky, testosterone-drive steakhouse décor. Faux brick walls and mission-accented woodwork predominate, along with plush leather booths and a lively bar scene that serves as the newest "in"spot for the area's Porsche/Lexus/Mercedes/BMW set. Cosmo martinis abound, along with a very nice selection of wines by the glass. . . So have one for me. Full review: www.artfuldiner.com/chophouse.html.

CLOVERLEAF TAVERN – 395 Bloomfield Avenue, Caldwell, www.cloverleaftavern.com – A Caldwell institution since 1933, the Cloverleaf has a little something for everyone. There's a major happy hour happening each Monday – Friday, 4:00 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.; live jazz on Thursday nights and special group performances on Friday and Saturday evenings. The bar area is quite congenial and features some sixteen beers on tap and one hundred plus served up in bottles. The outdoor patio doesn't have much of a view – it affords a breathtaking panorama of the rear parking lot – but it's still a nice spot for a little al fresco tippling in warmer weather. Don't expect too much from the food; it's passable but nothing to write home about. If you do decide to chow down, don't get too creative; this is strictly burger & brew territory.

MCLOONE'S RIVERSIDE DINING, 816 Ocean Avenue, Sea Bright, www.mcloones.com – Known for years as McLoone's Rum Runner, this establishment recently upgraded its moniker to McLoone's Riverside Dining. Notable name change and noises about chef Neil Jordan taking the restaurant to the "fine dining level" not withstanding, the food here has never been terribly exciting. Check out the Website and you realize what keeps this eatery afloat: celebrity power, bustling bar scene, weekend entertainment, and a beautiful view. . . Which brings us to the outdoor deck, a great spot to enjoy a fancy libation, cold brew, and some basic sustenance. Keep things as simple as possible food-wise and all will be well. Avoid the indoor dining room, which majors in more convoluted fare and heavy tariffs.

MEDITERRA – 20 Hullfish Street, Princeton, www.t2restaurants.com – Ensconced on the ground floor of a retail/office complex just behind Palmer Square, Mediterra is a cheery, bustling establishment that attracts a widely diverse clientele. This is especially apparent in warmer weather, when tables spill out toward an attractive piazza replete with bubbling fountain. And the casual but decidedly focused Mediterranean fare is the perfect complement to the festive environment. The bar is an attractive gathering place for locals and visitors alike and features some interesting vintages by the glass and a very nice international wine list. Mediterra is highly recommended on all counts. Full review: www.artfuldiner.com/mediterra.html.

MERION INN, THE, 106 Decatur Street, Cape May, www.merioninn.com – There is no question that this venerable old inn retains the charm and graciousness of the Victorian era. And it is equally true that the beautiful turn-of-the-century bar, the oldest in Cape May, is the main attraction here. So pull up a chair and take a gander at the establishment's extensive martini menu, which includes such old favorites as a "Gibson" and "Silver Bullet," as well as such contemporary libations as the ubiquitous "Cosmopolitan" and "Martini Navratilova," Tanqueray, dash of Triple Sec and orange juice garnished with an orange slice. The food, however, has always struck me as being strictly standard issue; so you would do well to enjoy a cocktail and then depart for greener culinary pastures.

MOLLY PITCHER INN, THE, 88 Riverside Avenue, Red Bank, www.mollypitcher-oysterpoint.com – Modeled after Philadelphia's Independence Hall, the Molly Pitcher is a study in cultured civility. And your first port-of-call will undoubtedly be the popular bar/lounge. It is dark and intimate, richly furnished and uncompromisingly comfortable. Beyond its precincts, the atmospheric, tastefully-appointed dining room will beguile you with crystal chandeliers, imported Italian chairs, and an unobstructed view of the picturesque Navesink River. And while hotel meals usually fall far short of the mark, you may rest assured that the creative American cuisine is even more impressive than the surroundings. Full review: www.artfuldiner.com/mollypitcher.html.

NANNI RISTORANTE, 53 West Passaic Street, Rochelle Park, www.nanni.com – You enter Nanni Ristorante and take a step back in time. You have just been transported to a gastronomic galaxy far, far away – where dining is once again a sumptuously satisfying experience. . . where waiters are proud of their honored profession and excellent service is the rule rather than the exception. . . where handcrafted cuisine is lovingly prepared and impressively presented in the Old World tradition – and it feels marvelous, indeed! But be sure to pause in the cozy bar, which is separated from the main dining area by a magnificent etched-glass wall depicting the goddess of the sea. Here you may indulge in your favorite liquid libation and enjoy a bit of spirited conversation with the gregarious bartender. No matter what the occasion, you will find Nanni Ristorante an exceptionally pleasurable dining experience. Full review: www.artfuldiner.com/nanni.html.

OPA, 1743 Boardwalk (at Indiana Avenue), Atlantic City, www.opa1.com – Opa provides a welcome respite from the superstar cuisine – and superstar prices – dished out in many of AC's celebrity dining dens. The bar scene is also quite lively, if you just want to stop by for a little liquid refreshment. But should you decide to put in an appearance for lunch or dinner, you will find the excellent Mediterranean fare will be easy on your palate as well as your pocketbook. Try "George's Greek Salad" topped with huge strips of feta cheese, grilled swordfish with Mediterranean herbs, pan-seared Atlantic salmon, or the crab cakes Santorini accompanied by white bean hummus, grapefruit vinaigrette, and steak-fry potatoes. A real find in a town populated by overpriced and overrated eateries.

SALT CREEK GRILLE, 4 Bingham Avenue, Rumson, www.saltcreekgrill.com – Well, there's good news and bad news. . . On the positive side, Salt Creek boasts valet parking, a lovely view of the Navesink River, and youthful and energetic service. Negatively, it has all the earmarks of a semi-upscale, gung ho chain chophouse attempting to impersonate its betters: several siblings in California (and God knows how many more on the drawing board); reservations limited to parties of eight or more; a plethoric variety of squealing, screaming children; and variable vittles. Be that as it may, this is a great spot to stop for a pre-dinner libation, as cozy tables in the bar area provide the best views in the house and a more intimate atmosphere than the deafening and disorderly dining areas. If you decide to throw on the feedbag here, be advised that appetizers and simpler entrées should take precedence over more convoluted comestibles. Full review: www.artfuldiner.com/saltcreekgrille.html.

SCUTTLEBUTT'S PUB, 400 Centre Street, Nutley            Scuttlebutt's isn't your typical neighborhood happy-tappy. True, you can park yourself at the smoky bar, chug down a cold one, have a go at the excellent "pub grub," and take in the convivial cast of local characters. . . but that's only a small part of the story. You really want to settle in the dining room and let chef/proprietor Michael Fitzsimons, formerly of the Ryland Inn and The Frog and The Peach, work his culinary magic. You will find his down-home American fare with creative flair as easy on the palate as it is on the pocketbook. A perfect spot for a mid-week chow down or casual Saturday stopover.

3 WEST, 665 Martinsville Road, Basking Ridge, www.3westrest.com – You cross the threshold and leave the stereotypical standard issue strip-mall exterior far behind. 3 West's inner sanctum is a handsome, beautifully designed space replete with rich woodwork, hardwood floors, glowing fireplaces, and a striking glass-enclosed kitchen. The latest project of Chester Moore Associates – also proprietors of the Trap Rock Restaurant and Brewery in Berkeley Heights and the Huntley Taverne in Summit – exudes a definitive touch of class. And the establishment's attractive, bustling bar has quickly become THE place to unwind after a significantly less than edifying day laboring on behalf of corporate America. There are some very nice wines available by the glass as well as a number of excellent Trap Rock drafts and diverse assortment of bottled brews. The urbane ambiance and convivial bar scene may be the initial drawing cards, but it is the superlative innovative American cuisine that will keep knowledgeable diners coming back for more. Full review: www.artfuldiner.com/3west.html

TRE FIGLIO, 500 West White Horse Pike, Egg Habor City, www.trefiglio.com – Sequestered along a quiet stretch of Route 30 just a few short miles from the casinos of AC and the beaches of Brigantine, Margate, and Ventnor, Jack & Toni Cordivari's Tre Figlio is a charming little gem that is superlatively suited for those who desire a touch of sophisticated serenity at the Jersey Shore. The restaurant is a beautifully appointed, intimate space replete with a comfortable bar, award-winning wine list, and first-rate service. . . And the cuisine, like the ambiance, is truly transporting; this is casually elegant dining at its finest. Enjoy a libation at the bar and then adjourn to table and begin your culinary journey with the gnocchi, ethereal potato and ricotta dumplings embellished with classic marinara and fresh basil. Entrée-wise, make it a point to sample the double-cut veal chop or grilled swordfish alla puttanesca. Highly recommended.

WASHINGTON INN, 801 Washington Street, Cape May, www.washingtoninn.com – Built as a plantation home in the year 1840, the Washington Inn is a perennial favorite of visitors to this lovely Victorian community. There's a touch of Old World civility here, an understated elegance that intoxicates the spirit. . . and this is especially apparent in the cozy bar/lounge. A comfortable seat here also puts you within striking distance of the spectacular ten thousand-bottle wine cellar, which most assuredly deserves a look-see. But not only are the choices extensive, the prices are completely within reason. In addition, be sure to check out the daily wine specials (also available by the glass), and the sizeable number of excellent half-bottle selections. It has been a number of years since I penned my original review of this establishment, and I must confess that both the food and the clientele have grown a bit too touristy for my taste. If you do decide to dine here, you probably won't be disappointed. . . Just be advised that there are quite a number of Cape May eateries that serve up more consistent comestibles at more reasonable prices. Original review: www.artfuldiner.com/washington.html.

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