Dinky Bar & Kitchen opens in Princeton

Princeton’s long awaited Dinky Bar & Kitchen welcomed its first guests with a private party Saturday night and a soft opening through the week week. 

Located across the street from Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, on Alexander Road along the former railroad tracks, the menu features such train-themed cocktails as the Box Car Tourist (white rum, aged rum, curacao and lemon, $11), the Smoke Stack (mezcal, orange liqueur, ginger, lemon, $12) and Ticket to Ride (gin, hibiscus syrup, lemon, $11). In addition to domestic and imported beers, there are craft beers and ciders. 

The food, served “small plate” style, includes a Steamed Mussel Hot Pot $13, Grilled Swordfish Taco’s $16, Heirloom Tomato Toast $11 and Salt & Vinegar Fingerling Chips $5, among many others. Friends can share plates at the communal-style tables, perhaps pairing the in-house Smoked Duroc Pork Ribs with a draft of Ironbound Hard Cider.

The vintage railroad theme is no coincidence—the stone building is the former train station for the Dinky, the two-car train that shuttles NJ Transit Northeast Corridor passengers 2.9 miles from Princeton to Princeton Junction and back. 

When Princeton University stirred controversy by moving the Dinky 460 feet south, in order to build its $330 million Arts & Transit neighborhood, the plan included turning two 1918 stone buildings—this one formerly served as a waiting area and a nearby building was for baggage-handling—into restaurants.

The second, Cargot, is projected to open as a brasserie in spring 2017, serving “approachable” French food for breakfast, lunch (think Croque Monsieur)  and dinner, including a takeout counter for busy commuters. That space will be much larger—the university is building a pitch-roofed addition behind the original freight building. Both stone buildings had been boarded up, unused, for years.

Jim Nawn’s Fenwick Hospitality Group submitted the winning proposal for the two restaurants. Fenwick Hospitality Group owns and runs Agricola, the farm-to-table restaurant at Princeton’s main intersection of Nassau and Witherspoon streets, a site that formerly housed Lahiere’s, the landmark restaurant where Albert Einstein is said to have eaten. In 2007, Nawn bought 111 acres in nearby Skillman, establishing the Great Road Farm in 2012, which supplies his restaurants with organic produce, from watermelon radishes and kohlrabi to zucchini flowers and kale. Nawn and his wife, Ann, live on the farm. FHG recently acquired Main Street Bistro in the Princeton Shopping Center and Main Street Cafe in nearby Kingston; that operation includes a commercial kitchen in Rocky Hill for its catering arm. 

The original slate roof, stone façade and divided-light windows of DB&K have been retained, as well as the ticket windows which now connect the bar area to the kitchen. Vintage radiators remain, and the restrooms, while completely updated, are in the same footprint. New elements, such as wood paneling, swiveling stools with green leather seats and tile mosaics, are suggestive of railroad days. The dining room offers a communal seating experience at each of the six reclaimed-wood tables (at press time, the table tops had not yet arrived). White lettering on a transit ticket menu board is updated with daily offerings. 

The challenge of turning a station house into a bar and restaurant was one of size, says Nawn—DB&K, at 1,800 square feet, is small. But having the commercial kitchen in Rocky Hill makes it possible to serve the quality ingredients that is FHG’s hallmark. 

Nawn was a commuter on the Dinky line several years ago, traveling from Princeton Junction to New York while studying at the Institute for Culinary Education. Having left careers in the pharmaceutical industry and as a franchisee for Panera Bread Company—he developed and opened 37 Panera Breads in northern New Jersey—Nawn was ready to try something different. He opened Agricola three and a half years ago. Of his time on the train that F. Scott Fitzgerald mentioned in “This Side of Paradise,” Nawn recollects: “Princeton has a lot of qualities rooted in history, the Dinky being one of them. It’s a modern transportation method that forces you to slow down. A town with a train station is one from which you can go anywhere in the world, and similarly a lot of students and professors, wheeling suitcases, arrive here. The Dinky Bar & Kitchen makes the train a more enjoyable amenity, a place to grab a cup of coffee or meet a spouse for dinner.”

Speaking of coffee, DB&K will serve Small World Coffee, roasted in Rocky Hill. But for a greater variety of espresso-type beverages, customers will have to wait for Cargot to open.

With its location directly across from McCarter Theatre, DB&K is an ideal place to gather for a pre-show meal. With 60 seats indoors and 30 outside, the tables are sure to fill quickly. When Cargot opens, it will offer 140 indoor and 50 outdoor seats.

 Hours for DB&K, during its soft opening, are Sun.-Mon. 5-11p.m.,

Tues.-Thurs. 5 p.m.-midnight, Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.-1 a.m. No reservations. Expanded hours to include lunch after Aug. 8.  www.dinkybarandkitchen.com

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