Before I say anything further about the town of Princeton, New Jersey I have to dispel two rumors that always seem to pollute any discussion of the place. The first one states that you will become so intimidated by all the local brainpower that you will actually lose I.Q. points just by strolling down Witherspoon Street. The other optimistically says the very opposite: even a few hours wandering through the town will bring you that much closer in level of intelligence to Princeton's most famous resident, Albert Einstein. If only this were true.
Wandering around Princeton will make you hungry and while people here don't starve, they sadly often wind up in places that we Serious Eaters would prefer to avoid. When mealtime comes, your best bet is to head up Route 27 (called Nassau Avenue here) towards all those Brunswicks (North, South, East, West, and New), where you'll find an almost endless string of dosa shops, authentic Chinese, and pockets of African, Oaxacan, and soul (see my post on King's Village for one example). However, Princeton does offer some snacks that will tide you over.
The Bent Spoon
We'll start with the most legendary: The Bent Spoon, a gelato shop on Palmer Square. This place was named one of the "Ten Most Memorable Bites of 2007 (Outside New York)" by Ed Levine himself.
Join the back of the line and make your way into the store, where you'll find earth tones and a planet-friendly environment. A sign on the wall boasts of "New Jersey Terroir" and points to a map with some of the state's most famous farms. Brown paper signs above the counter list the day's flavors. When Maria and I were there, the choices included organic Earl Gray, farm fresh ricotta, and cardamom ginger. I chose blood orange and Alphonso mango. while Maria went with a huge cup that included (at minimum) the Earl Gray, the cardamom ginger, the ricotta, and dark chocolate.
We sat down (along with dozens of other Bent Spoon customers) in the park across the street and began to eat. Each flavor was a tour de force of the frozen dessert craft. Fruits, herbs, and even tea sang out in an opera of tastes. Maria, however, immediately jumped on the fact that the dairy-based flavors weren't really the consistency of the gelato she grew up with in Piemonte.
Since she was clearly looking for an argument I stayed quiet, but will respond here and now. The Bent Spoon uses a traditional Italian technique to create a product of unique excellence, but it's not exactly Italian because they aren't exactly in Italy. (Remember, "New Jersey Terroir.")
After neatly sidestepping what might have been a serious squabble, Maria and I wandered over to Thomas Sweet. Here the passion may run as high as The Bent Spoon, but the vibe is utterly different. Instead of wall décor that references "terroir," there's a funhouse mirror salvaged from Palisades Amusement Park. Bright fluorescent lights and colors set the tone.
Forget those herbs and exotics—the twenty four flavors run from banana pudding to Cookie Monster. Only chai seemed like it was serious enough show its face at The Bent Spoon. They also offer frozen yogurt soft serve in flavors including mint, raspberry, and Oreo.
Thomas Sweet prides itself on its twenty-one mix-ins. These include typical options, such as M&Ms and Reeses Pieces, and a few that caught me off guard, like Malt Balls. Special machines located behind the counter combine the mix-ins with the ice cream.
As we entered Thomas Sweet, Maria declared that she would order a banana split—the most perfect American ice cream item in the Italian mind. However, by the time we reached the counter and were ready to order, she came to her senses and realized that after eating four scoops of gelato, she was in no shape for a sundae. Standing there with a lone cup of (delicious) Oreo frozen yogurt, I was left to speak for the entire culture of classic American ice cream making.
I quickly regained my senses and fondly recalled the many cups (I have an irrational dislike of cone) I've enjoyed here. This is ice cream American-style: rich, creamy, and with a startling panoply of possible textures, like Ben and Jerry's gone artisanal, and nothing like anything made in a gelato machine. Moosetrax and banana pudding might not sound like serious enough flavors for a classy town like Princeton, but somehow it works.
Small World Coffee
Those of you who are heavily tattooed, wear thumb rings, and casually chat about the minutia of string theory or the deconstruction of 14th-century Saxon poetry undoubtedly already know about Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street. The rest of us should go there more often. They have a special treat that you can't find at The Bent Spoon, Thomas Sweet, or almost any other café and dessert shop in the state: really good iced coffee served in a glass made out of real glass. Order a glass, sit down, and enjoy the very wonderful experience of not drinking out of a disposable plastic cup.
Is Princeton worth a trip from the city or north Jersey just for its ice cream? I'm not sure, but it makes a pleasant day trip. The campus is bucolic, the town elegant, and there's even a good art museum. You can get there by train from Penn Station (change at Princeton Junction) and bus from the Port Authority. If you go by car, park in the big municipal lot to avoid constantly feeding the parking meters.
Stroll around, grab some ice cream, or sit down and have some coffee, and you may feel a little tiny bit like Albert Einstein. Maybe.
The Bent Spoon
35 Palmer Square West, Princeton NJ 08542 (map) 609-924-2368
Thomas Sweet Ice Cream
183 Nassau Street, Princeton NJ 08542 (map) 609-683-8720
Small World Coffee
14 Witherspoon Street, Princeton NJ 08540 (map) 609-924-4377