Princeton’s Dinky station has always been part of my life, from childhood fun rides to eye-rolling amusement in the 1960s when students held up the train (on horses!) en route to kidnap their weekend dates as they arrived.
Those wild west days are gone now, but with the relocation of the Dinky terminus, the original stone station, built in 1918, has been sensitively transformed into the new Dinky Bar & Kitchen that opened at the end of July. The adjacent building, once for baggage handling, will debut next year as a brasserie named Cargot (think escargot and cargo).
Both are operated by Jim Nawn’s Fenwick Hospitality Group, which also owns Agricola downtown and the Main Street businesses that include a bakery/café in Kingston, the Bistro in the Princeton Shopping Center, and an extensive upscale catering operation. As it does for Agricola, Nawn’s Great Road Farm supplies much of the produce used at the Dinky Bar & Kitchen. Also like Agricola, the focus here is emphatically on top-notch ingredients.
Much of the Dinky station’s interior still reminds us of the past. The old ticket windows now open onto the kitchen area where Executive Chef Jason Hall reigns. At the other end of the one room, above the tall communal tables, the menu is posted on ticket (arrival and departure) boards. The high narrow tables and stools are not very comfortable, but we manage and I have since learned that some regular table seating has arrived. Hooks for purses and umbrellas under the high table would have been a nice touch, but my friend gave extra points for the unisex restrooms and wondered why everyone’s not doing this now.
The bar, situated in front of the kitchen, offers interesting wines including some on tap, liquors from classic to trendy, and beers, many of them craft or local. The latter includes New Jersey Iron Bound Hard Cider, which tasted more like beer than cider, with a refreshing hint of apple. A menu of train-themed cocktails yielded my friend’s Ticket to Ride, a combination of gin, hibiscus syrup, and lemon that was not too sweet.
Wines by the bottle are almost all under $50, in keeping with the casual vibe and an implied acknowledgment that theatergoers may be reluctant to “invest” on their way to a performance, or stopping in post-performance. The same strategy is reflected in the food menu, which is heavy on the small plates and sharable dishes, so you can easily have as little (or as much) as you want.
There are combination plates of charcuterie and cheese available, but it’s either one or the other unless you order the large chef’s choice mixed platter at $36. So instead I ordered two meat items, both made by Agricola, the Mortadella and the Pork and Chestnut Terrine.
They were accompanied by whole grain mustard, finely diced pickled vegetable, and four cute olive-rosemary baguettes standing in a paper-lined cylinder. The diminutive baguettes were about four inches long and their presentation reminded me of the full-sized bins of bread displayed in a market. Very clever.
Three chubby slices of pistachio-studded mortadella and a thick slab of the dense terrine were a delicious and substantial start to a meal, especially accompanied by the three tiny deviled egg halves I also ordered. Those were stained red with beet juice and the filling was prettily piped in and garnished with a few grains of mustard and microgreens. Precious!
Other starters include everything from olives and bar nuts to fingerling chips to zucchini hummus with flatbread, and a tempting housemade fennel sausage fried in sage leaves.
We ordered two of their “Plates,” each enough for a small entrée. Duroc pork ribs were tender, if a little dry on the ends, and the swordfish tacos — three small ones — were juicy and tender thanks to excellent treatment of the fish. The ribs were accompanied by a tiny loaf of rich jalapeño cornbread that wasn’t particularly spicy, and the tacos were topped with tomatillo salsa verde, red cabbage, and a dab of spicy mayo. Again, not very spicy, but the overall effect was very flavorful. Both dishes came with a wedge of lime to liven up the flavors. Shreds of scallion on the ribs were a nice addition to cut the richness. Our server, Taylor, was very pleasant and efficient throughout our meal, and we were provided with special napkins and moist towelettes for our messy fingers.
There’s also a lobster roll on the menu (which will change seasonally), along with a cheeseburger, steak tartar, mussels, wings, and turkey-zucchini meatballs. (Got to use that zucchini from the farm!)
No desserts are served, maybe another nod to diners who need to eat and depart for the theater. Since seating is fairly limited (about 55 inside), and not the most comfortable, lingering is not too likely except for those planted at the bar. The acoustics can challenge conversation a bit, but tables and chairs outside provide another couple dozen seats in nice weather.
The Dinky Bar & Kitchen is Princeton’s new favorite watering hole — but one with exceptional food. They’re settling in nicely, and I eagerly await the arrival of Cargot in the new year.
Dinky Bar & Kitchen
Rating Very good
Ambiance Nicely refurbished train station offers upscale food and libations to theatergoers and locals with friendly efficient service.
Prices Snacks/à la carte charcuterie $4-$12; small plates/appetizers $9-$15; bigger plates/entrees $11-$21.
Hours Open daily for lunch, dinner, late night.
Essentials Major credit cards; full bar; wheelchair accessible (except for table height); metered street parking (free Sundays); no reservations, walk-ins only.
Rating includes the overall experience, including food and service, and range from Fair to Excellent.
Faith Bahadurian blogs at http://njspice.net (also Twitter @njspice).