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Ferry House in Princeton - Big Let Down

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For the past eight years my wife and I have traveled to Princeton on the first weekend in December to have dinner and kick off the Christmas season. For the past four years we have eaten at The Ferry House. The Ferry House had become one of our favorite restaurants. We have recommended it to almost everyone we know.
This past Friday (12/2) we arrived at the restaurant at 7:55 for our 8 o'clock reservation. About a minute after we arrived another couple came into the restaurant and requested a table and advised the hostess that they did not have a reservation. The hostess advised us that our table would be ready shortly. The restaurant was busy, but not overly crowded. As we walked to our table I observed about four tables open. The hostess lead us to the back of the restaurant to a table that had been squeezed in between a wall and the back of another diners chair. Our table was about 5 feet away from the servers station, kitchen and bathrooms. The placement was awkward and uncomfortable. Before we took our coats off and sat down the hostess asked us if we wanted bottled water or tap water! At this point I knew that this was not going to be the dining experience that we had come to expect and looked forward to. As we sat down I observed the couple who had come in after us, without a reservation, being seated at a table for two in the middle of the restaurant; a prime table.
A short time later our waiter came to the table and gave us the menu. He also asked us what kind of water we wanted. He opened our bottle of wine (BYO) and went to retrieve wine glasses. He came back with the wine glasses and told us about the specials. He left while we looked over the menu. I observed him attending to three other tables. While we waited about ten minutes for him to return and take our order, we were invaded by about five fruit flies flying around our bottle of wine and our wine glasses!
When our waiter finally came back to take our order he asked us if we needed more time to look over the menu! We placed our order. My wife ordered a wild mushroom tart which was excellent. I ordered a smoked duck quesadilla which was flavorful, but lukewarm. My wife had the filet mignon which she enjoyed and I ordered a NY Strip which was a special. The Strip was the most disappointing cut of meat I have eaten in a very long time. The steak was nothing but grizzle and fat. A total DISAPPOINTMENT!! There are many great restaurants in Princeton. The Ferry House used to be one of them.

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  1. Fruit flies in my wine gross me out. Did you complain about the table placement or the steak?

    A friend who owned a restaurant told me that she could make one mistake, not know what the mistake was, yet lose a long time customer forever. I will not be a kvetch, but if something is very wrong, we should say something.

    1. I would dispute the idea that there are many great restaurants in Princeton. Even if there were a lot of great ones, Ferry House would not be on the list. While I think you should have spoken up about the lousy table, I don't deny that there is habitually amateurish service in Princeton restaurants. Service is not the strength. I even encountered lousy service at Eno Terra, which truly is a fine restaurant in the area and maybe even the finest. I suppose it's hard to develop and retain excellent servers when they're busy a couple nights per week and not even every week.

      10 Replies
      1. re: glutton

        Elements and Peacock Inn are very good.

        1. re: scarlet knight

          Drop them in a top 25 major metropolitan area and they'd be over their heads. They are very good relative to the competition, but that doesn't say much. Rutgers has a very good football team in the Big East, but someone has to win.

          1. re: glutton

            We eat out in NYC and.Europe and I do still think that Elements and Peacock Inn are very good.

            1. re: glutton

              It'd be fair to say that if you drop any Momo restaurant into any Italian town, they'd be over their head as well. Average food (Mediterra, Teresa's) and comical service (Eno Terra).

              Agree on Ferry House. It fell off our list long ago.

          2. re: glutton

            We agree. There are many "decent" tavern restaurants in Princeton. But, on the whole, Princeton isn't a town that caters to finer dining. Fortunately, it's easy enough to go to really good places throughout the greater surrounding area. And that's what most of us do.

            It's really a shame - Princeton SHOULD have better restaurants. It's usually just as easy to make a really good dish as a merely average one.

            1. re: jkling17

              It's a conundrum. There would seem to be sufficient income and education in the area that really good cooking would be demanded and supported in Princeton. Here's one depressing experience I've had. I've been to Mediterra many times. On a normal night, the food is OK -- nothing amazing, but reliably decent, if a bit uninspired. A couple times, I went there for a wine/food pairing and the chef prepared Spanish Basque dishes each time (he's from that area). They were extraordinarily good -- well executed, thoughtfully presented, reasonably priced. I asked him why he did not cook dishes like this every night and his comment was that the average diner "doesn't get them." Mind you, we were talking about relatively simple dishes involving seafood, etc., not molecular gastronomy or intensely unusual ingredients. Maybe he underestimates the clientele or maybe he's just making a wise business decision -- who knows.

              I do, however, understand why service in Princeton is mediocre. Waiters cannot make a living when the restaurants are busy just a couple nights a week. They're doomed to be amateurs who turnover too often to develop the skill and sense required for professional restaurant service. Generally, they're very nice, hard-working, and genuinely eager to please, but they're just not practiced. How could they be if they only have a full restaurant a couple nights a week?

              1. re: glutton

                Yes, the money is there. Princeton does have some good things going for it with food, if one just wants "good casual dining" or "tavern dining". There's nothing wrong with that.

                We have never been impressed with Mediterra, at least as far as the food goes ... well ... and the service too. I'm generally pretty forgiving about service unless it is actually bad and then I'm pretty mean about it :-) I do have high expectations as to the food, especially if a place is clearly a "nicer restaurant" like Mediterra.

                Sometimes we have had to meet friends there for drinks after work or before dinner. And sure, it's nice to have a drink outside if the weather is nice, and their outside seating is good if they aren't too busy.

                But it's just way overpriced and the food isn't imspired. Ok so their rent must be astronomical but - if we are going to shell out that much then the food better be rock'n good. Pasta for $25? Oh, I don't think so. Nearby Teresa's is a better pick, IMO. But if I want Italian there are any number of places I'd rather go to. Amici's in Trenton is really good, JoJo's in Hamilton has terrific pizza and good pasta dishes. Wallflower's in Pennington has amazing mussels and ribs, etc.

                1. re: jkling17

                  What are the good casual or tavern dining restaurants you are referring to? Thanks!

                  1. re: freshmanjs

                    Oh Im mostly saying that "one can get a good beer and burger or sandwich at Winberries or the Yankee Doodle, Princeton Sports Bar, etc". But jeez ... that's not all that tough, eh? Triumph has some decent pub food also. I just think that when it comes to GOOD dining that Princeton is usually a let-down, though there will be exceptions.

                2. re: glutton

                  Glutton--It doesn't surprise me that you got that response from the chef (it annoys me, but it doesn't surprise me) I feel the attitude in Princeton has always been one of "we are the only game in town" In fact, I actually heard a local shopkeeper express that view several years ago. Needless to say that particular shop is no longer in business. I just feel that this is an area of low expectation (members of CHOW excluded.) As a more diverse population settles in the surrounding area, I'm hoping we will see more ethic types of cuisine as well as chefs who do not "underestimate their clientele."

            2. Thanks for the heads up. Fruit flies? Totally unacceptable. I would have walked out of the joint right then and there.

              Also surprised to hear about bad service at Eno Terra. I love that place - nothing but good experiences.

              2 Replies
              1. re: wereboar

                To be fair, the moment we mentioned to the manager that the server was being rude and inattentive, they rectified the problem immediately. And then they called us the following day to apologize yet again, inform us that the server had been fired (our complaint was not the only one), and asked us to give them another shot. I respect that effort to make things right and in subsequent visits, the service has been acceptable. The food has always been very good, no matter who or how it is brought to the table. It's a good restaurant and they probably impressed more with their effort to clean up some bad service.

                1. re: glutton

                  Damn, they actually fired a rude server? Guess it makes sense because restaurants can't afford to lose customers over something that is arguably easily controlled.

              2. We used to love Ferry House, but the last time I went there, the service was slow and the food was bad. In my case, it was lunch as opposed to dinner. Everyone in our party thought the dining experience was bad.

                1. I agree with the other posters... Hadn't been to Ferry House is quite awhile and figured we'd give it a go. They rarely change their tired menu so we were optimistic. We sat in the back (party of four) under exceptionally bright pointed lighting that completely lacked ambiance. To me, the place also looked rundown. We had the infamous crab margarita but instead of being served in a martini class, it was served in a cheap small wine glass which took some of the umph out of the dish. The entrees were ok ...pricey for the specials. The desserts were a waste of calories and money. I would have rather paid more (and you will at either Peacock or Elements) but you will have a much more memorable meal and experience. Our service was actually kind of speedy and we would have preferred to meander a bit ...

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: ktgshopper

                    We haven't been there in a few years, used to like it, sounds like they need a pep talk from Gordon Ramsey!

                    1. re: scarlet knight

                      Something happened in the last year.... not good in my experience -- and I am not a picky eater. We (the same group of us) went to KC Prime a couple weeks later, and everyone said they enjoyed KC Prime better. I think this speaks volume as to the Ferry House experience we had.