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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.

                  2. Need I say it – a disappointment. Well, Princeton has never been known for fine dining, much as some spots might try. We had dinner last night with friends who have been patrons here for years. One of the first things they said when we arrived was “It’s not as good as it used to be.” Well, the Chowhound reviews are right. It is not that good. We were given our menus. Shortly our waiter came to the table ready to announce the specials. We had to ask that he open the wine first. So, wine opened and specials recited, we next had to ask for bread. And here they do not give you a basket of bread. Each slice is served – and must be asked for – individually. And the bread was not that good. My wife would not even finish her piece and a dining partner who asked for a second slice asked if it was fresh because it felt state. The answer she was given was that “oh, it’s toasted.” I’ve seen toast – this was not toasted. Fresh or state, the bread was not much more than a slice out of a steak roll. One of the appetizer specials was a jumbo crab and avocado martini. At least that is what I recall the waiter saying. It was just shredded crab over an avocado salsa in a bourbon glass. Big disappointment. For the main course I had breast of duck, duck leg confit with risotto and asparagus. My understanding of risotto is that it should be smooth and creamy, not thick and glutinous. Well, you be the judge, but if you can stick a duck leg in risotto that is so thick and pasty that the leg is held straight upright, well that’s not my idea of a good risotto. Overall a big disappointment, but then again, not really. My wife and I went here for dinner about 8 or 9 years ago. I was so unhappy with the meal we never went back. We only went last night because our dining partners had picked it and we knew it to be a place they liked – or at least they used to like. So, you be the judge, if you want to risk it.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: jerseybill52

                      "One of the appetizer specials was a jumbo crab and avocado martini"

                      Yep, crab meat and avocado served in a martini glass -- their specialty. Bourbon glass? It shouldn't be.

                      Anyway, big disappoint for me too. Not sure if I want to go back.

                    2. Word for word from my blog at http://jerseyfoodies.blogspot.com:

                      I have to say that it has been years since I have been to the Ferry House, so since my good pal John from my home roots in Illinois was in the area, I met up with him in Princeton, and we ventured to The Ferry House. I have had a restaurants.com gift certificate for their from Christmas of 2011, and have been meaning to use it, so tonight was the night.

                      We arrived at the Ferry House, and walked in to see just 2 tables seated. The host was setting up a 6 top on the right hand side of the restaurant, and we waited for nearly 10 minutes to be greeted. Another gentleman was waiting as well, and this was his table being set up. We asked him how long he had been waiting, and he had stated just a few minutes.

                      In the meantime, a waitress came over and asked if we had been helped, and we had sad that he was getting a table ready for us. He finally came back, and seated us. What he was doing in the meantime is beyond me as there were only 3 tables sat, and all the tables were set up. Very odd.

                      I looked over the menu as our waitress came over and read off the 3 additions to the menu. In past visits, I had always gone with one of the specials, but tonight nothing sounded interesting. Specials included their "signature" crab cocktail appetizer served in a martini glass, a Dover sole, a pork tenderloin, and I forget what else. Nothing overly innovative or interesting. The table next to us actually ordered the crab appetizer, and I was shocked that it wasn't even jumbo lump crab meat, not to mention the fact that it was served in what looked like a rocks glass, versus a martini glass....which really isn't a bad thing considering that was played out 10 years ago.

                      Poor John was having some stomach issues, and only ordered soup for dinner tonight. I started off with an appetizer of calamari, which came out in a large bowl. The calamari was breaded and fried, with a soy glaze, sweet peppers, and a pesto drizzle. The rings were nicely breaded in an Italian breadcrumb of sorts, and I am guessing that these are purchased pre-breaded and frozen. While they were tasty, there is much better calamari out there, though that doesn't say a whole lot. Calamari is calamari, and there is nothing innovative about it. Unless of course you go to Chef Luis in New Canaan, CT.

                      While we were waiting for my entrée and his soup to come out, we shot the bull as a few more tables filtered in. One thing I noticed was the fruit flies in the restaurant. Where are these things coming from...in January nonetheless. We both were swatting them away, and this is a bit disheartening. Is the restaurant dirty? Why are there so many of them? It's cold outside, and this seems odd to me. I actually saw this mentioned in a thread on Chowhound recently and I didn't believe it. I can however say that this is a factual statement.

                      For my entrée tonight, I chose the filet mignon. When we used to frequent the Ferry House years ago, their steaks were always amazing, so I figured why not. This came out glistening and smothered in a reduction of sorts, served over a bed of mashed potatoes, 2 spears of asparagus, and topped with a tomato chutney of sorts.

                      The first thing I noticed was the size of the filet. For $35, I definitely expected more. As I put my knife on the filet, I noticed the rock hard crust, that was possibly from a high heat sear, or quite possible from a mediocre cut. As I cut into the steak, I could see that it was overcooked as I had ordered it medium. I probably should have sent it back, but I didn't as I was using a gift certificate, and I never like to cause a scene. While it was closer to well done, there was a small pink middle on one end of the steak.

                      The steak itself was tough, dry, and lacking flavor. The reduction on the steak did seem to help some, as did smearing it in the mashed potatoes. Overall, this was very disappointing, and for $11 less, I would much rather go to The Farnsworth House in Bordentown for the twin filet medallions wrapped in bacon and topped with jumbo lump crab meat, but that is just me.

                      Overall, it was a great night out with a good friend from back home, but the food at The Ferry House has definitely gone downhill over the years. Maybe Chef Trigg is losing motivation, or maybe Chef Trigg wasn't even there tonight. I know that his sous-chef has been with him for well over a decade, and I would definitely expect more.

                      In short, the highlight of the night for me was the 2008 Stefania Crimson Clover cabernet sauvignon that I popped and poured. What an absolutely stunning wine, and I cannot believe how "open for business" this wine is at such a young age. This was truly the best bottle of Stefania that I have had to date, and I look forward to many more of these.

                      As for The Ferry House, cross it off of my go to list in Princeton. The menu seems stale, and the restaurant needs a makeover. Call in Gordon Ramsay, and turn this back into the Princeton staple it once was! Cheers!

                      The Ferry House
                      32 Witherspoon Street
                      Princeton, NJ 08542
                      Phone: (609)924-2488
                      http://www.theferryhouse.com/

                       
                       
                      1 Reply
                      1. re: njfoodies

                        Great report. Agree with your comments toward the end.

                      2. Ferry House was closed by the state for $200,000 in back taxes.

                        http://www.nj.com/mercer/index.ssf/20...

                        1 Reply