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*Unpretentious* but special birthday dinner, preferably farm-y

My parents are visiting from L.A. in a few weeks for Thanksgiving and my mom's 60th. We both live to eat, cook, and generally obsess about food. My mom is a private corporate chef. I am one of those insufferable millennial/"Portlandia"-type foodies for whom a meal can never be too organic and local--or alternately, exotic.

We currently have a reservation at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester, which is pretty much THE dream meal I envisioned for my mom's special birthday. However, over the last few days, my sister and I have come to the sober (and very sad) conclusion that BH@SB is just too much of a splurge for us in our current financial situations. ($148/person seemed reasonable for a very special occasion dinner until we factored in wine, tax, and gratuity...)

So now I am kind of scrambling to come up with alternatives for a SPECIAL but not pretentious, early Sunday evening dinner in the $100-150/person range without wine. I am considering some NYC restaurants but would love to stay in Jersey, especially for a more rustic, sedate farm-y experience.

Geography: Anywhere north of Lambertville/Princeton.

I moved here from SF last year so I have not tried many places yet and some of the reviews I've read on higher-end NJ dining here, on Yelp and on Google/Zagat have me a bit concerned about pretentiousness in food as well as service. We are adventurous eaters who appreciate creative menus, but value quality above novelty -- in other words, I'd rather have a perfect pork chop than a mediocre Korean-inspired short rib tourtiere. And we are definitely not into the stuffy, white-glove vibe.

Here are some of the places we're considering:

Eno Terra (have been here)
Ninety Acres
Bernards Inn
A Toute Heure
Ryland Inn

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  1. Go on Saturday (they are closed Sunday) to The Pass in Rosemont. Check out the previous thread on this place. It is exactly what you are looking for. $38.50 prix fixe, locally sourced, French techniques, rustic, and delicious. Based upon what you are looking for, this is a no brainer.

      1. I can't lie...I sort of laughed at your list after reading about how you want *unpretentious*! I say that knowing that you don't know, but...having been to both the Bernards Inn and Lorena's, they're not what you're looking for. The word I would definitely use to describe them is stuffy! Lorena's food is fantastic--no doubt there, and the service was excellent. But it is also tiny, with low ceilings, so it felt a bit claustrophobic to us.

        Ninety Acres or Ryland Inn sound like they're what you're looking for, but I'd look carefully at their prices online beforehand; hopefully others can chime in about the cost.

        I have a few other suggestions:

        Blu in Montclair (BYO) always has a tasting menu available and the pricing is INSANELY good; as in, $65 for 5 (?) courses. Really. Even if you go a la carte, it's hard to spend more than that per person AND you can bring your own wine. Service is impeccable and the chef is about as creative as you'll get in NJ! Search on this board or just Google and you can read/see more about it. www.restaurantblu.com

        Pairings in Cranford (also BYO) is also a wonderful option; I've taken my mom there for Mother's Day and she was thrilled specifically b/c it *wasn't* a typical M's D brunch. I also planned a dinner for 18 following my friends' civil union ceremony (aside: soon to be MARRIED-YAY) and people are still talking about it. Bonus: A talented FEMALE chef/owner! Your mom might enjoy that. :-) www.pairingscranford.com

        If you do decide to go in to the city, my current favorite is a bit off the beaten path, as it's in Battery Park City; North End Grill. It's a very handsome restaurant; part of the Danny Meyer/Union Square Hospitality Group, and the chef/partner is Floyd Cardoz, who you may know as a winner of Top Chef Masters. The food is amazing, but separate of that, I love sitting at the 'counter' in front of the open kitchen so I can watch the show! The other fun is taking a train to Hoboken and getting on a ferry to the World Financial Center for the 3-minute ride across the Hudson; when you get off, you're literally 1/2 block from the restaurant. www.northendgrillnyc.com

        6 Replies
        1. re: Curlz

          I'm going to North End Grill in 5 hours :)

          1. re: coldbeer

            That's just MEAN, Coldbeer! Tell Chef I say hi :-)

            1. re: Curlz

              Had the chicken burger...pretty good!

              1. re: coldbeer

                Haven't had that yet, but every time I go I'm swooning... Did you sit at the kitchen counter?

                1. re: Curlz

                  Nah there were four of us I was looking for Bifpocaroba, but didn't see him.

                  1. re: coldbeer

                    Definitely worth sitting there if there are just two of you...

        2. I concur Blu is excellent and so is North End Grill.

          1. Anyone been to Thirty Acres in Jersey City? Just wondering if it would be another good rec...

            2 Replies
            1. re: Curlz

              It is a good recommendation for the food is delicious and market driven. Very much based on a very particular chef's palate (lots of raw fish, in house pickling, and strong flavor juxtapositions). It's very urban, and loud, and as for the unpretentious requirement, there's a kind over-the-top self-conscious unbridled enjoyment of the food the other patrons (dare I say New Yorkers) are bring across the river. But enjoying it they are. For the food is sublime. And nowhere near the top of your budget. My first time there I wished out loud to come back on a quiet, snowy mid-week day, and sit by the windows. So I'm on the lookout this winter.

              1. re: nixienox

                just noticed you want Sunday. 30 Acres is closed for dinner Sunday.

            2. The pass in rosemont, nj. Rosemont is just north of lamberville.I have not been yet but all of the reviews have been excellent. As a previous poster said there is much praise on this site as well. They post the weeks menu on their website on Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning. It is also a byob. Check out the menu, they are doing some very interesting dishes. The drive there is beautiful and the restaurant is within two miles of the last remaining covered bridge in nj.

              1. Ryland Inn would be a poor substitute for Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I don't think it would cost you significantly less and the food, service and atmosphere can't compare to BH@SB. It will easily run $150 per person without wine; please do not waste your money.


                A Toute Heure is exactly what you are looking for, but they are closed on Sundays, except for brunch one Sunday/month.

                1. I'm fond of stage left in New Brunswick. While location is not the rolling hills, the food is very well done, and there is a strong commitment to local.

                      1. Agricola, Princeton NJ - farm is 4miles from table.
                        One 53, Rocky Hill NJ - perfect double cut pork chop and more.
                        The Pass, Rosemont NJ - haute country French, though closed Sun.
                        Bolete, Bethlehem PA - farm to table excellence, closer than BH at SB.

                        1. I'm surprised that no one seconded Ninety Acres. I'm not sure if they are still doing their Sunday Farm to Table brunch, but that would certainly fit the bill. I think the service is professional without being pretentious and I think
                          you could do dinner for that amount,too, if you are careful about your drinks.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: bropaul

                            I'm not 100% sure, but it looks like the Sunday brunch is no longer? The Sunday hours they show are 4 - 9 pm. Which is too bad, because I would love to have brunch there. Maybe it's seasonal.

                            1. re: njkori

                              I think it probably is seasonal, since they tout products from their farm.