The Story Behind One of New Jersey’s Oldest Restaurants

Delving into the Cranbury Inn's rich history, which dates to 1780.

Photo courtesy of the Cranbury Inn.

The Cranbury Inn may be the only place in the state that draws equally enthusiastic interest from brides-to-be and ghost hunters, which is possibly why it feels so very Jersey. But there’s another reason the charming central Jersey spot feels so rooted: it’s one of the oldest restaurants we’ve got.

Which makes sense. The town of Cranbury—just east of Princeton—is one of the oldest towns in the state, with records of buildings as early as 1698. The inn didn’t open until the middle of the 18th century. It began as two separate stagecoach taverns that opened in 1750 and 1765 as population and travel through the area increased. Cranbury became a midway point on the much-traveled road between New York City and Philadelphia, and taverns like the two in Cranbury were essential proto-rest stops for weary colonial travelers who made early roads from paths well-worn by the native Lenape population. (Today the Cranbury Inn is among a handful of New Jersey’s disappearing stagecoach stops.)

An aerial view of the Cranbury Inn. Photo courtesy of the Cranbury Inn.

By 1780—after we’d dumped some tea and declared our independence from England—the two taverns had joined forces and the Cranbury Inn was officially established. And while the “inn” part stopped being accurate in 1982, the footprint of the original taverns, as well as the first innkeeper’s house, are still apparent.

Because it is located just east of Princeton proper, the restaurant at the inn was a frequent stop for none other than Albert Einstein. (The restaurant was even used in the making of the quirky Einstein-era love story “I.Q.”) Princeton alum and Blue Lagoon breakout Brooke Shields was also a known guest, and in 1995 the inn played host to the entire City Council of Moscow. In the early 20th century, the inn was home to both the local Justice of the Peace and the Post Office and, right after Prohibition was repealed, received one of the town’s two liquor licenses (the other went to a boozy dance hall down the street).

Considering its age, it’s almost inevitable that the inn would play host to one of New Jersey’s hospitality-industry ghosts (we’re a state with more than a few haunted restaurants and at least one potentially deadly ice cream parlor seat). One ghost story involves a guest from the 1790s, a mature male who stumbled out of the establishment drunk and was promptly run over by a stagecoach. Strangely enough, the ghost’s chosen haunt isn’t the front drive or a nearby roadway, but inside the Inn itself, where he’s been known to upset pots and pans and bits of infrastructure whenever owners have tried to renovate.

Ghosts, Einstein, and Hollywood aside, the Cranbury Inn has still greater claims, namely its (likely) role as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The grandson-in-law of early tavern owners, 19th-century abolitionist Quaker William S. Hall supposedly remodeled the chimney flue with a so-called “body-hiding box” that could fit several people and be accessed by a trapdoor (one of the many impossibly cramped but lifesaving innovations for hiding developed as part of the Underground Railroad). The stairs to the attic are so noticeably worn down that it, too, may have played a role in hiding fugitive slaves.

The dining room inside the Cranbury Inn. Photo courtesy of the Cranbury Inn.

For this reason alone, the inn guards its history with no small amount of pride and care. But it is—270(ish) years and counting, still a restaurant, and in case you’re wondering what kind of cuisine is coming out of its kitchens, the inn has an “A La Carte” dinner menu with stately upscale dining staples like baked brie, filet mignon, rack of lamb, roasted pork loin, proudly crabby Cranbury Inn crabcakes, and, come to think of it, a surprisingly ample seafood menu, including “8-ounce Lobster Tail Dinners.”

Surf and turf options aside, if you’re looking for a place to restore your sense of New Jersey historic pride, this might make a decent stop in your holiday season travels. Perhaps no better testament to the legacy of true hospitality than a restaurant that, at least briefly, gave safe harbor to human beings in search of freedom.

The Cranbury Inn is still very much in operation seven days a week. And—no shock considering its bucolic charm—it’s remains a very popular wedding venue. The Cranbury Inn, 21 South Main Street, Cranbury; 609-655-5595

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