Where’s the Fire?

What’s a restaurant about, anyway?” asks Dean Buttafuoco, owner of Black River Barn in Randolph. “It’s about eating, sure, but it’s just as much about life. A fireplace makes an event out of the dining experience.”

“What’s a restaurant about, anyway?” asks Dean Buttafuoco, owner of Black River Barn in Randolph. “It’s about eating, sure, but it’s just as much about life. A fireplace makes an event out of the dining experience.”

A fireplace is an invitation to deepen your dinner conversation, to linger a little longer with friends over dessert. It can spark greater conviviality during after-work cocktails. Flattering firelight turns an average date into a genuinely romantic occasion. “You are a king by your own fireside, as much as any monarch in his throne,” wrote Cervantes. Although I’ve come to terms with the sad truth that the fireplace in my own home will never work, it’s quite possible to dine like royalty at one of the state’s fireplace-equipped restaurants.

At the Black River Barn (1178 Route 10 West, Randolph, 973-598-9988), the woodpile’s choicest cuts are reserved for the pizza oven. The rest go into a fireplace large enough to heat the spacious dining room. The fire adds to the casual atmosphere of this family-friendly restaurant, which offers dependably good, affordable cuisine, such as the cedar-plank salmon ($15) and hearty soup specials ($4).

Restaurants in country inns and taverns do well to retain their original hearths, like Mendham’s Black Horse Tavern and Pub (1 West Main Street [Route 124], 973-543-7300) and the Long Valley Pub and Brewery (1 Fairmount Road, Long Valley, 908-876-1122). Another Colonial-era establishment, the Grain House at the Olde Mill Inn (225 Route 202, Basking Ridge, 908-221-1150), preserved its fireplaces but converted them to gas years ago. You’ll feel a gas fireplace’s gentle heat only if you sit nearby, while its flickering atmosphere extends throughout the room. The Grain House’s classic innkeeper’s fare is as soothing as its firelight, including the extraordinarily succulent Grain House meat loaf ($15.95), which transcends its humble name.

The fireplaces are least among the reasons to dine at the recently opened Pluckemin Inn (359 Route 202/206, Bedminster, 908-658-9292), where it’s almost an embarrassment of riches to enjoy exquisite butter-poached Maine lobster (market price) and quince-and-walnut crumble with Moroccan olive caramel ($11) while basking within the range of the luminous hearths at either end of the dining room. You can enjoy an aperitif or sophisticated tavern fare in the inn’s similarly pleasant Plucky Tavern, which has its own fireplace.

Ambience is still the primary attraction at another newish spot, Mohawk House (3 Sparta Junction, Sparta, 973-729-6464). With its fine Italian masonry, the two-sided wood-burning fireplace is a conversation piece; look for its large Indian head in relief. Waitstaff devotedly stoke another fire in a freestanding brick chimney out on the patio, within view of the Garden Room dining area. Don’t leave before trying the bread pudding with crème anglaise ($6.50).

In Cape May, Congress Hall’s Blue Pig Tavern (251 Beach Drive, 609-884-8422) and the Virginia Hotel Lounge (25 Jackson Street, 609-884-5700) both feature wood-burning fireplaces. The Blue Pig Tavern’s vigorous fire brightens the airy room’s salmon-pink walls. The hearty cuisine includes the charbroiled burger ($9), pulled-pork sandwich ($8), and thyme-and-bacon–seasoned clam chowder ($6). Just across the street, the Virginia Hotel’s fireplace lends warmth to its lounge’s pale, summery tones. Have a cocktail on one of the comfortable couches, or make your own inglenook in the sunny atrium beside the fireplace.

Authenticity is almost a tangible presence in the Yankee Doodle Tap Room at Princeton’s Nassau Inn, a National Trust historic hotel (10 Palmer Square, 609-921-7500). A blazing gas fire brings a deep gleam to the room’s dark wooden beams. Behind the usually crowded bar, a 13-foot Norman Rockwell mural illustrates the inn’s Colonial heritage. In these venerable surrounds, earnest undergrads sip tap beer and local families gather around highbrow comfort food such as chicken potpie with a light Cheddar pastry crust ($14). This Ivy League establishment smartly conveys the spirit of fireside dining with an inscription in its wooden mantel: Rest, Traveler, Rest and Banish Thoughts of Care; Drink to Thy Friends and Recommend Them Here.


Reviewed in: February, 2006

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