It’s a gorgeous autumn day, and my friend Jen and I are psyched. We’re about to drive to picturesque Lambertville and Frenchtown, soak up the sights, check out as many antique stores and art galleries
as possible, and enjoy a relaxing lunch—all before the school day ends back home in Essex County.
It’s a fun challenge—and we are looking forward to a break from our daily rituals as stay-home moms to enjoy the beauty of the Delaware River and the bucolic towns nestled along its banks.
We start early, dropping the kids at school and driving straight to Lambertville, where we’ll begin our excursion. For lunch, we’ll head 15 miles north on scenic Route 29 to Frenchtown.
As we approach Lambertville, we seem to slip back in time. Many of the stately Victorian and earnest colonial houses, as well as the egalitarian, federal-style row buildings, appear to have changed little since they were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Thank goodness the main business area received historic-preservation status in 1983.
Lambertville, settled in 1710, for a time was an industrial town, its factories producing goods from underwear to rubber bands. Now it’s most notable as an artists’ colony and a magnet for antique-loving day-trippers.
Our first stop, the Lambertville Trading Company (43 Bridge Street), is a quirky but inviting combination of coffee shop and candy-and-chocolate emporium that also sells kitchen knickknacks. After a cup of strong java, we begin to explore.
Downtown is packed with art galleries, antique stores, restaurants and other quaint establishments. Artful attention to detail is a hallmark of Lambertville businesses; even the local bank pitches in, placing wicker furniture invitingly on the front porch. A thrift shop, Mill Crest Vintage (72 Bridge Street), fills its windows with an enchanting display of hanging ice skates and ornaments.
More enticing to us are the many art galleries and antique shops, such as the Greene & Greene Gallery (32 Bridge Street), brimming with unique home-decorating items and jewelry, and Bridge Street Antiques (21 Bridge Street), with its tasteful assemblage of vintage collectibles.
Strolling west on Bridge Street, we reach the banks of the Delaware River and the two-lane bridge that connects Lambertville with New Hope, Pennsylvania. New Hope preceded Lambertville as a hot destination several decades ago. But there’s more than enough to fill our morning in Lambertville. We’ll stay on this side of the river, thanks.
Just north of the bridge we spy a group of four charming, brightly painted row houses, each the site of an antiques store or gallery. We stop in at A Stage in Time (9 Lambert Lane), which specializes in Mission-style furniture, and admire the spare, sturdy lines of the original Stickley wooden tables and chairs. The owner, Peter Prorok, extols the joys of living in Lambertville—including the gorgeous view of the river from his patio above the shop. But alas, Prorok’s prices are out of our reach; a large Stickley couch with leather cushions is ticketed at $5,000.
We break from browsing to enjoy the foliage along the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, which runs alongside the river. The park follows an old towpath on which mules once pulled barges along the canal. At one time, the D&R was a major artery of commerce. Now cyclists, runners and walkers frequent the well-maintained towpath, which stretches 16 miles north to Frenchtown and 14 miles south to Trenton (then inland all the way to New Brunswick).
After our stroll, we hustle back on the shopping beat, checking out Lovrinic Antiques (15 North Union Street), with its lovely American and English pieces from the 1700s and 1800s, and beautiful collections of French pottery and ceramic birds. We admire an 1830s stepback kitchen cupboard with handblown glass panes, but again the price—$6,800—makes our heads spin.
The owner, Tim Lovrinic, sensing we might be hungry, recommends Manon (19 North Union Street), a tiny bistro just a few doors down that specializes in Provençal cooking. It looks the part with its French country décor. Jen, who grew up nearby, fondly remembers eating at Manon as a teenager.
“Lambertville has become a real restaurant town,” says Lovrinic. “You can get anything here: Indian, Japanese, Thai, Mexican. People come from all over to eat here.”
Popular places include the Lambertville Station Restaurant (11 Bridge Street), a sprawling establishment that boasts a wine cellar, pub and canal-side outdoor seating. (Bring your pooch and they’ll provide a bowl of water.) Many say this place, along with the celebrated Hamilton’s Grill Room (8 Coryell Street), started the revival of fine dining in Lambertville. The newest worthy arrival is Brian’s (9 Kline’s Court), its country-French cooking awarded three stars in last month’s New Jersey Monthly.
It’s a little early for lunch, so we head to Lambertville’s antiques mecca: the People’s Store (28 North Union Street), a four-level center with more than 45 dealers. Here you can find anything from a Seth Thomas mantel clock ($1,100) to antique mercury-glass Christmas ornaments and vintage mink coats. They also sell furniture, books, silver, paintings—just about anything old you can think of.
Mission in mind, Jen and I return to the car and head north on Route 29, which follows the river to Frenchtown. Along the way, we take a slight detour on Route 519 to Sergeantsville, where we drive through the last covered wooden bridge in New Jersey.
The Green Sergeant’s covered bridge, which spans the Wickecheoke Creek, was built in 1872. Once New Jersey had more than 75 covered bridges, but over the years fires and floods wiped them out, leaving just this one. It’s worth seeing—especially against the russet, amber and fiery-red backdrop of fall.
The rest of the drive to Frenchtown is equally rewarding. On our right, cliffs climb along the road; on our left flow the river and canal. The leaves are spectacular. We’ve heard about the heavy traffic that snarls this area in the summer, but on this fall weekday, few cars are on the road.
Just before we hit downtown Frenchtown, we stop at Two Buttons (62 Trenton Avenue), the cavernous warehouse of imported Southeast Asian goods owned by Elizabeth Gilbert, best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love. A local resident, Gilbert has stocked the store with Buddhas and other alluring artifacts picked up on her travels.
At the same address, Lovin’ Oven, a haunt popular with locals, serves delicious meals highlighting seasonal and local ingredients. It looks worthy, but we have plans to eat lunch at the Bridge Café (8 Bridge Street). Arriving there, we are tempted by the upscale Frenchtown Inn (7 Bridge Street) just across the street. The stately, 1805 red-brick building with white columns was originally the town’s first hotel. We want something a little more casual, so we stick to plan A.
The Bridge Café is cozy and warm, with home-baked pies and other desserts prominently displayed in a glass case. We sit at a French bistro table on the enclosed patio and take in the sweeping view of the river and the Uhlerstown-Frenchtown iron-truss bridge.
Our server is friendly and attentive, and within minutes we’re enjoying a delicious Mediterranean chicken salad with yogurt ($14) and a Greek-style chicken pita sandwich ($12) from the daily menu.
Rejuvenated, we’re ready for more strolling and browsing. We peek in at Left Bank Home (19 Bridge Street), a home furnishings and gift store full of beautiful things, and Minette’s Candies (43 Bridge Street), a heavenly little candy shop, where we pick up some delicious-looking chocolates for later consumption.
Frenchtown is smaller and quieter than Lambertville, but to me it’s a little hipper and more appealing. The businesses, located mainly in 19th-century buildings on a few adjacent streets, are more eclectic and unusual than those of Lambertville. The town itself has a laid-back, slightly down-at-heels feel that seems more genuine and unself-conscious. And the autumn flower displays in front of the shops add a touch of charm.
Not surprisingly, folks we speak to in Frenchtown tend to agree with our assessment. “In Lambertville, they sell things that they think people want,” says Meg Metz, owner of Modern Love (23 Race Street), a shop full of modern and vintage goods, including a selection of working typewriters. “Frenchtown has all these unique shops, and the places to eat are unbelievable.”
Across the street from Modern Love is a shop where you can rent kayaks to paddle down the river. Bike rentals are available nearby.
We’ll be back, we decide, although Jen disagrees with my preference for Frenchtown.
“I like Lambertville better,” she says. “It’s more quaint and less desolate feeling.”
Fortunately, the towns are only 15 miles apart, so you can visit both—and still make it home just as the school bus pulls up.
Jacqueline Mroz is a freelance writer in Montclair.Click here to leave a comment