by Drew Cranisky and Leah Lizarondo
Lawrenceville may have the dubious honor of being one of the top hipster neighborhoods, but what makes it a true gem is the concentration of great restaurants along its main drag. Tamari put its stamp on the Lawrenceville food scene pre-hipster onslaught and remains one of the city’s favorite destinations. Round Corner Cantina, Matteo’s, San Lorenzo, Franktuary, Piccolo Forno, Espresso a Mano, Cure and Tender are only some of the reasons Lawrenceville’s restaurants rule.
But wait. It gets better. Lawrenceville is a hive of activity this year, with new restaurants, breweries and bakeries opening up and down Butler Street (and beyond). Here are 10 reasons to go to Lawrenceville now—and to keep going back all year long.
1. A vegan restaurant
Who cares if the place is yet to be named? Omar Abuhejleh of Allegro Hearth Bakery is opening an espresso bar and vegan restaurant in Upper Lawrenceville. For those of us who live in Upper Lawrenceville and lament the fact that we have to cross the 40th St. border to get good espresso, we consider this an answered prayer. The restaurant will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner serving casual Mediterranean and Middle Eastern-inspired fare. Everything will be in made in-house, from the pastries and pita to the nut butters and vegan cheese. For those on the go, the restaurant will also feature a grab-and-go cooler of light fare.
Domenic Branduzzi of Piccolo Forno is set to open a small wine bar next to the restaurant. Grapperia will offer grappa—a potent digestif distilled from the skins, seeds and stems left over from the winemaking process. It will be the perfect respite for those waiting for a table at the restaurant and a welcome spot to enjoy small bites while swilling great grappa.
3. The Vandal
Opening in the spring, The Vandal is an affordable and convivial lunch spot served European counter-style—you know you want it. Joey Hilty’s ingredient-driven menu will offer sandwiches and snacks during the day with a rotating selection of dinner offerings. Tahini-spiked potato salad, Southern-style banchan and drinks like Korean apple soda are just a few examples of the modern takes on the familiar. Emily Slagel of Mid-Atlantic Mercantile fame helms the design of the space so you know you’ll be eating in style.
4. 4121 Main
Nestled on the Bloomfield-Lawrenceville border is an unexpected little shop with flowers, art and really good coffee. The tiny space is run by artist Thommy Conroy and coffee enthusiast Kira Hoeg. 4121 Main punctuates an otherwise uninteresting street with its unusual and unique aesthetic—come for a cortado, browse the art and stop to smell the exquisite flowers.
5. Smoke BBQ Taqueria
For the better part of the past year, Smoke has been teasing foodies with an opening date that dangled just out of reach. Since shuttering their beloved Homestead location last May, the city has been buzzing about the arrival of a brand new Butler Street location. At long last, Smoke quietly opened those doors late February. And whether you’re a Smoke devotee or a newcomer to their unique mashup of Southern comfort food and Mexican street fare, it doesn’t disappoint. In the new and much larger setting, Smoke continues to crank out the meaty tacos and hearty sides (think queso dip and mac and cheese) that first put them on the map. With a beautiful space filled with reclaimed material and plenty of bespoke touches, Smoke is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
After Cure opened in 2011, it didn’t take long to become one of the most desirable reservations in town, garnering national attention and turning the upper reaches of Butler Street into a dining destination. Now chef Justin Severino, along with his wife Hilary Prescott Severino, hopes to make more magic at the other end of the street. Morcilla, which is aiming for a summer opening, will be larger and more casual than Cure and focused on Spanish tapas, charcuterie and family-style dishes. The menu will include a variety of traditional Spanish small plates, including smoked shellfish and skewers of octopus, pork belly and the blood sausage for which the restaurant is named. Rounded out with a Spanish-dominated wine and sherry list and creative takes on gin and tonics and sangria, Morcilla will be a relaxed neighborhood spot with some serious culinary chops.
With Piccolo Forno and Matteo’s just up the street, Lower Lawrenceville is not wanting for Italian food. That didn’t stop Franco Braccia and his wife Annette Ishida from opening Senti last month. Located in the new Doughboy Square building, Senti hopes to bring something new to the neighborhood with its brand of upscale Italian cuisine and wine. A small menu of Italian favorites like fritto misto and orecchiette with rapini is complemented by an impressive (mostly) Italian wine list. Senti also has one of the only Enomatic wine systems in the city, allowing guests to load money onto a card and sample 1, 3 or 5 ounce wine pours to their hearts’ content.
8. Wild Side Tap Room
In 2013, Full Pint opened a brewpub at their North Versailles brewery. You’d be forgiven if you’ve never made the traffic-plagued trek there to give it a try. Now, with the opening of their Upper Lawrenceville pub last week, there’s no excuse. Located next door to Wild Purveyors, the Wild Side Tap Room features Full Pint’s regular line of brews, as well as a rotating lineup of Wild Side beers. The Wild Side series, which includes sours and other “weird” beers, pairs perfectly with a sandwich of the day or a local cheese plate from Wild Purveyors. With Hop Farm, Roundabout and Atlas Bottle Works all just blocks away, Full Pint’s new tap room offers yet another way to drink great local beer without braving suburban traffic.
For the past three years or so, Annalee DePaoli (under the name Piebird) has been steadily building a following with her outstanding cakes, pastries and of course, pies. In December, she successfully raised over $10,000 on Kickstarter to fund the opening of a commercial kitchen in Upper Lawrenceville. The money will buy all of the necessary ovens, mixers and gizmos needed for Piebird to continue to expand their sugary offerings. DePaoli hopes to eventually add a retail space, but for now you can continue to order her confections online and at restaurants around town.
10. Pusadee’s Garden reopens
December 1 to March 1 are the dark days of winter, made worse by the fact that Pusadee’s Garden is closed. There is nothing sadder than forgetting their closing date and going to the restaurant excited at the prospect of comforting Thai food on a cold December evening, only to be confronted with the reminder that they are closed. Pusadee’s reopening is one of the surest signs of Spring—and we cannot wait.
All photos by Brian Cohen.