New Jersey’s Less Famous West Coast, along the Delaware River
By Anne Braly
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
New Jersey may be best known for its proximity to New York City or, for beachgoers, it’s Jersey Shore. But go West along the river and you’ll find enough spirit and vitality to satisfy history buffs, bucolic settings for outdoor lovers, and wonderful restaurants for foodies, too.
The stretch of land bordering the Delaware River that connects Lambertville, Stockton, and Frenchtown — all located in New Jersey’s Hunterdon County — is a two-lane road 30 miles long, weaving through some of the state’s most historic sites with each village offering different experiences to keep your interest piqued.
There’s something about taking in their history — the beauty of their waterways and biking/hiking trails, their shopping experiences and many restaurants, then settling into comfortable bedding in historic inns come day’s end — that makes for memorable moments to add to your personal history.
Peter Prorok and his partner and artist, Ramon Robledo, have lived in Lambertville for 25 years. Together, they own one of the town’s many art and antiques galleries, A Stage in Time. The gallery is located along the Delaware River in a building that dates to 1820 and has had many lives, beginning as a hairpin factory before becoming a home for those helping to dig the Delaware and Raritan Canal, part of which is located about 100 feet away, and now, the old factory is a gallery filled with art and curiosities.
“We get a lot of people who come to town for its history,” Prorok says. “It’s so scenic with all the walking trails and the shops and the restaurants and the hotels. Lambertville has really become more of an arts and antiques destination.
And then there’s the history. Before the famous battle of the Crossing of the Delaware right down the river from here, George Washington and his troops were in town a lot scouting out the area and finding places where they could hide their boats.”
Toe to Tow
“Stockton, New Jersey, is all about the canal path,” says Nancy DePalma, a Stockton-based food and travel writer. The canal path is better known as the towpath that parallels the Delaware-Raritan Canal, a canal built by Irish immigrants in the first half of the 19th century for transporting people and goods. Today, it’s mostly used for tubing, kayaking and other forms of watery entertainment.
Beside the canal, though, runs the D&R Canal State Park, a 72-mile corridor with 19th-century bridges and stone culverts, part of which is a 15-mile flat stretch — the towpath — of compressed gravel that connects Lambertville, Stockton and Frenchtown.
It’s ideal for nature lovers, bikers, hikers, and runners, and runs along the edge of each town so you can hop off to see the sights, down a cold drink, or enjoy a hot meal, then jump right back on and continue your journey along the scenic towpath.
One thing that’s hard to miss in Frenchtown is its commitment to the arts. ArtYard is an incubator for creativity expressed through all kinds of mediums, including giant recumbent sculptures that deal with the intersection of the personal and political.
The sculptures can be seen along the towpath. Or just take a short jaunt around town. Downtown Frenchtown encompasses just a block or two, unlike Stockton that’s just one block, and Lambertville, is the big boy of the bunch.
Susan Gibbs drove up from Washington, D.C., recently for a long weekend and ventured off the towpath to do some sightseeing. Gibbs frequently travels solo and says she appreciates the safety she finds along this stretch of the Delaware.
“I can go walking and biking and feel perfectly safe by myself,” she says. “I love the fact that these towns are so historic. They just ooze history, but they also have modern restaurants — they’ve kept up with the times.”
If you are driving, make sure to bring your bike along. If not, there are bike rental shops, such as Cycle Corner in Frenchtown or Pedego Electric Bikes in Lambertville.
Washington Slept Here — And You Can, Too
Holcombe House is the oldest structure in Lambertville and there’s documentation — an invoice that now resides in the Library of Congress — that states that George Washington stayed there.
The house/inn and its surrounding buildings and green spaces were recently purchased by the city, their use yet to be determined, Eisinger says.
While Holcombe House is no longer an inn, there are three of note that hold their own place in New Jersey history.
Capt. John Lambert opened Lambertville House in the heart of Lambertville as an inn and tavern in 1812 and, two years later, added a post office. Now, 200-plus years later, it continues the tradition of comfort, good food. and hospitality. Throughout its history, it’s hosted presidents, military leaders, entertainers, and royalty.
The inn boasts 26 king and queen suites, with luxury bedding, many with fireplaces, and some with jetted tubs and small porches overlooking a pleasant courtyard or the beautiful downtown area. The hotel is nationally recognized as a Historic Inn and features a dining room, bar, and event center for meetings and special events. Online: www.lambertvillehouse.com
The National Hotel in Frenchtown opened as a stagecoach stop and brothel in 1833, then reopened as an inn in 1850. Big names, such as Wild Bill Cody and Annie Oakley, have contributed to its colorful past. It has 10 guest rooms, all different shapes and sizes, from smaller rooms with queen-size beds to a large king room with a hot tub. A stay at The National is a step back in time as you enter the inn from the wide, rocking-chair front porch.
The furnishings have character and charm, and its restaurant, only recently reopened, places a focus on local ingredients and is one of three places in town that offers liquor by the drink. One other is in the basement of The National — The Rathskeller, a bar with good drinks, no food service, a dank smell but a marvelous underground ambiance. Online: www.thenationalhotelnj.com.
The tiny town of Stockton is home to the enchanting Woolverton Inn, a romantic bed-and-breakfast that sits high on the hill above town overlooking the Delaware River. The foundation was built in 1792 with significant improvements made to the original farmhouse in the mid-1800s.
Woolverton is nestled on 10 acres of pristine property and exudes charm. All cottages and guest rooms include a three-course country breakfast and afternoon refreshments. Online: www.woolvertoninn.com
Dining Along New Jersey’s Delaware River
There’s no shortage of good eats to be found in Lambertville, Stockton and Frenchtown. Each has an amazing collection of eateries, including small Stockton. So let’s start there.
The Borscht Belt, located in Stockton Market, is the biggest thing to hit the borough since the canal came through. It’s a New York Jewish deli on steroids, opened by Nick Liberato, a chef whose name may sound familiar to foodies in the know.
Liberato is to food what Liberace was to the piano. He plays ingredients like a rock star, having appeared in culinary shows such as “Top Chef Masters” and “Bar Rescue.”
He’s now executive producer of Netflix’s “Restaurants on the Edge.” A native of Bucks County, Pa., just over the bridge from Stockton, Liberato makes his own corned beef and pastrami, cures his gravlax in-house, and his matzo ball soup tastes like something out of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
The Borscht Belt is a marvel of culinary ingenuity, based on a need to bring back what partner Michael Dalewitz calls “an important part of Jewish culture.” Pick up a sandwich and take it over to nearby historic Prallville Mills for a picnic. Online: www.theborschbelt.com.Upriver from Stockton is Frenchtown, and along its main road, Bridge Street, are several places worth discovering. The Bridge Cafe, housed in a former train station overlooking the river, has mouthwatering sandwiches and confections.
Across the street stands the Frenchtown Inn, a cozy brick restaurant built in 1805, offering both fine dining with its sea scallops, Long Island Duck Breast and Australian rack of lamb, and casual fare — fish tacos, mushroom flatbread and the like. The inn does not offer overnight accommodations, just good food in one of four dining rooms or al fresco.
For a town the size of Frenchtown, there are at least 10 restaurants, according to Pointon. “There are a lot of people who come to Frenchtown just for the restaurants and the shopping,” she adds.
It’s expected that as Lambertville grew and became an artsy community, the culinary arts would play a big role. The Colonial-style dining room at Lambertville House features oysters on the half shell, short rib sliders, crab cakes and more on a menu that changes with the seasons. On Mondays, the menu is prix fixe. Across the hall in the bar, you’ll find hand-crafted cocktails and tapas. Online: www.lambertvillehouse.com.
Lambertville Station is a town favorite with tables located along the canal for outside dining and, inside, tables that overlook the water. The menu is a collection of tastes, from fish and chips to a ramen noodle bowl and jambalaya. Online: www.lambertvillestation.com.
Other restaurants of note in Lambertville include El Tule for Mexican; Full Moon for brunch; Thai Tida for, you guessed it, Thai; and Meta Café for its incredible Cali Breakfast Sandwich — two eggs, avocado, caramelized onions and chipotle crema on a fresh brioche bun.
But Don’t Go on Tuesday
While restaurants and galleries comprise a good bit of the retail business in the area, Lambertville, Stockton and Frenchtown mostly close down on Tuesdays. You’ll find a spattering of restaurants open, including Sneddon’s Luncheonette in Lambertville, the dining room at Lambertville House (dinner only) and Lambertville Station. There’s also Bridge Café and Cocina Del Sol in Frenchtown. Stockton becomes a ghost town on Tuesdays.
Plan, accordingly, though, and you won’t go hungry. Apparently, restauranteurs in these small towns don’t know what small means when it comes to their dishes. Sneddon’s has a Western omelet big enough to share, and the massive handmade veggie burger at Bridge Café along the towpath is an explosion of texture and flavor — the best this food and travel writer has ever had.
New Jersey Historic Walking Tours
The streets of Lambertville, the largest of the three towns with a population upward of 4,000 citizens, make for a wonderful day of walking and taking in its Victorian architecture, many structures of which have been reclaimed and have now restored their place in Lambertville history.
Eighty percent of Lambertville’s handsome brick buildings and row houses were built before 1900. One of the most notable is the James Wilson Marshall House at 60 Bridge Street, an 1816 Federal house with pale green shutters that was the boyhood home of its namesake, the discoverer of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848. It’s now the office of the Lambertville Historical Society and is open for tours, COVID depending.
Eisinger started coming to Lambertville in the early 1980s, a time when the town was just beginning to make a turnaround after its life as an industrial center through the 1970s.
“The town was kind of down on its luck,” he says, pointing to what are now beautifully restored homes while walking along Union Street, one of the main thoroughfares through town. “Many places were abandoned and up for auction, like Lambertville Station.
It’s now a restaurant, but it was our train station. A group of investors bought it back in the ‘80s and opened it three years later. That certainly didn’t mark the turnaround, but it was symbolic. You can see how people have now started restoring these homes, giving them some TLC which they desperately needed.”
A walking tour of Stockton takes minutes, but must include a stop at Stockton Market, a community market open year-round that features food stands, meats, farm-fresh produce, chocolatiers and local artisans.
On to Frenchtown just a couple miles up the road and it’s time to get out of the car and explore the variety of shops to be found. There are no empty storefronts, says Laura Pointon, president of the Frenchtown Business Association. The town is compact, so walking from store to store won’t take long.
And there are many different ones from which to choose: Sunbeam General Store with its vast array games, honey, jams, juices, axes, soaps, lotions and such; the Petrified Wood Store right next to the Gemstone Gallery. It’s a goldmine for shopping for those things you need, as well as those you don’t, but just want.
It’s easy to get lost in history roaming the towns of Hunterdon County while appreciating the efforts the towns have made as they march into the future.