The Ivy Inn, a staple on East Nassau Street in Princeton known for trivia night, live bands and inexpensive drinks in a casual atmosphere, now offers a full food menu with items ranging between $3-$10.
The two-page menu runs the gamut from salads and beet salad and vegan crab cakes to mac n’ cheese, pizza, burgers and chicken tenders.
The bar began serving food on Monday, Jan. 21, said Geoff Aton, who partnered with Ivy Inn owner co-owner Rich Ryan to renovate a former storage room behind the bar and transform into a kitchen.
Aton and Ryan met a few years ago when Aton was commuting to New York City for his job as an options trader. He would often stop by the Ivy Inn after work.
“I live in Riverside,” Aton said, who is married to Heather and has two sons, Thatcher, 2, and Hudson, 6. “For me to walk somewhere and get something to eat and drink, the closest place was Triumph. I was going through a change in my career and wanted to be more involved in Princeton.”
He also wanted an opportunity to be closer to his family and attend more of his sons’ activities. He ran unsuccessfully for Princeton Borough Council and the new Princeton Council.
He proposed to Ryan opening up a venture with a Philadelphia restaurant and paying royalties to use their food. But that deal fell through.
“We decided if we were going to do it with someone else’s menu, why not do our own?” Ryan said. “Geoff was the finance guy, I had the building.”
Aton went to work, converting a storage room behind the bar into a 125-square-foot kitchen complete with new plumbing, electrical, a commercial refrigerator and a commercial oven and oven hood.
The Ivy Inn received its permits for the food venture in January, 2012, but didn’t break ground until the fall. In the meantime, Ryan renovated bar’s bathrooms and back patio and installed new lighting and bar stools. A mural by local artist Robert Hummel is also in the works and should be completed by Superbowl Sunday- the mural will depict the local streetscape of East Nassau Street.
From now until Superbowl Sunday on Feb. 3, the Ivy Inn is testing out its menu with patrons and making changes as needed. That day, after the Blue Point Grill's 14th Annual Oyster Bowl, everyone is invited to a free buffet at the Ivy Inn where the new menu will be available for tasting. Based on customer feedback, the menu will be finalized by Monday, Feb. 4. Aton and Ryan will split the profits of the food venture.
“What we’re trying to be is a value,” Aton said, noting the Ivy Inn offers an alterative to eating out in Princeton, where it can often cost upwards of $100 to feed a family of four.
But that doesn’t mean the food quality is lacking.
Aton says he’s using the same meat purveyor that the high-end restaurants in Palmer Square use. None of the Ivy Inn’s protein comes frozen and deliveries come daily.
Aton has been working with Jacqueline Baldessari of South Jersey, a chef of 15 years, who created the Ivy Inn’s food menu and has been training three part time cooks. Baldessari plans to stay another month or two and help train waitstaff as the food business expands.
The Ivy Inn menu will likely expand to include specials and a monthly breakfast buffet.
The Ivy Inn previously offered food in 1999-2000, but without money for renovations, the Ryans couldn’t get the necessary permits and limited offerings to cold sandwiches and French fries. Eventually, that effort petered out, in part because smoking was still allowed in bars and the smoke was so thick inside the bar it wasn’t conducive to eating a good meal, Ryan said.
The Ivy Inn is a family business. It started when L. Richard "Dickey" McCluskey bought it in 1966, when it was located a few doors down at the current home of Small World Coffee. In 1973, McCluskey bought the Flying ’A’ gas station located at 248 Nassau St. and opened what he called a ‘shot and beer joint.’ He was active in supporting sports teams from not only Princeton, but throughout Mercer County.
McCluskey died in 1966 at age 55 and his sister Michele ‘Mickey’ Ryan, a nurse, became the owner. She delegated responsibility of operations to her son Rich and he has been running the place ever since. His sister Kelly is also involved, running the website, booking bands and handling private parties.
"There's a reputation that we can't seem to shake that we're a den of inequity," Rich Ryan said. "But my family and Geoff's family are the nicest people, I don't understand it."
The Ivy Inn serves food Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until the kitchen closes at 9 p.m. and on Sunday from noon to 9 p.m. After the kitchen closes, patrons are welcome to bring in their own food.