Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 35
 
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
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It’s New to Us by Jean Stratton



DECADES OF DINING: “This is hands-on ownership. Nothing substitutes for being here. When you’re here, you know everything that is going on at all levels. And what is most enjoyable and exciting to me is that it is different every day.” Joe Christen is owner of Lahiere’s, the long-time restaurant at 11 Witherspoon Street.

Dining at the Popular Lahiere’s Restaurant Is a Long-time Princeton Tradition for Many

“Whenever I have guests from out-of-town, and we go out to dinner, we always go to Lahiere’s,” says a Princeton resident. “We know that the food and service will be excellent, and our guests will enjoy themselves.”

That guarantee of consistency is an important part of Lahiere’s success, believes owner Joe Christen, who represents the third generation of his family to own the restaurant. “The quality and consistency of our food and our dedication to offering people a complete dining experience are priorities,” he explains.

And that is how it has been from the beginning, when the restaurant opened in 1919.

“My grandmother’s two brothers had come from the south of France, and they had a farm near here,” recalls Mr. Christen. “They decided to open a restaurant, and they named it Lahiere’s after themselves. My grandmother, Mary Louise Lahiere, was married to Joseph Christen, who was the maitre d’ at the Ritz Carlton in New York. He was from Switzerland. He and my grandmother really got Lahiere’s going. She was the chef, and he was the maitre d’.”

Family Tradition

The family tradition continued when the Christens’ son, Leon, operated the business, and now his son Joe is owner, having taken over when his father retired 12 years ago. “It’s special to be continuing the family tradition, a tradition of 90 years now,” he says. “I really grew up in the restaurant, and I started working full-time in 1987.”

Long known for its French cuisine, Lahiere’s has a different focus today, he notes. “We have a classic menu, basically American with French and European influence. It has evolved over the years from the strictly country French cuisine.

“Classic French food was thought of as heavier food, with heavy butter sauces,” explains Mr. Christen. “Our food is much lighter, with an emphasis on flavor and technique.”

Those who come to dine at Lahiere’s for lunch or dinner know they are in for a treat. Every care has been taken to ensure a happy culinary experience — from the handsome setting, with fresh linens to attentive, knowledgeable service to the tempting, delicious dishes.

The menu changes seasonally, but some items are “must-haves” for the many regular customers. “At dinner, one of the most popular dishes is the honey-roasted half-duck in a natural sauce,” says Mr. Christen. “There are always people who want this. Our seared Diver scallops are also very popular, as is seafood generally. The grilled salmon and the seared yellowfin tuna are big sellers.

“And even though people have been eating lighter, they still want red meat. Our grilled filet of beef is always a favorite.”

Another Favorite

Also, he adds, “The lump crabcakes, with arugula, roasted peppers, sweet corn, and red wine vinaigrette have to be on the menu. Another favorite is our classic French vinaigrette salad dressing. Everyone likes that.”

This summer, Lahiere’s instituted a series of prix fixe lunches and dinners, which have proved so popular, they will be extended into the fall, says Mr. Christen. “We offer a 3-course dinner with choice of appetizer, entree, and dessert for $32. This includes four appetizer choices, four entree choices, and three dessert choices. For lunch, we offer two courses of appetizer and entree for $13.

“We also offer an extensive list of bottles of wine for $25. Of course, there are always the martini drinkers, and we can certainly accommodate them too.”

Diets temporarily recede to the back of the mind when people dine out, and this is never more true than in the case of desserts at Lahiere’s. The delicious and popular choices include classic Tahitian vanilla bean creme brulee; chocolate molten cake; dark chocolate, caramel, and cashew Victoria tart with creme Anglaise; and assorted fresh berries — among so many others!

Lahiere’s is noted, too, for the attractive presentation of the food. “Eye appeal is important. The food has to look good, too,” points out Mr. Christen. “But we don’t overdo it. Flavor and taste are really number one.”

Mr. Christen is very proud of Lahiere’s staff, many of whom are employees of long-standing. “We have a great staff, and they stay a long time. I can’t overestimate how important these people are to the functioning of our restaurant. Our bar manager has been here 23 years, and one of the waitresses, 32 years. Many of the staff have been here more than 10 years.”

Hands-On

Mr. Christen is very hands-on in the operation of the restaurant, and as he says, there is a lot of tasting in the restaurant business. “The executive chef, general manager, and I go over all the new menus. There is always a lot of planning.”

In addition, he points out that Lahiere’s can accommodate people with special dietary needs, and there are always dishes for vegetarians.

The restaurant can seat 150 people, and there are special rooms to accommodate private parties for 50 to 60 guests.

Customers come from Princeton and beyond, including the shore and northern New Jersey. And, though their photographs may not be on the wall, such notable guests as former King Hussein of Jordan, Paul Newman, James Baker, Donald Sutherland, Bob Hope, and John Chancellor have dined at Lahiere’s.

Whether they are famous or not, customers can count on quality dining, special service, and a warm welcome. “I enjoy seeing customers we’ve known a long time,” says Mr. Christen. “Sometimes, it has been three generations in the same family. We also have a lot of new people coming in, and it’s nice to get to know them and make new friends.

“I especially love the fall in Princeton,” he adds. “The students come back to the University — we do a big business with people at the University and students’ families — and fall always brings more people out to eat.”

Lahiere’s is open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday 11:30 to 2; dinner Monday through Friday 5:30 to 9:30; Saturday 5:30 to 10. Reservations are recommended. (609) 921-2798. Website: www.lahieres.com.

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