Fine Dining, Friendly Service and History All Come Together at The Cranbury Inn
IN THE MIDST OF HISTORY: Shown is the historic Colonial era Cranbury Inn. As owners and innkeepers Tom and Gay Ingegneri point out, “The Inn is really its own entity, with a history and stories to tell. We are just its stewards. It is a joy to own such an historic, well-loved entity. We think of it as a home away from home for our guests, and we are proud to be its stewards. We especially love to see the young people and students visit and become interested in its history.”
By Jean Stratton
A Colonial-era inn still fulfilling its purpose: serving customers high quality dinners, celebrating weddings, hosting banquets — and more. This is a rarity today, and all the more reason for it to be acknowledged and commemorated.
With changing tastes and customs, and altered community styles and landscapes, changes come along quickly, almost before we know it. The Cranbury Inn, located at 21 Main Street in Cranbury, has stood the test of time, and continues to offer its customers the highest standards of service and cuisine.
Its history is a story in itself.
In the mid-18th century, taverns were built in the Cranbury area to meet the needs of travelers passing through the region, often on their way from New York to Philadelphia, or in the opposite direction. What is now The Cranbury Inn has been functioning as a place to eat and drink since at least 1750.
“Five to a Bed”
During its early history, the Inn served as an overnight stop for travelers, although with the stipulation “no more than five to a bed,” points out Gay Ingegneri, who with her husband Tom, has owned the Inn since 1992.
In fact, its history permeates the Inn, from its physical structure to the display of Colonial era “long guns” on the walls, to vintage spinning wheels and an 1890s cash register in the lobby to large murals of Colonial stage coaches, rendered by painters during the WPA work projects program during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Four original wagon wheels have been fashioned into ceiling lights in the original 1750s section of the Inn, and on a wintry evening, an enclosed fireplace in the lounge evokes memories of Colonial travelers sitting in the same location more than 270 years ago. It has also been said of the Inn that, from time to time, it has been haunted by friendly spirits.
The Inn has been the focus of renovation and additions over the years, reports Tom Ingegneri. “Our oldest original tavern was built in the 1750s, and our other original tavern was built in 1765. The innkeeper’s house was built across the front of these two original taverns in 1800. The main dining room was built around 1932, and various changes to the kitchen area occurred in the 1900s.”
In 1903, fire destroyed the Inn’s “big barn,” and during their tenure the Ingegneris decided to build a spacious new barn, known as “The Legacy,” which was completed in 2006.
“Our new barn is an 18th century-style timber frame, seven-bay Dutch barn,” explains Gay. “It is a 3,200-square-foot, 200-plus seating dining room, used for a la carte dining and special occasions, such weddings and banquets.”
Now that this project has been completed, The Cranbury Inn seats 400, with several dining rooms, including one small private enclave, just for two, suitable for celebrating a special moment, such as an engagement or anniversary.
As an important site during the Revolutionary War, the Inn continued to serve food, drink, and lodging to customers, including possibly George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Marquis de Lafayette, all of whom were in Cranbury, then known as Cranberry Towne, with their troops.
The Inn’s historic role continued before and during the Civil War, when it was said to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. “A converted flue space in the oldest section of the Inn is allegedly a runaway slave hiding place,” explains Gay.
The Inn has been host to many famous people over the years, including international visitors such as Madame Chiang Kai-shek and her full entourage, the Prince and Princess of the Netherlands, and the entire City Council of Moscow.
And, adds Gay, its famous Princeton neighbor Albert Einstein often enjoyed a visit to the Inn to drink beer and speak German with his friend and then-innkeeper Adrian van Ravesteyn.
In 1994, Paramount Pictures featured scenes of the interior and exterior of the Inn in the movie I.Q., and actors, including Walter Matthau and Meg Ryan, and the film crew were at the Inn several days.
Justice of the Peace
Unique in so many ways, the Inn is also unusual in that it has its own liquor store, observes Gay. “The location of the liquor store once served as the telegraph office and also the office of the justice of the peace. Since Prohibition, it has been the liquor store and the Cranbury Inn’s wine cellar.
“In 1919, Judge Joseph Thomas Wincklhofer bought the Inn, and he was the last justice of the peace and the last innkeeper to live at the Inn. As justice of the peace, he held court every Tuesday evening in what is now the Lafayette Tavern Room (the Taproom), and he performed many weddings in front of the fireplace while his wife played the piano. The Wincklhofers’ living room is now the main historic lobby of the Inn.
“The tradition of wedding ceremonies being performed at the Cranbury Inn in front of the fireplace continues to this day. Generations of people in Cranbury have been married at the Inn, and in fact, we have had four weddings of grown children whose parents were married here too.”
Over the Inn’s 270-plus history, there have been many owners of the establishment. When Tom and Gay Ignegneri purchased the Inn, it was a new adventure for them. Each had had previous careers: Tom in business in New York City, and Gay as a nurse. And in addition, they were parents of four children.
When they initially came to Cranbury, Gay ran the Cranbury Market for several years. When the opportunity arose to become the Inn’s innkeepers, they were ready to take on this new challenge.
“I said this would be the first time in my life that I’d get to see my husband in the daytime,” says Gay. “I thought it was time for us to be together. It really has been a surprise how I fell in love with this place. I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with it, but I did!”
“I enjoy everything about it,” she continues. “I love being with all the people — our staff and the customers. Many of the customers are regulars and have become friends. And we have a wonderful, capable staff, including our excellent chef and kitchen staff, and one of our servers has been here 47 years!
“It really is about the people. We have customers from all over the area, including many from Princeton, of course, and others travel long distances to be with us. We are always extremely busy over the holidays, and in addition to regular dining, we have many groups and private parties. We also do a lot of banquets, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other occasions for large groups to gather.”
As it has for everyone and everything, COVID-19 presented a problem for the Inn’s business, but now signs of improvement are evident. “We follow all the rules and safety precautions,” notes Gay, “and all our staff wear masks. We are encouraged and hope for better times after everything that people have been through. I also look forward to adding more staff, so that we can once again be open seven days for lunch and dinner.”
Currently, the Inn is open for dinner 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and for Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Sunday dinner 2 to 8 p.m.
The Inn has always been noted for its fine dining, emphasizing quality within a reasonable price range.
“Our food is cooked to order, with the freshest ingredients, special recipes, including my mom’s cranberry relish, and everything is locally sourced, when possible,” points out Gay. “We have the highest quality filet mignon, which is a signature dish. It is extremely popular, and so is our meatloaf, made with top sirloin. It is real comfort food!
“Seafood is always popular with customers, and our burgers, also made with top sirloin, are favorites too.”
All the Trimmings
Among the Inn’s other popular entrees are grilled herb-marinated breast of chicken, chicken artichoke sauté, roast turkey with all the trimmings, sea scallops, pan-seared salmon, and roasted duckling.
Appetizers include potato pancakes, jumbo shrimp cocktail, Cranbury Inn crab cakes, and soup du jour, including three-cheese onion soup. The Inn is noted for its delicious hearty soups.
Desserts top off the dinner, and whether it is New York cheesecake, apple pie, carrot or chocolate cake, or ice cream, it is guaranteed to please the palate.
The Inn’s Sunday brunch has many fans, drawing diners from all over the area. Its buffet-style brunch table offers a mix of hot and cold breakfast and dinner foods, and champagne, orange juice, coffee, and tea (hot or ice) are all available.
Among its features are an omelet station, eggs Benedict, Belgian waffles, bacon and sausage, corned beef hash, and Danish, scones, muffins, and bagels, including lox and cream cheese.
The carving station offers prime rib, beef tenderloin, baked ham, and turkey. Chafing dish choices feature hot chicken, fish, and pasta selections. A dessert table includes pies, cakes, cookies, puddings, and seasonal fruit.
The Inn has a complete selection of wine, beer, and spirits to accompany every meal.
Prices cover a range, with appetizers from $3.50, salads $7.50 and up, entrees beginning at $19 (hamburgers are $12 and up), and desserts from $4.50. The complete Sunday brunch is $35.
Though the Inn is up-to-date and modern in all its accoutrements and accommodations, including its handicapped-accessible bathrooms, at the same time its warm, welcoming ambiance, attractive decor, with each room capturing a feeling of history, gone now but not forgotten, make this a special place in every way.
Their association with the Inn continues to be an ongoing pleasure for the Ingegneris. They reflect on their years at the Inn, commenting, “Over The Cranbury Inn’s 270-plus history, there have been many owners of this establishment. As the current owners, we realize that our time here is only a small segment in the life of The Cranbury Inn, past, present, and future. We realize that we are the stewards of the Inn, and that The Cranbury Inn really belongs to ‘the people.’”
Reservations are recommended. For further information, call (609) 655-5595. Website: thecranburyinn.com.