By Kurt Epps—the PubScout
One of the wonderful things about solo motorcycling is the discovery of a hidden Jersey gem. Not precious or semi-precious stones, mind you, but a little out-of-the-way place—a spectacular view from an off-the-beaten path mountain road, a tranquil, crystal-clear river hard by a one-lane bridge.
And cool taverns.
As is my wont, I took a Sunday ride on a beautiful day out to Somerset/Hunterdon/Sussex/Warren counties. No specific destination in mind, and purposely sans GPS, but in search of my favorite motorcycle roads—two-lane blacktop, shaded by overhanging trees (preferably adjacent to a river or canal) or bordered by sun-splashed fields with expansive vistas—and no (or very little) other traffic. It's why four wheels move the body, but two wheels move the soul.
Hunterdon County Road 523 is a remarkably scenic and wonderful road to ride, especially from Flemington to its terminus in the little river town of Stockton, NJ. The roads on either side of the Delaware are wonderful motorcycle roads, and just the kind I seek. Having stopped more than once at the towns of Lambertville, NJ (RiverHorse Brewing), New Hope, PA, Frenchtown, NJ and Milford, NJ (The Ship Inn), I decide to take 523 into Stockton in search of lunch—and a good pub with good beer.
The Gods of Victuals and Beer were with me, as my exit from 523 onto NJ 29 deposited me just outside a place called the Stockton Inn, a place I had—inexplicably-- passed countless times before on my River Rides.
I pulled the Blue Eagle around the back of the place and beheld what looked to be a terraced, covered garden. The burbling of water, produced by two waterfalls, and profuse greenery provided the backdrop to the sounds of diners enjoying their lunches and drinks. So I headed inside.
And I stepped back more than two centuries in time. Wide-plank wood flooring, it authenticity validated by its unevenness, delightful murals on the walls and the unmistakable ambience of a Revolutionary décor were just the predecessors to an inside bar tabbed "The Farmer's Bar." With its original tin ceilings and rich mahogany wood trimmings, one could easily imagine quaffing a pint with General Washington himself as he crossed the Delaware into Pennsy from this very spot—known then as Howell's Ferry. That crossing, of course, led to a far more famous—and historic—one some miles downriver when GW's attack on Trenton on a Christmas night turned the very tide of The Revolution.
The literature of The Stockton Inn suggests its beginnings circa 1710, which predates even Washington's birth. And the interior of this architectural gem gives no reason to doubt the date. You can read all about it here.
As Fate would have it, the current owner, Fred Strackhouse, was on premise, and Fred was kind enough to give me a tour of the place. A bit of consubstantiation and background from me to Fred (most owners are not likely to accept a vested, dungaree'd, beerdrinking biker as a legit columnist) yielded a special bond between us. As it turns out, Fred was a former wrestler (my kind of guy) who toiled on the mats for the Nittany Lions way back when. After we concurred that wrestling is the only sport (everything else is just a game), he introduced me to his daughter Sara, currently attending Lehigh (and maybe on a first-name basis with Cael?). This knockout 20 year-old has crafted her own major at the prestigious engineering school involving Graphic Design and other studies, but here she was waiting tables in her dad's joint. That she is conscientious about it goes without saying, because Fred had to drag her kicking and screaming to be in the pictures. She had customers to attend to, you see, and work to be done. (Ah, the progeny of wrestlers…)
Enough about the place and the people. What about the food and the beer?
Chimay on tap. If that doesn't get your attention, go have a Corona. Also, Dogfish head's 60-minute IPA, Smuttynose's Old Brown Dog (was a perfect complement to the Chicken Pot Pie, by the way), Yuengling (natch) and Stella Artois. And that was just on tap. A host of others was available in bottles. I had a Smuttynose with my Chicken Pot Pie, and both were delicious.
The full menu is here on the website, and if you're tired, you can even stay here in some of the guest rooms. Many famous people besides you have done just that. The History link at the website tells us: Band leader Paul Whiteman kept a regular table at Colligan's and signed off his radio and TV shows announcing he was "going to dinner at Ma Colligan's". The Inn became a mecca for writers, artists, and thespians. A table favored by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Damon Runyon and S. J. Perleman became known as the "Algonquin Roundtable" in honor of their New York City hangout. Add some of the famous writers who covered the Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping trial in Flemington to that list, and you're in some elite company. The Inn has even had the bands of Marshall Tucker and Gerry Garcia perform there. Yes, there's entertainment, too.
Whether you stay the night or not, check out the Silver Dollar Bar and the Silver Dollar floors. Fred Strackhouse had the bar "re-silver-dollared" and Sara planted one of her own in it. The terraced gardens, abutted by those aforementioned waterfalls, are a delightful place for lunch, dinner or just a few Chimays and a cigar or two. It melds nature and civilization in a perfect blend of ambience, and was likely the reason for the ancient appeal of the place.
Though The PubScout normally eschews wine (unless it's real cheap sangria that I can doctor), The Wine Cave, a small convex room with as vast a collection of wines as you're likely to find anywhere, has its own history, too. Be sure to ask about it. Fred is obviously in this venture for the long haul, as he confided that he has about 2,000 bottles of vintage wine on hold which should be maturing perfectly in a decade or so.
And while this was a midsummer visit, one can imagine what ambience the holidays bring to the Stockton Inn. Here's a sampler. The PubScout only had a few beers and a lunch on this serendipitous visit, but, rest assured, he will be visiting again. You should, too.
©Kurt E. Epps 2010 All rights reserved.