The Princeton Meeting House is the rare restaurant that never completely closed during the pandemic.
Husband and wife owners Amar Gautam and Amanda Maher made the decision early on to keep staff to cook meals for the nonprofit Share My Meals, a volunteer-run organization that aims to combat food insecurity and food waste in the Princeton area.
The refrigerators were full of food, Gautam explained, and they didn’t want it to go to waste. They also didn’t want their employees to lose their jobs.
Eighteen months later, the restaurant still contributes 350 meals per week to the organization, while serving The Meeting House customers, inside and out.
The restaurant had only been open for three months when COVID-19 hit. The couple had moved to Princeton with their three children and, after trying a variety of local restaurants, thought there was a void they could fill.
They hired experienced local general manager Dago Villanueva and chef Fito Belteton, both well known in Princeton. The couple praised the two men, and together they came up with a menu of “simple American cuisine with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients.”
The dinner menu ranges from seared halibut, salmon and steak to fried chicken with cookies and a vegetarian option called “five spice carrots” that includes kale, toasted almonds, pickled onions and grilled green onions. There are also burgers, spicy chicken, and a kids’ dinner menu. The weekend brunch has a menu that includes brioche French toast, fried chicken with pancakes, steak, and eggs. Children have their own brunch menu and “cocktails”.
Restaurant menus have changed little during the pandemic, Gautam said. They continued to offer the same basic proteins, with changes reflecting local, seasonal produce. The increase in the price of certain ingredients has hit them, as have all the restaurants in the region; one type of fish was abandoned because of the high prices, he said.
Out of necessity, The Meeting House began offering take-out food during the pandemic, and continues to do so today. Like other restaurants, they became take-out experts and eliminated dishes that didn’t travel well. These dishes, which include scallops and squid, are always available in the restaurant.
If there was a silver lining in the dark cloud of the pandemic, Maher said, “it’s that it has taught us to focus on the costs.”
They worked hard to find the best ways to save money, she said, and how to get things done. Federal grants and loans helped keep the restaurant afloat.
Two months ago the restaurant was fully open and pretty much back to normal. Now that the Delta wave of the virus is hitting, “people keep coming,” Gautum said, but staff have returned to wearing masks.
Nonetheless, the couple remain upbeat and optimistic. After going through the worst experience most local restaurateurs can remember, they feel ready for almost anything.
“Our staff are amazing,” said Gautum and Maher, once again congratulating their general manager and chef. Now seasoned restaurant owners, Gautum said they can cope with what lies ahead because they “have gotten pretty good at it.”
Their optimism is reflected in the four-course dinners offered once a month with food and wine pairings. More upscale than the family menu, it’s designed to give people “a different kind of dining experience,” the couple said.
THE MEETING HOUSE
277 Witherspoon St., Princeton, 609-436-7891, meetinghouserestaurant.com.
- HOURS: Dinner: 4 pm-8.30pm Sun, Tue, Wed, Thu .; 4 pm-9.30pm Fri-Sat Brunch 10 am-2.30pm Sat-Sun Closed on Mondays.
- CREDIT CARD: The most important.
- FOOD: American family cuisine with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients; full bar.
- COST: Entrances $ 9- $ 19, entrees $ 18- $ 33. Brunch $ 13- $ 26. Children’s menu $ 7- $ 10.