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SCENES: Quintessentially Princeton’: Pie and coffee at the Carousel
The Carousel is packed. Families of three, four, six. A middle-aged couple who come every week. Another regular in a red plaid shirt. Forty-odd diners -- but not one Princeton Universit
By Anna Maria Jakubek Special to The Packet
Posted: Tuesday, June 17, 2008 4:21 PM EDT
Patrons enjoy a hearty breakfast at the Carousel Luncheonette on Nassau Street. ‘Like a mom- and-pop shop, there’s a friendly, communal vibe.’
Staff photo by Mark Czajkowski
    Arthur Miller (no, not that one), a rosy-cheeked Princeton University librarian with a handlebar moustache, is chewing a piece of toast. Sitting across from him, thin-faced retiree John Byank has just dug into his Carousel usual — a meal of bacon, eggs over medium, and bottomless decaf coffee. For Art and John, it’s been a Sunday of singing in the choir at nearby St. Paul’s, so naturally, they’re lunching at their favorite Princeton eatery.

    And they’re not alone. The Carousel is packed. Families of three, four, six. A middle-aged couple who come every week. Another regular in a red plaid shirt. Forty- odd diners — but not one Princeton University student.

    That’s because the orange-and- black crowd doesn’t eat here. It’s not clear why — the uninviting tinted glass windows, perhaps, or the cafeteria feel — but for whatever reason, The Carousel is Nassau Street’s odd-man-out. The university kids have taken the main street’s Starbucks and Triumph Brewery and Panera Bread and made them their own, but you never hear of The Carousel being quintessentially Princeton.

    But it is — just not quintessentially Princeton University. This one is quintessentially Princeton Borough.

    The Carousel is where the locals eat, and like a mom-and-pop shop, there’s a friendly, communal vibe. The black-clad waitresses know your name, and when they don’t, they call you “honey” or “bud.” And they don’t just chitchat with the customers — they mingle. Across from Art and John’s table, one shorthaired waitress pulls up a chair and sits right down with a dad and his young girls.

    This familiarity is no surprise: After all, the luncheonette’s been around forever. It opened in the 1940s, long before Starbucks or Panera Bread were even companies. By the time Art, 55, started eating there 15 years ago, he was one of many. At a much smaller location then (farther down Nassau Street in what’s now part of Chinese restaurant Tiger Noodles), The Carousel was often standing-room- only. “They would ask if you’d share a table,” says Art. It was that busy.
    Busy, but again, not one Princeton kid in sight. Even Art, who’s a Princeton alum, never ate at The Carousel as an undergrad. It was far from his Theatre Intime rehearsals, and the Annex pub (now Sotto, an Italian restaurant) was just across the street.

    So The Carousel’s location wasn’t ideal. But if that were all there was to it, then the Princeton kids would be shunning Tiger Noodles, as well (they don’t), and The Carousel’s move closer to the university gates would have made a difference (it didn’t). All the while, the Thomas Sweet ice-cream shop across the street draws the Princeton crowd, even in winter.

    It makes you wonder. Why don’t the students eat at The Carousel?
    It may be because they think no one does. Indeed, at its current location, a one-time Sam Goody record store (one wall still has long narrow grooves from where the CD stacks slid in), The Carousel is rarely packed. Like any diner, says Art, “it’s got its rushes, but in-between if you have one or two customers, you’re busy.”

    When the locals do come out in full force — breakfast before 9 and weekend brunch — Princeton kids aren’t there to see it. They’re just beginning to peel themselves out of bed after a rough night out or one spent buried in work. Later, they’ll walk by the luncheonette, but then it’ll be empty. And who sees a vacant restaurant and says, “Let’s eat here”?

    There’s still more to it, though. Because even at its most animated, there’s something uninviting about The Carousel. Art agrees: “For the atmosphere, I prefer the old place,” he says between bites. “It felt homey. This place ... it feels impersonal.”

    Take a look around, and you’ll see what he means. The room is as large as a cafeteria, and just as barren and bland. The navy carpet is a shabby affair that makes you think of fish scales. It’s said that casinos purposely put in the ugliest rug they can find so that customers look up and around at the slot machines. The Carousel is like that, except there’s nothing to see.

    Nothing but pancake-colored walls, framed stylized drawings of coffee cups, and so many carousel horses. Too many. Images of horses adorn the walls and menus, miniature three-dimensional ones rest high up on ledges around the room, and two life-sized carousel ponies and a mare stand by the diner’s window. Total horse count? Fifty plus.

    Now compare that to the number of customers and The Carousel will seem like Mongolia, the world’s only country with more horses than people.
    And to some, it might as well be Mongolia. It’s just as foreign. “They come in with that look on their face,” says Art. “Like that couple who just walked in,” he adds, pointing his chin at a pair of hip late-20-somethin’s whose eyes scan the room and bodies are ever ready to turn around.

    Not this time, though. The newcomers sit down, unsure at first, and then quite comfortable by the time their friends show up, a quarter of an hour later.

The Carousel Luncheonette, 182 Nassau St., Princeton. (609) 497-0033. Editor’s note: Although I’m sure The Carousel would appreciate more business from Princeton University students, others of us are happy to have a comfy retreat from downtown’s besetting trendiness which offers family-style food at affordable prices.
From Rzeszow, Poland, by way of Ottawa, Canada, Anna Maria Jakubek just graduated from Princeton University, having majored in psychology. She wrote this piece for a class with New York Times writer Peter Applebome. Now she is living in Brooklyn and writing for a startup travel e-newsletter called Jauntsetter. She plans to enter graduate school in the fall — for journalism.
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