More times than I can count, I have been told I look exactly like a certain movie star. Every time somebody makes the observation, I am immensely flattered; in her prime, the star in question was one hell of a glamorous babe, and, even now, she gives women half her age a run for their money (or their honey). I only hope I can hold up half so well.
Princeton’s Grille, which debuted on the local dining scene Feb. 2, makes it very clear that it does not want to be compared to Houston’s, the venerable West End diner that has held Nashville appetites hostage for 22 years with a simple formula for success: Good food and good service at good prices.
That sounds suspiciously like the mission statement shared with me by a member of Princeton’s Grille’s management team: Good food, good service at good prices.
Even if it couldn’t manage to offer any of the three, Princeton’s Grille has made a fortuitous first roll in the local restaurant-business crapshoot. It has secured what may be the most enviable site in all of Green Hills. Located perpendicular to the mall, and in the rear of the Castner-Knott-level parking lot, the Grille grabbed the first retail space in the former South Central Building. At first glance, it might not look like such a smart move, since the front of the restaurant is almost completely obscured by mounds of dirt, piles of brick and cinderblock, and humongous construction equipment. But if you know what Princeton’s Grille knows, you’ll be slapping them five for their foresight. On Labor Day, the Regal cinema chain is set to open an 18-screen theater right next door. If this place plays its cards right, it will virtually own the before- and after-movie crowd.
Still, it is imperative that Princeton’s Grille lay the right groundwork, because, as many who have ever uttered the word “bankruptcy” can attest, location, location, location counts for a lot, but if you don’t have the goods to back it up, you’ll get eaten alive.
This is Nashville’s first Princeton’s Grille, but others already exist in Florence and Decatur, Ala. These older siblings are known simply as Princeton’s. “Grille” was added to the name here to make the point that the Nashville location has a slightly different concept: It’s not quite so casual as the Alabama outposts. In fact, the buzz phrase being used to describe the concept is “fine casual dining.”
What that means according to Princeton’s management is “woody, clubby, warm and cozy.” The large room is parceled off into smaller spaces, with plenty of texture (most of it dark wood), cushioned booths, comfortable chairs, large tables, linen napkins, and big pieces of art on the wall. In the back is a semi-open kitchen. If you are so inclined, you can watch your steak being cooked on the grill. In the bar, the television sets are tuned to sporting events, and volume control remains on “mute,” I am told, except when Tennessee teams are on the screen or when there are severe weather warnings. (Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the two apart.) I understand the bar is already popular among a youthful after-work crowd. Maybe they’re attracted by its cigar-friendly atmosphere, complete with a humidor and relatively effective smoke-eaters, and by the Grille’s signature Brazilian martini, a concoction of rum that has been steeped for four days with mangoes, bananas, pineapple, vanilla bean, orange liqueur, and brown sugar to taste, then served straight up or on the rocks. Whew, that’ll send you home happy.
Princeton’s Grille has chosen to open with a fairly concise menuthe thinking is that it’s best to get front- and back-of-the-house personnel humming before getting complicated. The menu planners also figure they can add items as they familiarize themselves with their Nashville customers. Chalk another point up for the P.G. team.
Thus, you will find just four starters on the menu now. A classic shrimp cocktail did nothing to pique my curiosity, but the tomato Brie bruschetta and the smoked-salmon dip did. Even from between those two, I preferred the bruschetta, toasted slices of Italian bread topped with a thin layer of melted Brie. On the side, a ramekin contained chopped fresh (albeit not quite ripe) tomato, gussied up with garlic, onion, olive oil, and maybe some basil. My only complaint was the stingy serving of the tomato concoction, which ran out long before the bread. We asked for more, please, and were informed we’d be charged for it. At $6.95? Give us a break.
The salmon in the dip is smoked in-house, sliced into strips, mixed with cream cheese, green onions, and capers, and served with toast points. The dip was good enough to overcome the stale bread, which crumbled under the machete-sized knives that are part of the standard Princeton’s Grille cutlery package. The chicken tenders with fries are comparable in taste and quality to-dare I say it?Houston’s.
There are five saladshouse, Caesar, chicken tender, roasted-chicken, and mesclun. The ones we sampled were certainly big enough, even if they were not terribly memorable or distinctive. The Caesar dressing was too mayonnaisey for my taste, and the “mixed greens” in the roasted-chicken salad were mostly Romaine and iceberg. In response to customer demand, three new salads are being rolled out in the coming weeks.
Immediately apparent on the current menu is a dearth of choices for vegetarians or near-veggies. There are no pastasand there are no plans to add any. Management claims to be working on a veggie burger and an entrée of roasted vegetables and portobello mushrooms.
Of the three burgers that are offered, we tried the Black Label and thought it was excellent. It’s big (a half-pound) and beefy, and it’s topped with Princeton’s trademarked Black Label sauce, a strongly flavored seasoning spiked with Jack Daniel’s. The grilled fish sandwich was another winner.
The lemon-herbed rotisserie chicken was a juicy half-bird, nicely coated with herbs and served on a pile of garlic mashed potatoes. At lunch, we loved the barbecue trout, which I predict will become one of Princeton’s hallmark dishes. A whole trout is marinated 48 hours in the Black Label sauce before it’s basted in a tangy barbecue sauce and grilled.
At dinner, we were pleased with our big slab of prime rib, which is smoked, giving it a pleasant twist. That helped assuage our disappointment with the filet mignon, which arrived overcooked, dry, tough, and tasteless. To the establishment’s credit,the offending piece of meat was removed from our bill. Abject apologies were offered, as was a free replacement.
We opted instead for a fudge-pecan brownie to share, and we were glad we did. Intensely chocolaty and dense, the brownie square is warmed, served with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream, and then doused with hot fudge sauce. It’s nearly perfect in its all-American simplicity.
So what can we say? Service was a little scattered, but overall it was quite good at lunch and dinner. The food was above average, if just barely so, and the prices, well, they’re bearable too. Lunch for five came to $66.95; dinner for three (with a couple of beers) came to $63.03. There is no printed children’s menu. However, three items are available for the little ones: chicken tenders, a grilled cheese, and a junior burger.
Whether on the playing field, on the stage, or in the restaurant industry, rookies have to face comparisons to those who set the standards. Princeton’s Grille should accept the challenge gracefully, and with the appropriate respect. Twenty-two years from now, maybe it will find itself in the enviable position now held by a certain predecessor.
Princeton’s Grille is located at 3821 Green Hills Village Dr. (385-3636). Open Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.