Frenchtown, N.J., offers a taste of Paris

Frenchtown's boutiques, bakeries and sidewalk cafes can sate a Francophile's longing.
Frenchtown's boutiques, bakeries and sidewalk cafes can sate a Francophile's longing. (Josey Miller)
By Josey Miller
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 9, 2010

All through the springtime, I'd been humming "I Love Paris," pondering a trip across the Atlantic. But towering airfares waylaid my dream. No onion soup for me, I realized with dismay.

So it was with some excitement that I greeted the discovery of a place with more than a touch of French flavor -- a place that even celebrates Bastille Day, complete with music and mimes -- in New Jersey.

Oui, New Jersey.

Historic Frenchtown is a petite ville of about 1,500 located 30 miles northwest of Trenton, on the Delaware River. With its boutiques, bakeries, sidewalk cafes, water views and a dramatic steel bridge, Frenchtown has helped keep my wanderlust at bay -- at least until I've filled up my froggy bank.

For all its display of Francophilia, however, the town was not actually founded by a Frenchman. Paul Henri Mallet-Prevost was a French-speaking native of Switzerland who enlisted in the French Republican Army during the French Revolution, while living in Paris. After getting into a scrape and being threatened with the guillotine, he escaped to the New World. Settling in the farmlands of western New Jersey, Mallet purchased a 1,000-acre farm near the town of Alexandria, which eventually became known as Frenchtown in his honor.

I reveled in the Frenchness. "Cafe au lait, the quiche and an almond croissant to share," I ordered at Lovin' Oven, a cafe on Trenton Avenue just blocks from Mallet's house, one of Frenchtown's oldest surviving buildings. The cafe, run by husband-and-wife owners Mike Quinn and Julie Klein, originally opened in nearby Milford, Pa., but moved to Frenchtown in April. It shares space (and a bathroom) in a former warehouse with Two Buttons, the international clothing and housewares bazaar owned by "Eat, Pray, Love" author and Frenchtown resident Elizabeth Gilbert.

I asked my husband, Jeff, to humor me in my fantaisie francaise, and he complied, ordering the croque madame instead of the huevos rancheros. Regrettably, we didn't have any BYO bubbly for our OJ, like the casually dressed 20-somethings seated a few feet away.

Quinn instructed us not to leave Frenchtown without visiting the month-old boutique of his friend Meg Metz. So we crossed the main drag of Bridge Street -- dotted with bicycles and motorcycles a la Paris -- and found Metz's Modern Love. It's a shop abounding in mid-20th-century finds and new, mostly handcrafted items with a retro vibe. Right away, Jeff claimed a $20 set of vintage decanters, "bourbon" written in faded gold lettering down one side. "I love vintage," Metz said as she wrapped up the treasure. "My house is like the set of an old TV show." Or a new one, if her merchandise was any indication: "Mad Men" came to mind.

Metz was raised in the area and worked as an organic farmer while fantasizing about opening a boutique. For the past three years, she said, there'd been at least eight vacant storefronts in the diminutive, economy-impaired downtown, but with late 2009 came an upturn. "When I heard Mike and Julie were moving Lovin' Oven to Frenchtown, I knew it was time," she said. She snagged the last available rental.

The National Hotel next door had been boarded up, too. "It looked awful," Metz told us. But it reopened late last year, and now boasts a restaurant with a bar, as well as a basement pub that's central to Frenchtown's modest night life. The hotel is also rumored to be haunted, which led Metz to believe that the building Modern Love is in might be, too: "I'm a scaredy-cat," she confessed. "But I've decided that, if I have ghosts, they're friendly."

We'd detoured a bit from France, but our day soon regained focus. Local impressionist Jessie Krause, a New York transplant who lists C├ęzanne and Monet among her influences, guided us through her Netherfield Gallery, highlighting her passion for poppies, including a piece called "Poppies in Provence" (France again!) and several others inspired by the poppy scene in "The Wizard of Oz."

Jeff and I headed next to the Frenchtown Inn, whose chef, Andrew Tomko, is trained in traditional French cooking techniques. A sidewalk table awaited us. After crunching on salad glazed with tangy Dijon champagne vinaigrette, I craved dessert. Minette's Candy just up the street, an upscale sweets shop selling such oldies-but-goodies as buttons and black licorice pipes starting at 50 cents -- and handmade chocolates for $14.95 a pound -- hit the spot.

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