With a sophisticated new look and an elevated yet accessible new menu, a tired roadhouse turns into a lively magnet.
Built as a grand residence in 1860, Washington House in Basking Ridge soon became a hotel and got through Prohibition by smuggling Jersey Lightning (applejack). Post-Prohibition, the structure soldiered on as a pub under various names and owners. Since reopening last May after a six-month gutting and renovation, the reborn Washington House has been winning converts at a fast clip.
“When we opened, some locals came in out of habit, others out of curiosity,” Marc Hudacsko, the general manager and wine director, told me on the phone after my visits. “We’re happy they gave us a chance, because the menu was all new, and the old place barely recognizable.”
Washington House serves what its executive chef, Crawford Koeniger, rightly calls “elevated comfort food.” His calamari, crab cakes, salads, tartares and wood-grilled steaks, chops, chicken and fish rise on the care and detail that goes into them, not on frills and squiggles. Easily recognizable, they win you over simply by being terrific examples of their kind.
Or, as Koeniger put it, “Technique is a wonderful thing. But it’s the background. What makes diners want to come back is delicious food.”
Another thing that brings people back is bang for the buck. Which is what the two-courses-for-$23 menu delivers Wednesdays and Thursdays. Fried chicken, served with delectable house-made biscuits, was brilliantly crisp outside, moist and flavorful inside. Sorry to demur, Chef, but that’s some proficient technique at work.
Hudacsko, 38, and Koeniger, 34, a 2004 CIA grad, were involved in every step of the redo. Mark Marrazza, one of the restaurant’s two owners, also owns the Tewksbury Inn in Whitehouse Station. The other principal, the Jepsen family, runs Scandic Builders in Morristown, which did the renovation.