Metuchen welcomes visitors with charm and old-fashioned service

By Jack Goldenberg – I decided to visit Metuchen, NJ on a whim. Actually, it was a Honda, the whim was in the shop. I had heard that Metuchen was a fun, small town and a throwback to the late 1950s. Whether you lived through the 50s or just read about this supposedly idyllic time in small town America, a visit to Metuchen, NJ, will demonstrate that charm and hospitality are still alive and well and worth the visit.

Three and a half hours spent in Metuchen was like travelling back in time.

It started when I parked my car. In New York and other major cities, parking a car without the requisite payment is greeted by an expensive ticket, a tow to a place it will take you hours to find, or even a heavy “boot” that locks onto your wheel and prevents you from driving away.

Not in Metuchen. Sure, you can’t just abandon your auto and expect there will be no consequences. But you can park for up to 10 minutes at city parking meters, run in fast to complete an errand, and then return within 10 minutes for no charge.

In fact, the city parking authority announces the 10-minute grace period right on the meter, instructing you to push a little button to activate the offer. Chalk one up for Metuchen.

My first meal in town at Mona Lisa Bakery and Pancake House, 567 Middlesex Avenue (732-321-9090), was another welcomed surprise. A huge stack of chocolate chip pancakes, fresh orange juice and a delicious cup (all right, three cups) of coffee and my day was off to a great start.

Mona Lisa was packed with locals who seemed to know their way around the mostly breakfast menu and cookies, cakes and pastries offered by the bakery part of the establishment. Of course, like any small town business, it was decorated appropriately with a framed picture of Mona Lisa (not the original) sporting a Halloween moustache.

Next, I went for a walk down Main Street. You can buy any item, convenience or food (French, Thai, Mexican, Japanese) you’d find in a larger city, but Metuchen’s Main Street was unlike the stores and shops you’d find in malls and most major cities across America.

In other words, the stores and restaurants were locally owned, not big box retailers, and they were run by the owners who actually gave excellent service and advice to their customers. Shock of shocks, the people working in the stores actually knew where everything was. Don’t try that in your local Wal-Mart or Home Depot.

One of my favorite stops along Main Street was a bookstore named, well, Bookstore. When I asked the owner why he didn’t give his bookstore a real name, he proceeded to give me some small town logic I never would have received from the Borders and Barnes & Nobles of the world.

“I sell books. It’s a store,” explained the owner, Bob. “Who needs a name? Is there anything you don’t understand?”

Bookstore was also a trip back in time. It’s packed to the ceiling with books that covered every subject, plus old maps and a lot of other interesting memorabilia. In the days of, the Kindle and e-books, I guess I have to ask this question. You do remember what books are, don’t you?

Of course, no visit to any small town would be complete without rummaging through a gift store and I found a great one at 335 Main Street. Brass Lantern (732-548-5442) is a well-stocked store with Halloween, Christmas and everyday unique items that make great gifts, many for decorating your home.

I didn’t want to leave Metuchen, but I had an afternoon meeting in a nearby town. So I did the next best thing. I took some of Metuchen home with me. That night for dinner my wife and I enjoyed two delicious dinner crepes and one special desert crepe purchase at a tiny, charming Café Paris. 439 Main Street (732-603-9200).

Of course, I couldn’t cover all the fun, good times and friendly hometown stores you’ll find in Metuchen. A visit to this Web site describes all the events and happenings that take place in Metuchen on a regular basis.

If you want to enjoy a modern, small town that hasn’t forgotten where it came from, visit Metuchen for a few hours. You’ll either decide to come back again, or to stay for good.