Destination Doughnut Hole: A weekend in Flemington

The bad news: you’ve got to travel out of town for an excruciatingly dull business meeting . . . . Except if your destination happens to be Flemington.

Except if your destination happens to be Flemington, New Jersey. In which case, you are dancing the small town travel lottery jig because you just hit the jackpot. Winner, winner, chicken dinner! To cash in on your prize, though, you’re first going to have to find it. The town, that is. And as odd as it sounds, there’s a bit of a trick to it.

The borough of Flemington is the doughnut hole to Flemington’s doughnut. Confused? Not to worry. Even the folks who live there are confused about it from time to time.

Though they share a zip code and mailing address, the borough of Flemington is geographically and governmentally distinct from the larger entity of the same name. To make matters even more complex, the larger doughnut portion (as opposed to the "hole") is technically called Raritan Township, though few who live there refer to it that way. The bottom line, though, is that Flemington Borough is smack-dab in the center of Flemington. And though residents refer to both entities simply as "Flemington," like a sweet, gooey, jelly doughnut (which we recommend getting here), you’ll find the best bits in the center.

The cozy hamlet of Flemington Borough is nestled in the heart of bucolic Hunterdon County, New Jersey. In fact, this 1.1 square mile gem is its county seat. You wouldn’t know it, though, if you were casually walking down its quaint Main Street. Government buildings such as its Justice Center are tidily tucked away behind the main thoroughfare. Rebuilt in 1828, the famed historic courthouse building, site of the trial for the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, blends seamlessly with the 19th and early 20th century architecture peppering the borough.

Eight of ten single family homes there were built prior to World War II, many mirroring the Greek Revival architecture of the colonnaded courthouse.The majority of structures in Flemington, in fact, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Undeniably cool Americana – that is the vibe you’ll encounter when you stroll through Flemington’s neighborhoods, shops, eateries, historical venues and artsy enclaves. From kitschy little diners to hole-in-the-wall curiosity shops, this town of fewer than 5000 residents lives and breathes Americana. Contemporary Americana in its restaurants. Classic Americana in its shops and historical venues. And cool Americana throughout.

For harried denizens of nearby sprawling metropolii — looking at you, Manhattan, Philadelphia, and D.C. — Flemington offers welcomed respite from wearisome smog, skyscrapers, subways, and traffic snarls. No offense. And for those who fancy a day trip into the citified fray, you can pick up a bus ticket (about $30 one-way) at Higgins’, a one-off convenience shop featuring “New Jersey’s largest collection of magazines, ” per their hand-painted signage. Trans-Bridge buses ferry Flemingtonian commuters to and from the city on the daily.

To capture the true flavor of Flemington, you’ve got to be in the heart of it. Fortunately, Main Street Manor affords visitors the opportunity to do precisely that. From the moment you walk through the door (held open for you by the owner, no less), you’ll notice the distinct difference that truly personal hospitality can make.

If you’re looking for the watered-down version of “hospitality” served up by dime-a-dozen hotel chain clones, you’re going to be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you’re seeking the elusive hospitality hearkening to times past in which inn keepers happily cater to your every want and take your comfort and contentment as a personal mission, you are going to be delighted.

The owners of this little bed-and-breakfast treasure, Tim and Marissa Bebout, are treasures themselves. Pictured here playfully seated atop a family heirloom that represented home for this well-traveled military brat, Tim strives to ensure that his guests feel at home in the inn, as well. The Bebouts treat guests as valued family members during their stay in the stately, elaborately restored, 1901 Victorian manor house.

Main Street Manor will be celebrating its one-year anniversary next May. No stranger to wedding and anniversary celebrants, Tim and Marissa are sure to plan something special to commemorate the event.

Whether you’re coming to town for a wedding, a business trip, an arts-related event or historical research/tourism, book your room at the inn as early as possible. When the big day arrives, Tim will be waiting on the front porch beneath the magnolia to greet you.

If you think small town eateries mean bland, worn out versions of the same ho-hum staples you’ll find in any other northeastern town, you are, again, in for a pleasant surprise. Jonas Gold, chef-owner of the award-winning 55 Main will set you straight on that [insert colorful noun of your choice] in a New York minute. In an endearing, quintessentially New Jersey accent, Chef Gold will (somewhat) patiently explain to you that at his restaurant, the personal touch is everything, and when it’s personal, it is unique and it is second-to-none. It is second-to-none because he will accept nothing less than perfection. From himself, from his food, and from his staff.

That is why some of Gold’s customers have been coming to the eatery since it opened nearly a decade ago. One in particular, Gold proudly noted, has received a different vegetarian dish every week for several years. “If it’s served here, you can bet I had my hands on it at some point,” he proudly notes. And he’s not joking. Though this New American Cuisine establishment is often packed, and Gold has his hands full with cooking, greeting customers, and managing his staff, when you call to make your reservation, it will be Jonas who answers the phone.

And you’ll need to call, by the way. Chef Gold doesn’t work with Open Table. So when you’re ready for a genuine farm-to-table dining experience (Gold’s personal garden supplying a portion of his offerings), your first contact will likely be with the man himself. Save (908) 284-1551 to your contacts. You’ll be glad you did.

After a mouth-watering, sit-down meal at 55 Main, you may find yourself gravitating to some more casual fare for your next meal. How about a morsel from a one-of-a-kind restaurant where every dime you spend on a savory soup, gourmet tea, or scrumptious sweet does double duty as a charitable donation?

For that tall order, look no further than Grateful Bites. Grateful Bites (formerly known as Baker’s Treat) is the front-facing arm of the lauded nonprofit, Ability2Work. Ability2Work provides supportive services for the differently abled in a genuine business environment.

An integral part of Grateful Bites’ accomplished staff, Ability2Work apprentices play a vital role in creating the artisan treats and savory dishes that Flemington locals have come to love. From farm-to-table meals to specialty, made-to-order birthday cakes, Grateful Bites is a beloved community gathering place. This very special restaurant draws diners from far and near to enjoy tasty tidbits every weekend with live music performances providing the icing on the cake.

For the parched shopper wandering far too long in America’s desolate corporate landscape, Flemington’s main drag and the tributaries that feed it is a welcome oasis. It’s no mirage, either. But be warned. A stroll along Main Street will whet your appetite in a way that will render cookie-cutter chain stores and insipid online behemoths terminally unsatisfying.

Case in point, Ye Olde Antique and Curiosity Shop. This quintessential mom-and-pop shop (literally – it is run by a middle aged couple and their teenaged son) is packed to the rafters with Americana at its finest. To say that you never know what you might find there may be the understatement of the year. Their inventory is in a constant state of flux.

Like a scene pulled straight from American Pickers, left, Ken inspects an old motorbike (“1972,” he declared instantly, and later confirmed) one of his regulars, Andy, brought in for consideration. The Nergers’ collection contains personally curated items as well as those brought to the shop by local sources who scour barns and back lots for too-hastily-discarded treasure.

The proprietors, Ken and Susie Nerger, bought the shop just a month ago, and already, it is bursting with stories. You can see it, hear it, feel it, even smell it when you walk up the porch stairs and through the door. And to top it all off, Ken, a natural born story teller, will happily deliver a fascinating story on about any object that catches your eye in the store.

Chatting with Ken is an experience in itself. The man oozes small-town friendly, and you can’t help but smile just listening to him. Ask Ken about his uncle, America’s first aeronaut, and how he acquired a medal that was thought to have disappeared. And for some hard core story telling entertainment, ask about the bones Ken unearthed beneath his store (don’t believe the papers!). You won’t be disappointed.

If you’ve visited Ye Olde but still haven’t gotten your fill of stories, you soon will. Flemington boasts not one, but two independent book shops. The first, is actually two shops in one. Twice Told Tales, located half a block from Main Street on 14 Bloomfield Avenue, is lovingly run by Ms. Marilyn Thiele. Formerly an attorney, Ms. Thiele bought the shop in 1999 and never looked back. A passionate lover of mysteries, her pride and joy is the portion of the shop devoted to that genre. The Moonstone Mystery Bookstore is the only one of its kind in the state.

Though they do have an online presence via their Facebook page, most matters in the shop are handled old school, no computer or internet access required. Above is Dani, a long-time, valued employee, who demonstrates the store’s system for keeping track of their popular mystery book trade-in program. Kind of makes you nostalgic for the card catalog days of yore, doesn’t it?

Just a hop, skip, and a jump from Twice Told Tales, you’ll find Act II Books, Flemington’s second independent book shop located in historic Turntable Junction. At Act II, you’ll find previously owned volumes in subjects as divergent and divisive as politics and religion. But you’ll also find contemporary fiction, jaw-dropping collector’s editions, rare books, and periodic free offerings that Mike displays outside the shop from time to time. If you’re really lucky –almost every day, actually — you will find an assortment of complimentary refreshments from hyper local bakeries (they’re Mike’s Turntable Junction business neighbors) such as Greensleeves and The Mixing Bowl.

Another Turntable Junction neighbor, Comic Fusion, is a destination spot drawing members of the gaming, comic, and cosplay communities across the Northeast. In addition to their vast selection of comics and collectibles, Comic Fusion offers game nights (including board, table top, and card games) and annually hosts Superhero Weekend, an extremely popular charity event benefiting child abuse prevention organizations. Right is co-owner Bill, who is a living fount of information on all things comic-related.

A visit to Flemington would not be complete without live musical entertainment. And in that area Flemington shines. From the amazing performances at Stangl Stage (see image slider above) and the wildly popular Thursday Night Lights to its annual Jazz Festival, Flemington’s reputation as a music mecca is quickly gaining ground. The affectionately named “Guitar Boy” mural painted by local artist James Kelawae, serves as an iconic representation of the fun, lively, diverse array of musical stylings Flemington warmly embraces.

Whether it is the impeccable hospitality of an award-winning bed-and-breakfast, the buttery flavor of a good croissant (and a good deed), or the the toe-tapping thrill of live jazz, Flemington’s flair for Americana will have you coming back for more. And don’t worry. They’ll leave the light on for you.