Princeton fish king casts wider net
It was at the fish docks, not the classroom, that multi-restaurant owner Jack Morrison learned the skills that would eventually make his concept the toast of Princeton, N.J.
In the busy college town where academics, tourists, locals and professionals all mingle within a short distance from the fabled academic institution, Morrison created Princeton concepts: Witherspoon Grill, Blue Point Grill and Nassau Street Seafood.
Morrison told blogger Callaway Henderson that in the early going of his first concept, Nassau Street Seafood Company, which opened in 1982, his first customers were oyster-loving professors and academics.
“Professors would routinely come to the market and stand by my cutting area while I opened oysters for them, which they would slurp down while giving me business advice,” Morrison told the author of Bricks & Mortar blog.
Witherspoon Grill assistant GM Danielle DiTaranto told Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success that the owner’s early life in the seafood business created the foundation for the growing concept.
“Jack got into the fish industry when he was young, starting off working in the seafood market,” DiTaranto says. “Before he got into restaurants, he was down at the docks negotiating with fishermen.
“Now, a lot of people in Princeton will only buy their seafood from us.”
Boxerbrand: How does Nassau Street Seafood factor into the success of the other concepts?
Danielle: Nassau Street is kind of our mother ship. They source the seafood in all of our concepts at Blue Point Grill and Witherspoon Grill by going to the docks, negotiating prices. Jack is still very much involved with the fish side of what we do. He still goes to the docks and you can ask him about any fish at any point in time and he’ll be able to tell you the price and all other pertinent information.
Boxerbrand: What is Witherspoon’s most popular fish dish?
Danielle: Even though Witherspoon Grill is primarily a steak restaurant, we carry on the awesome seafood traditions Jack started. We always have several seafood specials, and carry four types of oysters, and we’re known for our seafood towers. Our towers hold a selection of oysters, mussels, clams and lobster. A regular tower is sharable by two or three people, and a grand tower is easily shared by four, five or six.
Boxerbrand: What is your most crowd-pleasing oyster?
Danielle: Everyone always loves the Prince Edward Island oysters, so we try to have those on hand.
Boxerbrand: Tell me more about the menu.
Danielle: I can enthusiastically recommend all our steaks. The ribeye has a lot of marbling and is one of my favorites, and our salmon dishes, which are amazing, change seasonally. Right now the salmon is being served with a maple butternut purée, spiced pumpkin seeds, and chive oil. We also have one of the best burgers in town! It’s a 10-ounce Angus burger, simply prepared, with a wide range of toppings.
Boxerbrand: How did Witherspoon Grill and its sister concepts get started?
Danielle: Our owner, Jack Morrison, got into the fish industry when he was pretty young. He and his wife Debbie used to visit Princeton on the weekends and fell in love with the community. So they bought a fixer upper and in 1982 opened the first of the sister concepts, the Nassau Street Seafood Company.
The customer base was made up of professors, academics, professionals, and Jack grew the reputation to the point that a lot of people in Princeton now buy their seafood exclusively from Nassau Seafood. About 17 years ago, he opened up Blue Point Grill, which is BYOB, and primarily seafood. It’s been rated one of the top 3 restaurants in Princeton, and is known for his lively atmosphere, city vibe, and great platings.
Boxerbrand: How does Witherspoon Grill fit into the Jack Morrison restaurant concept?
Danielle: The concept started with a great real estate acquisition in 2004 of property at the Princeton Library Plaza.
He has said in interviews with publications like New Jersey Monthly that he didn’t have a plan going in, but concentrated first on transforming the space into a beautiful dining spot.
In a New Jersey Monthly article published in 2009, writer Stan Parish says, “Morrison has wound up with one of the better-looking dining rooms in Princeton, by Riscala Design (Nicholas in Red Bank, Daryl in New Brunswick).
“The ceiling ringed with naked Edison lightbulb reproductions,” Stan Parish writes. “The bar, by far the best-looking in town, resembles walnut but is sleek, oxidized rolled steel.”
And we became a classic steak place with an edge. Our GM Tony Ruccio used to be a butcher, and he taught the chef to cut all the meat. This in-house talent guarantees a better cut of meat than what you might get at a supermarket.
Boxerbrand: What’s the vibe of Witherspoon’s?
Danielle: We’re a white-tablecloth restaurant, and our servers all wear white aprons and black tie. But there’s a casual homey feel and we want our guests to feel at home, comfortable and welcome—it’s not at all stuffy.
Boxerbrand: How does being in Princeton help your brand?
Danielle: Princeton, N.J. is a very unique area for restaurants. Not only is it a beautiful little walking town with shops, restaurants and stores, but we’re anchored by a beautiful university that attracts visitors year-round.
Our location is amazingly prime. We have the Hinds Plaza, with cobblestone walkways and outdoor seating, stretched out in front of us. People gravitate to the plaza to enjoy sitting outside or having a bite. We were able to extend our outdoor dining footprint during the pandemic to take advantage of that, and we’ve been able to retain a larger patio footprint ever since.
Boxerbrand: Despite the challenges of inflation, what makes you optimistic?
Danielle: Even though prices have been going crazy, and we’ve obviously had to pass along some of that on to our customers by raising prices, we’re having a shocking amount of business, especially for this time of year. January is usually known to be pretty abysmal. But we’re booked up every week, and we’re shocked by how busy we are with private parties and regular dinner guests.
Boxerbrand: The original fresh-fish concept is allowing you to cast your net further than Princeton!
Danielle: Our newest restaurant is set to open in May in Newtown, Penn., which is about 20 minutes away from our Princeton bubble. We’re planning on another seafood restaurant. It’s a great town, about 20 minutes from Princeton, but its quieter and needs better restaurants. I told Jack one day that we should expand there. They found a spot in a stand-alone building with ample outdoor parking and a nice outdoor patio.
In a recent interview with New Jersey Patch, Jack Morrison said of the new venture, ““I opened Nassau Street Seafood 40 years ago this month,” said Morrison. And Newtown will be in for a treat when the new restaurant opens its doors. — Witherspoon Grill uses Boxerbrand’s Classic Leather line in their table presentation. Thank you!