When I was a kid, this was The Poet’s Inn. I feel like I spent a great deal of my childhood here dining with my family. It’s odd, the things that remain with you in the depths of your mind. As a lifelong lover of history, the fact that the building was historic always appealed to me. The poet in question was Revolutionary War figure Philip Freneau, who once lived at the original house at the location which dates back to the 1700’s (alterations and additions have been made over the years). The restaurant itself had opened in 1961. The other thing I remember is that the menu used to include a brief history of the 1906 New Jersey shark attacks, which occurred just minutes away in one of the shallow creeks. Why that had a place on the restaurant’s menu, I have no idea. But for me it was a good thing, because there are certain facts about the attack I still remember to this very day. All because I read it on that menu visit after visit.
Food-wise, the memories are almost gone. I’m pretty sure my dad would order steak while my mom would get the smothered chicken in a skillet. They had a salad bar as well—that I remember. Our family did their Thanksgiving buffet here for a while, as well as numerous New Year’s Eves. I can’t even recall when it closed (maybe around 2008?) but I remember feeling upset. Again, as a child, I couldn’t really appreciate the food, but it was the atmosphere. The family memories. The history. The owner, Steve, would always greet us whenever we came in. He called me “Junior”. Again, I repeat: we don’t know why we remember certain things. At some point, he sold the restaurant. It went through a couple of owners, neither business lasting very long. Then it changed again, becoming known as The Brass Rail Bar and Grill, which it remains today.
Let’s fast-forward to this past weekend. I visited the location for the first time since The Poet’s Inn days. I was surprised to see Steve was back. Apparently, he re-bought the restaurant. The layout is similar. There are a wall or two that have been knocked down, and the salad bar is long gone. Yes, that archaic assembly line of cold vegetables is barely seen anywhere except for chain restaurants anymore.
Will and I were taking our friends out who just got married. They had been to The Brass Rail many times since the changeover. Signs boasted that the restaurant offers the best prime rib in New Jersey. One member of our party ordered it, and the portion (16 ounce regular cut) was absolutely massive. I was able to taste some of it, and it was tender. Very much red, probably medium rare, and smothered with gravy, cheese, onions, and mushrooms. Another friend had the chicken fajitas, which looked and smelled great.
I decided to go with the pub steak, which was similar to the prime rib in that it was smothered in Provolone and the same grilled onions and mushrooms. Now, I have a thing with steaks and that is I like ordering them rare. However, in my restaurant adventures, I have discovered that many places will not cook them rare. That or they are incapable of doing it right. Either way, whenever I say “rare”, I am never met with a, “We can’t do that.” The server writes it down, and it comes out medium…or worse. So I gave it a shot here. “Rare, please”. Lo and behold, they actually did it right. My steak was well-seasoned and cooked perfectly. The chef was able to get a mild, crisp char on the outside, yet it was bright red, juicy, and slightly bleeding on the inside. The onions and mushrooms also had a wonderful caramelization to them, and the cheese was slightly browned. It was a home-run dish, and maybe in my top-three of best steaks I have ever had. It came served with garlic mashed potatoes (and a side salad). For $16, it’s an incredible value that you can’t beat in this area.
The only knock I have on our dining experience at The Brass Rail was the service. Our waiter seemed a bit disinterested in our table. He was barely around, nor did he ever bring us a basket of rolls (which someone noticed near the end of the meal since we were surrounded by tables that had them). Pleasant enough, yes, but not all there. Maybe he was having a bad day, but something like that does kick down the final score down a little bit, and when I give this a 4 out of 5 stars, you know what better service would have meant.
What was a fun night celebrating with friends was also a trip down memory lane. If you haven’t been back since it was The Poet’s Inn, give it a shot. It’s not so different. The atmosphere is still the same and the food may even be better. I would not mind going back there soon. I am not one to give over-the-top praise for a steak for no reason. It was good. Damn good.
The Brass Rail Bar and Grill is located at 89 Freneau Avenue in Matawan, New Jersey.