When I first visited Washington House in Basking Ridge, I found it hard to believe the building dates back to 1860. The white, colonial-style building has gone through many changes over the years — from boarding house and bootleggers’ hideout to tavern and restaurant.
The building proper underwent a total renovation from 2013 to 2014. The new doors opened in May 2014. Today, Washington House is a multifaceted, refined dining destination, including indoor and outdoor spaces and offering expertly crafted and executed food and drinks.
I immediately noticed all the servers wearing ear pieces. I thought, “Wow, this is one well-oiled operation.” The kitchen can communicate when orders are up no matter where their servers are, whether they’re in the restaurant proper or out in their expansive tent.
Attention to Detail
The well-oiled machine continues in the kitchen with Executive Chef Eloy Leonor and his team. They source locally grown vegetables and herbs and receive deliveries on a daily basis from Madison Seafood. “We have a great relationship with the folks there which helps to ensure the highest quality product,” Chef Eloy said.
Washington House also offers $1 oysters all day on Wednesdays and Thursdays. “We source our oysters from our friends at Righteous Foods,” Eloy said. “We’ve been on board with Keith for many years. We serve oysters grown in the rack and bag method from Cape Cod and North — cold waters are best. We have a terrific team of gals who do all our shucking, a la minute. People enjoy our oysters with an ice-cold Belvedere martini or Kane Overhead, brewed locally,” said Sam Howley, general manager.
All of the proteins (fish, beef, and poultry) at Washington House are butchered on-site. All desserts are made in-house too. One of the bestselling desserts is the Churros. They are based Chef Eloy’s mother’s recipe, straight from Mexico City. I can attest: they are perfectly crispy, sweet, and addicting.
Burgers, Beers, and Cocktails
While many guests come in specifically for the seafood, others head straight for the hearty burgers. Burger options include the Classic burger, Southwest black bean veggie burger, salmon burger (with avocado fries), angus sliders, and the Washington House burger. The latter is served with smoked bacon, melted gruyere cheese, grilled romaine, and Bermuda onions, along with the house-made secret sauce. With all these options, there is something for everyone — and every palate.
Nothing is better than a cold beer with a burger and I highly recommend Washington House’s Scandic Pils. The owners’ personal affinity for beer provided them with a unique opportunity to be involved in the actual recipe development and brewing of what’s become the house beer. They partnered with Frank Czigler, who owns Czig Meister Brewing Company, in Hackettstown, NJ, and his family. “We’ve developed a terrific working relationship with Frank and his team,” said partner Mads Jepsen. “And our Pils is sold up at Czig in the beer garden as well.”
Not only does Washington House have its own unique beer, but the specialty cocktails and extensive wine list on offer have become quite popular as well.
The “OMG!” is the Washington House’s take on a spicy margarita, garnished with a pickled jalapeno. It’s a top seller on a weekly basis. Blackberry Fields is another popular option. And this one can be served as a mocktail as well. It’s dark purple — a real head-turner for new guests!
Many special food and drink items change seasonally at Washington House. Meanwhile, staples like the Washington House grapefruit negroni, a twist on the classic — are continuously reworked and perfected. They often take inspiration from other venues, both local and afar, and create their own signature dishes and drinks, riffing on ideas they think will do well.
Take the Skinny Pirate — loosely adapted from a drink the owners enjoyed in Charleston, South Carolina. Washington House makes theirs with Fleur de Cana 12 year dark rum, which is sustainably made, gluten and sugar-free — hence the name. It’s light and refreshing, perfect for warm weather.
About the Team
Teamwork is everything at Washington House. Every staff member has a specific function and everyone is a critical part of the success of the operation.
Washington House has built a reputation for care amongst their staff — not just the guests they serve. As a result, the employee retention rate is solid. They have staff that’ve been with the restaurant since the beginning — like the bar manager, Fran, who started as a food runner, and now he’s part of the management team.
Not only does the restaurant offer a beautiful venue with great food, drinks, and all-around hospitality; they employ happy people and take care of their staff.
“There’s about 60 of us,” said Howley. “We remember birthdays and try to do the right thing by people. We wouldn’t be successful without them.”
About the Space
While it’s been 150 years since the first architectural buildout, the space is well maintained and cared for. As a result, it looks much like it did when they reopened the doors of Washington House in 2014. Presently, they are working on the buildout of some additional second-floor space to accommodate private events and parties.
The biggest change to the business profile came in 2020 during the pandemic. Their beautiful and historical restaurant was enhanced by the buildout of the ‘Tent.’ It has a radiant heated flooring system designed by the owners company called Scandic Radiant. The tent became a real refuge for the town (and many others) during the hardest times of the pandemic.
“The pandemic was difficult for everyone,” said Sari Jepsen. “And it was important to us as a member of the community to provide a place where both our guests and staff could feel some sense of normalcy.”
The Tent is perfect for large groups as upwards of 20 can fit at the largest table. That part of the business model has grown exponentially. The owners made deliberate decisions about how and when to reopen the interior of the building. They are happy to report that they are fully functioning in all spaces, including the bar! Happy hour in the bar has returned from 3 to 5 p.m. daily. People are really enjoying that aspect of Washington House.
Washington House’s History
The original Tunis building from 1860 was built into the Washington House Hotel in 1871. During the Prohibition years, between 1920 and 1933, the building was well known for its Applejack moonshine. It was rumored to contain a secret bootlegger’s storeroom in the basement, while then owners continued to rent upstairs hotel rooms.
In 2013, the Jepsen Family became partners with the former owner and at that time, their construction company Scandic Builders undertook the extensive renovation. The Jepsen Family, originally from Denmark, called upon their lifelong love of travel, dining out and elevated aesthetics when they designed the new space. Washington House took back its former name when the doors opened in May 2014. The Jepsens and their staff look forward to reaching the 10 year milestone next year and have great plans for the anniversary celebration.
Washington House Restaurant
55 South Finley Avenue
Basking Ridge, NJ