Rest in peace, Carousel: 1956-2011
As a freshman, my idea of an off-campus brunch began and ended with PJ’s Pancake House. The ever-present line of hungry diners out front told me that all the cool kids were going there, an impression confirmed by the thousands of names, initials and declarations of love etched into the restaurant’s tables. Clearly the cool kids weren’t just there now, but had been there for decades. I desperately wanted to be a part of this venerable history and queued up dutifully whenever the craving for non-dining-hall pancakes grew irresistible.
Then, with the beginning of sophomore year, everything changed. I was bewildered when a friend suggested we get brunch at this mysterious place called “Carousel.” Carousel? I like whirling on fake horses to brutally catchy music as much as anyone, but I was quite hungry and had been planning on breaking my fast with something a bit more solid than the delights of a childhood past. My obvious confusion was answered with a knowing smile and a shake of the head from my friend.
I had never even been aware that the humble building we entered was a restaurant, but it was love at first sight. The mellow off-beige of the walls, the plethora of unicorn pictures and paraphernalia, the sense of expansive openness that the spacing between the tables created: I’ve heard it puts some people off, but I drank it in. Slightly dumbfounded, I took a seat, and a member of Carousel’s delightful waitstaff — a crew of ladies whose names I’m sad to say I never learned — handed me a menu with a smile. I continued to look around and found that I was surrounded by a motley crew of cheerful fellow diners. I was immediately aware that the pace of life in Carousel felt noticeably slower than the typical bustle of the Bubble. The entire restaurant was relaxed despite the liveliness of the conversation; the atmosphere was intimate despite the spacious, uncluttered dining area. Carousel felt like a place for people in the know, locals looking to avoid the gaudy hubbub of PJ’s down the street. I had the sense that by simply placing an order, I had joined a community of like-minded friends, even if I would never know who they were or what exactly we were agreeing about. I placed my standard order, and it was with great gusto that I chowed down on my first Carousel meal, a thick Belgian waffle. As I left, I knew that I would be coming back here again.
I had the pleasure of returning to Carousel several times that semester, and each time, I became more enamored with the place. I became the Billy Graham of Carousel, encouraging anyone and everyone to partake in its singular dining experience. One day I recruited one of my roommates, who had been heartbroken at seeing the typical PJ’s line stretching down Nassau. “No worries, man,” I assured him. “I’ve got an even better place.”
My heart hit the concrete when I saw the sign pronouncing that Carousel had closed. Disbelief followed. Could our relationship be over so soon? I had been counting on years of visits, of developing our comfortable friendship over hours of chats, coffee and waffles. That will never happen, which is poignant in all kinds of ways I had never imagined. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled by the prospect of getting my face plastered on the wall of the new Cheeburger for stuffing a pound of beef into my stomach — I’ll call my mom when it happens and maybe even send her a picture of my triumph. But it won’t be the same. An era of Princeton dining shuttered this fall, and it won’t be coming back.
The outpouring of love Carousel received while I was preparing for this piece was astounding. Whenever I mentioned to people that I was writing a love letter to the place, a bystander would invariably chime in: “Oh, I LOVED Carousel!” And the stories would pour out: grabbing early morning breakfasts after an EMT shift, renting out the entire restaurant for group brunches, spending hours in the easy pleasure of a comfortable meal. Across the wide variety of reasons, the depth of attachment was the same. So I’ll join my peers in saluting you, Carousel. I still love you. Princeton still loves you. We miss you, and we aren’t quite sure why you had to go, but when we come back for Reunions over the years, we’ll cast a look at whatever chain is inhabiting your spot and throw you a silent salute. Rest in peace. You were truly one of a kind.