Whichever direction you come from to get to Canal House Station, there’s a good chance you’ll pass peach orchards, farm stands selling ripe Jersey tomatoes, or swimmers on innertubes floating down the Delaware River. The restaurant, which opened in Milford, New Jersey in July, is the first from James Beard Award-winning cookbook writers Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, and the scenic drive offers a hint about what’s in store once you arrive.
In 2006, the women founded Canal House—a publishing, design, and culinary studio in Lambertville, New Jersey, drawing on their collective decades of experience with cooking, writing, editing, and photography. After nine years in Lambertville, the pair moved their operation to a more secluded outpost, but after a couple of years, they longed for a change. “We realized that even though we think of ourselves as quiet and private, we missed the people, we missed the garden,” says Hirshheimer. “I guess what you’d say is, we really missed life.” So they were on the lookout for a new place, and found it in an abandoned railroad station in Milford, originally built in 1870. They could see that it had the right bones for the next iteration of Canal House.
“It feels so familiar,” Hamilton says. “We got our beautiful garden back, and we’re still looking at the river—the same river that went past our old studio in Lambertville.”
The meticulous restoration took about two years, and the result channels the warmth of a dear friend’s home. Dark wood paneling lines the walls of what were once ticket and waiting rooms, and English paint company Farrow & Ball helped the women land on the perfect wall color. Unframed oil paintings found at an antique fair adorn walls, and the old ticket window, now set in a hallway, will eventually hang as art. Even the entrance, past the small garden and through a back door, contributes to the familiar sensibility the brand new restaurant has already managed to create.
Menus—which for now include breakfast, lunch, and Sunday dinner—spotlight seasonal ingredients and read a little like a William Carlos Williams poem. This summer, there are breakfast dishes like ripe melon with prosciutto, kale & comté omelets, and buttered toast with kumquat marmalade or soft ripe cheese. Lunch is rosemary ham on slices of caraway-buttered bread, country paté, and fresh vegetable salads, with ice cream floats for dessert. Because the women don’t like brunch, the restaurant serves Sunday Dinner from noon to 4 p.m., instead. “It used to be that families gathered together on Sunday afternoon, the grandparents, aunts and uncles,” says Hirsheimer. “Maybe people could come and do that here—enjoy themselves, and sit for a while. We could create that kind of vibe.”
Eschewing brunch in favor of a classic Sunday supper is just one example of how Hamilton and Hirsheimer are doing things exactly the way they want here. Though they each ran separate restaurants in the past, after years of shared experiences—traveling, producing stories, working at Saveur (Hirsheimer was the founding editor and Hamilton was the test kitchen director) and on their own cookbooks—there’s an ease and simplicity that shines through in every aspect of Canal House Station. There aren’t Baldor trucks delivering the ingredients they use for the “tomatoes all dressed-up for summer,” served à la carte at weekday lunch and as the third course of Sunday Dinner. Instead, the pair buy them from the neighboring farm, or at farm stands or markets or tables by the side of the road.
“We’ll drive 30 miles because the fish is good there,” says Hirsheimer. “That’s how we shop in our own lives anyway.” Besides the tomatoes—two thick, red slices on a shallow pool of dressing, peppered with bits of fresh herbs—Sunday dinner includes deviled eggs topped with slivers of bacon, buttery chanterelles flecked with parsley and garlic and spooned over toast, and fried chicken with summer succotash. Dessert, warm berry cobbler with a spoon of melting vanilla ice cream, will leave you with an afterglow. Nothing on the menu is fussy or overdone.
“We love to cook, we write about cooking, our whole lives are about eating,” says Hamilton. “The next thing is to feed the people.” The community welcomes the new addition to bucolic Milford. On a recent visit, two friends catching up over Sunday dinner paused their conversation to gush about the chanterelles to the server, and one offered to pluck some from her own backyard if the restaurant’s supply dwindled. It seems like chefs couldn’t have picked a better place to feed the people.