Friday, November 4, 2011

The Stirling Hotel

The Stirling Hotel at 227 Main Avenue in Stirling, NJ 07980

My favorite watering hole is by far the Stirling Hotel. Located at Main Avenue in Stirling, New Jersey (just a stone throw away from the train station), it is an old historic building. Founded in 1903, it was from the beginning a well known eatery in the Long Hill Township. The current owners, Tom and Dori Baldassare, purchased the building in 1983, with a dream to revitalize the place and establish a casual, family style tavern. Together, they are a great team, very unassuming and humble. They see themselves not as the 'owners' of the Hotel, but rather as caretakers or custodians. Tom puts it like this: "We want to keep this building the same as it is now for the next owner, the next generation. Buying this place was the best thing that ever happened, it is a passion to work here. I get to wear many hats, so every day brings something new."

As I was talking with him, he was busy with gas heaters and broom sticks, trying to remove accumulating snow as quick as possible from the outside tent area to prevent it from collapsing. And always with a smile. Food has always been important, bringing old and proven family recipes to the place from the beginning, and they still can be found in the kitchen whipping up the next special of the day. Tom calls it 'peasant dishes', and explains that in these hard economic times it is becoming 'nouveau' again. For him, it is what he grew up with, and something he and Dori love to pass on.

Dan manning the taps during a Founders Brewery event
Beer became a really important part in 1997, when they hired Dan Schneider. Fresh out of college, he brought a passion for craft beer with him, which started with that Sierra Nevada his older brother brought him years before. When he started, the Stirling Hotel offered a selection of bottled beers. In 2000-2001 they installed draft lines, and started with a small selection of imported European beers and American craft beers. From that early start, Dan oversaw the evolution of the Hotel into a real Craft Beer bar, at a time that Craft beer in New Jersey was virtually unknown. Currently, the choice of beers on tap is geared to represent various beer styles: there will always be an IPA on tap, a pilsner, amber,... Apart from that, he now oversees a selection of kegs they age in their cellar, kept for a special offering now and then. I can speak from experience that coming in only 2 hours after they start such a keg can be too late.

Dan has seen craft beer really take off in the last 3 to 4 years. "Craft beer is only going to get better," he says, "as local movements, more accessible and with  more styles." Now the Stirling Hotel does its part, with a great knowledgeable staff, bringing people from Long Hill Township and beyond a great place to hang out. Simple, unassuming, it will give you the kind of food that hits the spot, and beers that are hand picked to give you a taste of great brews from all over. A mix of the familiar, with the thrill of exploration laced in between. If you're around, a place you should not skip.

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