THIS 20 YEAR INDUSTRY VETERAN COMBINES COCKTAIL MAKING AT THE METUCHEN INN WITH BEING A REAL ESTATE AGENT… AND SOON PURSUING A CAREER IN NURSING

BY GILDA ROGERS • PHOTOS BY ROBERT NUZZIE

The landmark Metuchen Inn was established in 1843, and still welcomes guests to a unique and now New American dining experience one graced by no fewer than three working fireplaces. Named one of the top restaurants in New Jersey by Open Table, the quaint space feels much like a secluded getaway.

Upon entering, visitors are greeted by cozy seating spaces with tables dressed in crisp linens accentuated by bouquets of fresh flowers. A distinctive philosophy governs the restaurant, explained Constantine Papanicolaou, who owns the business along with Victor Schipa.

“We create sophistication through simplicity,” he said. “And thrive on getting the best ingredients.” That same philosophy carries over to the bar selections. The Inn has been featured in Wine & Spirits Magazine, and serves many bottles reviewed in Wine Spectator magazine. Its wine, beer, and scotch tastings have become local favourites, along with five course meals (with wine pairings) for under $100.

“This is my speed when it comes to casual fine dining,” said Head Bartender Rayna Riggi. “There’s a loyal following that comes here…one that gets invested in the place.”
Riggi, who grew up in Middletown, found her way to bartending by learning hands on while attending Monmouth University in West Long Branch.

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“Somebody simply offered me a job,” she recalled with a smile. “I didn’t even know how to bartend, but I loved nightlife and being social.”’

MARC CAIN SPREAD

She readily admits to being a “foodie,” so an attraction to the restaurant business was small surprise. Riggi sees it as a natural progression in her life. Having worked in the business for 20 years, she now has something like a supernatural penchant for cocktail mixing. Though tequila is not the spirit of choice for this writer, she crafted me a Ginger Jalapeno Margarita topped off with freshly squeezed lime, which turned out to be a pleasing amalgamation of refreshing, informative, and invigorating and somehow kept the jalapeno from not dominating the proceedings.
As fall approached, Riggi was mulling over creations for the Inn’s seasonal drink menu, when she landed on a classic.

“I like to do something with apple cider for a comfortable autumn feeling,” she said. So, guests might expect an innovative take on a hot toddy or a refreshing spicy fall sangria.

While discussing other trends, Riggi admitted to some surprise over what’s popular in the spirit world today. “I’ve made more Manhattans and Old Fashioneds in a year than I’ve made in 20 years,” she said, while observing that more women are indulging in what were once considered masculine drinks. Bulleit bourbon is trending at the Inn, for example. “ The old cocktails have become a part of the new culture.”

The mother of a toddler daughter, Riggi has ample grit and calls herself a “hustler,” in part because she’s also a licensed real estate agent and is currently applying to Georgian Court University in Lakewood to study nursing. (“I’m also a nurturer,” she said.)

While bartending in the cozy confines of the Metuchen Inn remains a welcome constant in her life, this bar veteran wants to continue to thrive in all aspects, and maintains a philosophical outlook. “When life presents certain circumstances, everything shifts, and we can’t be afraid to shift either,” she opined.

Metuchen Inn
424 Middlesex Avenue, Metuchen / 732.494.6444 /
metucheninn.net