A little city with a growing appetite
“Well I hear you went up to Saratoga
and your horse naturally won…”
—Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain”
For a city that is effectively landlocked, save for a 4.5-mile lake on the outskirts of town, it is almost a head scratcher that Saratoga Springs is possibly best known for its water, that and seasonal horse racing. But the waters of Saratoga (locals drop the “Springs” when referring to the area), in the form of natural springs, hold mythical curative properties that have been drawing visitors looking for a quick fix and rejuvenation for over 200 years. A two-century-long legacy is a hard thing to trump, but Saratoga has a newly vibrant food and drink scene that is luring people north for more than just a soak and betting on horses.
There’s a buzz in the air—or better a wonderful whiff—of noteworthy dining spots that may become destinations for a broader audience. And they reflect a diverse mix, particularly for a smaller city.
The ambience at many of Saratoga’s eateries reflects the warmth and hospitality of owners who’ve come to the profession with a long-simmering love of food, sometimes as a second career, and with a deep interest in getting to know customers and become involved in their community.
START EARLY/EAT OFTEN
You can start your culinary escapade in the early morning at a number of unpretentious places serving comfort food—waffles and waffle sandwiches are the hallmark of one, or lemon ricotta pancakes and Roman eggs at another—and move on to brunch or lunch with savory and sweet crepes with hand-cut pommes frites with dipping sauces.
Come late afternoon or evening, head for a handcrafted beer or expertly mixed cocktail at the many bars that populate this city and end with dinner that may be as simple—and delicious—as a wood-fired pizza, fresh salad and decadent brownie or as upscale as Italian ricotta with salted crème anglaise or handmade pasta with crumbled sausage or lamb ragout at a new dining establishment with swank decor. Along with these changes have come places to buy specialty foods—two relatively new supermarkets, the Fresh Market out of Greensboro, North Carolina, and the organic Healthy Living Market & Café from South Burlington, Vermont, or specialty meat and fish vendors and farmers’ markets.
But where to begin—and end (this may take more than a day)? There’s no way to be all inclusive, but here is a generous helping of possibilities, including a few that pop up seasonally in the summer at the racetrack.
Twenty-four years ago, Roseann Hotaling opened Country Corner Café, a breakfast and lunch eatery, after moving to Saratoga Springs as a school food service director. The opportunity for her longtime dream of opening a restaurant presented itself when Anthony’s Country Kitchen went out of business a block off Broadway.
“I wanted to be home with my children for the dinner hour, and there weren’t a lot of places serving breakfast,” she says. Originally only 19 seats, she expanded to 75 to meet demand from the business community, families seeking an affordable place and Skidmore College students and parents. And while the menu includes traditional fare, many choices reflect her twist such as pan-fried oatmeal. Possibly as a way to let the breakfast hour linger a bit, this year she added Bloody Marys and mimosas.
To fill a void in the high-end niche, partners Thomas Burke and Paul McCullough opened 15 Church in early 2014. The building was vacant for 20 years and was given an extensive overhaul that now sparkles with a welcoming bar and comfy upholstered banquettes.
The two partners brought Brady Duhame on board as chef, who trained at the CIA, abroad and at several prestigious New York City restaurants such as Picholine and Bouley; Duhame was given the task of developing a menu of sophisticated yet approachable contemporary American fare. Everyone involved wanted 15 Church to be the city’s best restaurant with ingredients and dishes unique to the area.
“I’m trying to do food with heart and soul but that you don’t find anywhere else,” says Duhame, citing his scallion pancakes layered with king crab in butter, oyster sauce, wasabi cream cilantro and a fried egg or hamachi sashimi with crispy wontons, gingered pickled shallots, jalapeños, roasted sesame seeds and soy citrus dressing as two starter examples.
The entrée menu is as inventive, and desserts and daily-made focaccia bread by pastry chef Lacy Worth, formerly with the Equinox Hotel in Vermont, are worth saving room for. The “Notorious B.I.G. chocolate cake” (an indulgent salute to the fallen ’90s rap icon), with side mini-bottle of milk, and zeppoles—cinnamon ricotta doughnuts with two sauces—both “had” to be ordered after they were spied going to other tables. So far, McCullough says, customers haven’t flinched—or at least not complained verbally to him—that the average tab runs between $50 and $75 per person, higher than most other area establishments. “They see the plate arrive, the visuals, taste the food and find the service friendly. The restaurant has been packed on weekends and even during the week in winter,” he says. Summer plans include a revamped large side patio for casual dining with fresh seafood focus and cocktails.
Not one but three Hattie’s Restaurants exist—the downtown “Mother Ship,” which moved to its present turn-of-the-century building in 1969 from its original Federal Street location after urban renewal occurred; the second, a “chicken shack” on Route 50 in Wilton Plaza, and the third, a summer shack at the track. The crunchy, yet tender, fried chicken is a winner at all three, and has remained true to the original recipe Miss Hattie (Gray) from Louisiana developed when she opened Hattie’s Chicken Shack in 1938; she died in 1998.
Beth and Jasper Alexander became the third owners in 2001 when they returned to Beth’s Saratoga origins from Seattle; Jasper trained at the CIA and top-flight places in New York City. The Alexanders’ goal is to maintain the commitment to Miss Hattie’s original fare but introduce their own comfort foods. Loyal customers beg come fall for their macaroni and cheese to return after it’s taken off the menu in summer, Beth says. Portions are quite ample—good for sharing since entrées come with two generous sides. The 80 seats are perpetually filled at the main location. A full-service catering operation has the novel tag line: “From Fried Chicken to Foie Gras.”
As a child, Pete Michelin helped out his relatives with their restaurant as best he could. He grew up, went on to become a bartender and chef but always dreamt of owning his own place. That dream materialized when Michelin moved back to Saratoga, wrote a business plan and eight years ago found the right location, overlooking Fish Creek, which empties into Saratoga Lake. Today, he and wife Gina operate Harvest & Hearth, an artisanal pizza restaurant that exhibits their stamp of creativity—handcrafted crusts with toppings of locally grown vegetables, free-range and nitrate-free meats and novel garnishments. Two of the more notable pies: the Epiphany, with Kalamata olives, fire-roasted red peppers, red onions and rosemary, and the Schrooms, with a wild mushroom blend, caramelized onions, fontina and mozzarella cheeses and fresh herbs. Their handful of salads are equally inventive, including Mamie’s Poppy with poached pears, fire-roasted pecans, fresh local goat cheese, mesclun greens and, yes, a poppy seed dressing. And the long drink list features New York State and New England wines and beers. Besides ample seating for almost 110 indoors, the deck accommodates another 25 in good weather. On any given day, the couple makes 250 to 300 pizzas in a large wood-fired oven; they buy their increasingly popular gluten-free crusts to avoid cross-contamination.
Ryan and Sonja McFadden started their neighborhood bar and restaurant Henry Street Taproom over two years ago in a building that once housed a coffee shop, after burning out on prior careers as an attorney and teacher. They researched their then hobby of enjoying quality beers and cheeses, attended classes and then, as Ryan says, “jumped off a cliff and did it. There wasn’t any place around we felt were serving the kinds of serious beers and cheeses we love.”
They now rotate 16 draft beers, always have a keg open, feature IPAs, slightly trendier sour beers, hard ciders to meet increasing demand and gluten-free beers (“They’re getting better,” he jokes), plus an extensive variety of bourbons, whiskeys, cocktails, local cheeses, homemade breads and chutneys. There’s also a dinner menu that includes oysters, tacos, fish and chips and duck confit hash, and nightly specials such as a beer and cheese flight. The clientele remains mostly locals plus students, “all loyal despite the cold winter,” Ryan says.
Think waffles, but certainly not frozen packaged ones nor for icecream cones. At The Iron Roost, waffles take center stage for the main meal, an indulgence many will surely welcome. From sweet to savory, the Roost offers up the restaurant’s signature Liege waffle with caramelized chunks of pearl sugar and cinnamon, or more exotic eggplant Caprese in a waffle wedge, a French toast waffle, grilled cheese on a grilled garlic herb waffle or a dessert waffle topped with more traditional fruit and freshly made whipped cream.
Both Max London and Mrs. London’s Bakery are now owned by Ryan Venezia, a former “Wall Streeter” who purchased both neighboring establishments when the restaurant and bakery hit hard times last year after more than 35 years in business. Venezia’s grandfather had been a chef on Coney Island in the 1940s, and he grew up working in restaurants and loving food as part of a big Italian family. Numerous trips to Saratoga and the search for another business opportunity finally presented itself.
“I love the fact Saratoga seems like a small town in a bigger city,” he says. His goal is to maintain and improve on each place’s reputation for locally sourced, in-house-made food, including breads, European- style pastries and individual quiches that fill the glass case—and tempt—in the bakery that stands adjacent to the restaurant. He also wants to raise the bar on what is offered in the area. Namesake Max London, son of founder Michael, works with chef Zack Cutler, a CIA grad, at Max London’s to prepare an eclectic brunch with chicken hash or cod cakes with poached eggs, artisanal waffles and pancakes and wood-fired pizzas with eggs on top. Or for dinner, items run to more pizzas—a basic margherita and more novel shrimp and chorizo, plus tuna tartar and dry-aged beef.
As if the name didn’t give it away, Ravenous is where you go to fulfill a hankering for crepes and some of the most alluring pommes frites made—hand-cut, twice cooked and served with a choice of dipping sauces, including the popular garlic-mayo aioli. The 36-seat, 15-year-old restaurant off Broadway offers savory and sweet crepes as good as they get, such as the most popular lunch choice of Taj Mahal, with curried chicken, apples, cauliflower and raisins, or Green Mountain brunch favorite with extra-sharp white cheddar cheese, imported ham, maple-glazed apples and maple-Dijon dressing. Owners Julie Raymond and David Zuka opened the restaurant to provide a different type of cuisine “than another burger joint,” she says, and one that would reflect her French-Canadian heritage. On any given day, they prepare 150 to 250 crepes.
Eugene Bizzarro opened Saratoga Gelato to make gelatos from scratch, using only organic ingredients and trying to appeal not just to walk-in foot traffic but to wholesale buyers in the area as well. “I grew up in a family of funeral directors but wanted a cheerier occupation,” Bizzarro says. And although he worked in the financial arena, he decided after 9/11 it was time to pursue his love of food in Saratoga, and be near family. The repertoire for his downtown shop (there’s also a summer stand at the track) consists of two dozen flavors, some seasonal, with the most popular sea-salted caramel. He also develops recipes for area restaurants such as candy maple bacon for Druthers Brewing Company down the block or deep dark chocolate with raspberries for the also local Sweet Mimi’s Bakery & Café’s waffles for a recent Valentine’s Day.
With new places sprouting up, a competitive spirit may be growing that parallels the goings on at the historic Saratoga Race Track, but for now most restaurateurs queried remain enthusiastic about dining at each others’ establishments and toasting their collective success. “The more restaurants we have,” says Pete Michelin of Harvest & Hearth, “the more of a positive cluster there will be.” And, the expected ripple effect may be that more Hudson Valley residents as well as those from larger cities will put this historic city on their food map, which will fuel incentive to head to points north.
COUNTRY CORNER CAFÉ
25 Church Street
15 Church Street
HARVEST & HEARTH
251 B Country Road, Route 67
45 Phila Street
HENRY STREET TAPROOM
86 Henry Street
THE IRON ROOST
36 Front, Ballston Spa
21 Phila Street