Go West, Young Eatery14850 Dining by Mark H. Anbinder
14850 Magazine > August 2001 Issue > Go West, Young Eatery
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The grill at Bistro Q is right alongside the dining room.
Go back more than a few decades, and Ithaca's west end was best known for industry, squatters' villages, and a conjoining of thoroughfares affectionately known as "the Octopus." There were a few restaurants in the area (some are still around), but it took a rerouting of Route 13 south onto Fulton Street, construction of new highway bridges, some attention from the City of Ithaca, plus state and federal agencies, and a lot of hard work to turn Ithaca's west end into the mecca of eateries it is today.
Michael Thuesen, a west end businessman since opening MasterCraft Custom Framing and Fine Arts on West State Street in 1987, says "Better late than never!" Thuesen says he's grateful to the Ithaca Police Department, whose efforts and responsiveness have made it possible for some key businesses to stay in the City's west end through a period of inattention that chased many away. "Most of the new development would not have happened without the State doing the Octopus/Route 96 project," Thuesen adds.
City of Ithaca mayor Alan J. Cohen, whose administration inherited the City midway through the Octopus reconstruction and rerouting, says that the City has put "fairly constant attention over the last five years" into the west end.
A southern touch
The latest addition to the menu is Bistro Q, opened just this month at the former location of Oldport Harbor by the owners of Just a Taste. (Oldport's decline came at the worst of the traffic congestion due to the Octopus reconstruction project.) Q is the dream of Jennifer Irwin and Stan Walton, and gives them an opportunity to try something completely new without interfering with their Aurora Street eatery. Stan in particular is thrilled about the chance to explore his southern heritage through the new restaurant's selection of southern cooking, BBQ, and smoked dishes.
A few days before Bistro Q is scheduled to open, the restaurant sports new colors inside and out, contractors are putting the finishing touches on their work, and local artist Warren Bunn is hanging a selection of his paintings, many of which just came off the walls at Just a Taste. "I like the colors and how they've opened it all up," says Bunn, who between painting and performing in a local band works at the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell.
Walton is so pleased with the contracting efforts from Capitol Builders that he even took out a newspaper ad to thank them. They brought a "very personal touch" to their work, making over the restaurant building in its new owners' image and even helping Stan unload kitchen equipment when no one else was around.
Q's owners selected its location in large part because of the inlet and the great building, though Stan adds, "I'm from the other side of the tracks to begin with." He's adamant about a pair of pulled pork sandwiches being the "right" way to serve BBQ, and he definitely looks forward to introducing the smoked meats of his youth to an Ithaca audience. The large smokers are outside the building, and will be the first thing visitors see when they pull into the restaurant's parking lot from Buffalo Street.
On a busy corner
"It's fun to be in a part of town that's being rejuvenated," says Karen Evans, manager at Maxie's Supper Club and the sister and sister-in-law of the owners, Chick and Dewi (pronounced "day-wee") Evans. Maxie's is on a corner (State and Fulton Streets) that's still being developed, with a bank planned for an empty lot that used to be the Moose Lodge, and a new strip mall anchored by Ithaca Tile & Hardwood right next door.
Evans says Maxie's caters to a varying crowd, especially thanks to weekly free Sunday night musical events. One week the performers might draw a Trumansburg crowd, the next week a group of Ithaca College students, depending on the music. The nightly happy hour and popular dinners also bring in a wide range of folks, from the business-suit-attired to area students.
Maxie's can be a noisy and crowded establishment, though it's certainly worth dealing with those drawbacks. Karen says they'd love to increase their seating space, but the building they're in limits their expansion options. Staffing is another challenge, she says, and not just for Maxie's. In a town where a large portion of the labor pool is the transient student population, it's hard to keep good cooking and wait staff for long. Now that the business is established, though (they've been open about two years), they've become attractive to the area's restaurant professionals.
Fresh seafood certainly isn't a problem at Maxie's, where the recently updated menu always includes a seasonal fresh salmon dish, and where it seems half the oysters on the eastern seaboard find their way. Evans says they've got a new seafood purveyor, who ships fresh fish and other items in from Boston daily, on ice.
Watching the world go by
Things don't change as quickly for some, and Kelly at Kelly's Dock-Side Kafe can point to the section of his large restaurant's floor that remains from the 28-seat trolley car diner he opened 28 years ago. Kelly (technically, it's "Albert Kelly," but no one calls him or his brothers anything but "Kelly") just this winter remodeled the upstairs and downstairs dining rooms, and looks forward to the City of Ithaca finishing its promised clean-up of the neighborhood. The parking lot across the street, which Kelly says is still full of ruts and potholes the City promised to fix two years ago, creates a dust problem for the restaurant when they try to keep the doors and windows open in nice weather such as we've been enjoying lately. (Mayor Cohen tells us funding has been approved for an improved surface-level lot, and the City is currently seeking a designer for the project. He hopes to get that work done this year.)
Open every day at 7 am, Kelly's is famous for big omelets, such as a Spanish omelet and such favorite combinations as bacon, mushroom, and cheese, and spinach and cheese. (Kelly does most of the cooking himself, and recommends these personally.) The renowned Sunday brunch features made-to-order specialties like Eggs Benedict and Eggs Florentine. Kelly admits a lot of folks don't look at the menu; he'll cook whatever a customer asks for, if he can.
"Now that we're on a highway instead of a dead-end street," he says, "people drive by and say, 'Oh, we should go to Kelly's.'" He's pleased to have the extra visibility, now that the cramped trolley car is a memory and Kelly's has three hundred seats.
At the cul de sac
Not that far from Kelly's is the only area restaurant to start with a brand new building rather than an existing structure (or parked conveyance). The Boatyard Grill opened this past winter, in a new building whose construction and decorations include old ship wood, driftwood, and other maritime artifacts. Construction of the building wasn't the challenge; cleaning up the site, which included contaminated soil and a power pole that had to be moved, was. (See feature article, 3/20/2001.) Former Joe's Restaurant owner Mark Campagnolo and his new partners, Steve Flash and Chris Purdy, were aided in this venture by loans from the Canal Corridor Initiative, and by clean-up grants to the City from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Former HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo was on hand for the official grand opening ceremonies at the Boatyard in late winter, and spoke glowingly of what can happen when the public and private sectors invest together in developing property, business, and jobs. The former governor's son, himself a stated candidate for New York's gubernatorial slot, was the keynote speaker at an event that featured a great variety of the restaurant's culinary talents.
Campagnolo, who grew up in one of Ithaca's deeply ingrained restaurant families, clearly brought his years of experience satisfying diners at Joe's to the Boatyard, whose customers never seem to mind the sometimes-long wait for a table, passing the time with appetizers or drinks at the spacious bar area. A good steak is obviously one of his own favorites; he stops to chide a diner who fails to pick up the porterhouse bone to gnaw off what hints of meat remains. In addition to the steaks, the restaurant features enticing seafood entrées, mammoth dinner salads, and vegetarian fare.
Campagnolo and his partners, and the City of Ithaca, feel it won't be tough to attract area diners to the tip of Inlet Island, at the end of the dead-end street that comes off the Route 89 bridge right by Kelly's. That the restaurant is usually packed, and already has a good collection of regulars, and that they sometimes refer those in a hurry to the other nearby eateries, suggests that they're correct.
The gateway to Ithaca
MasterCraft's Thuesen calls Ithaca's west end the "gateway to the Commons" and the rest of the City, and if that's the case, two other long-standing area restaurants act as the gatekeepers.
The Ciaschi family's Station Restaurant saw its own revitalization in the 1990s, with sleeping cars adding to the eatery's railroad theme. According to Mayor Cohen, this new bed & breakfast feature of the Station, built in old railroad cars, has proven an important tourist attraction of its own accord. The restaurant is one of several in the Ithaca area (and dozens if not hundreds in the state) incorporating old railroad station buildings or even railroad cars from the region's rich and extensive rail history. The Station no longer has diners punch holes in paper "passenger ticket" menus to select their entrées, appetizers, and side dishes, but the menu retains its booklet-of-tickets motif.
The Baggage Room, the tiny bar attached to the Station, must be one of the area's best-kept secrets. Its furnishings include not only an old-fashioned bar and stools, but also overstuffed armchairs that evoke the same days-gone-by image the restaurant offers.
Standing guard at the opposite corner is the Lehigh Valley House, an inn and tavern that itself dates back to Ithaca's railroad heyday. A look at the old photographs in the entryway is all it takes to be certain that you're not looking at a recreation or a fake, but the real thing. The building hasn't changed much in the decades it's stood there, and while the prices have undoubtedly changed, the menu has retained a simple cross section of classical American cooking.
You can order appetizers or snacks or a sandwich (such as a burger), but those who order an entrée must be prepared for a feast. The entrees come with soup, tomato juice, or chicken livers, plus a small salad, plus two side dishes, plus bread and a plate of onion rings for the table. The entrees themselves aren't small, either. It's traditional American steaks, seafood, and chicken dishes, and if the individual dishes aren't extraordinary in any way, the combined effect is remarkable.
A tale of three Ithacas
The current focus on the west end isn't absolute; the City has recently shown an interest in developing three specific areas: the Commons, the west end, and the controversial southwest area, site of the Widewaters development and on-again, off-again protest.
Thuesen, a member of the "west end breakfast club" and an almost-daily breakfast regular at the State Diner a block from his store, is pleased to see the attention generated by New York State's massive highway project, completed just a few years ago, and how that and the U.S. Canal Corridor Initiative have helped multiple businesses get off the ground in the area.
The City's development plans include more attention to housing in the west end, and making these neighborhoods more balanced in use should help make them viable neighborhoods, and attention to traffic routing should make it possible for these three areas, and the City's other neighborhoods, to function as part of a whole rather than as disparate populations that never visit one another.
Mayor Cohen differentiates the Fulton/Meadow corridor from the Inlet Island area, saying, "We hope to develop the waterfront area as an equally important asset" to the Commons, which has enjoyed a fair amount of attention as Ithaca's urban core. The hope is to develop the waterfront "in a way that enhances the property base and public access to the water," the mayor says.
By comparison, regarding the inland portion of the west end extending a few blocks east of the inlet, Cohen says, "Through zoning, we're promoting a mixed-use urban village concept for that area, where people live, work, and shop all in the same area."
While the apparent overnight success of a Boatyard Grill might seem like an anomaly or a flash in the pan, the sustained success of Maxie's Supper Club since its opening two years ago, and the longevity of Kelly's Dock-Side, the Station, and the Valley House give Jen and Stan of Q plenty of reason to hope.
This article was first published in the Summer Ithaca issue of the Ithaca Times. For more info about eateries in the Ithaca area, visit 14850 Dining.
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14850 Magazine > August 2001 Issue > Go West, Young Eatery