Pub Trawl

Comfort food, comfortable surroundings (think old wooden beams and roaring fireplaces), and exotic beers are good reasons to seek out these taverns. Some lively conversation is another.



Pub Trawl

 

Our writer goes in search of the best places in the Valley

to hunker down with a pint and some hearty food  

 

by Steve Hopkins

 

Pub. Tavern. The terms, although not exactly synonymous, connote something similar in tone. They are more — and less — than bars, restaurants, and inns. The mind conjures a comfortable, dimly lit room with low, beamed ceilings; a shiny wooden bar bristling with beer taps; and maybe a fireplace or two. Perhaps a wall lined with books, or festooned with old photos and knickknacks. A place that’s friendly and convivial, with hearty food and at least one entertaining character at (or behind) the bar.

 

The template for this sort of establishment developed in the British Isles, where there are still plenty of them. Although a classic pub is harder to find in America than it was, say, in the late 1800s, there are a few here in the Hudson Valley that offer a warm, casual welcome and good comfort food.

 

Old School

The benchmark for historic American taverns is the venerable Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck, Dutchess County. Since 1766, it’s been serving hungry and thirsty wayfarers — including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and Franklin Roosevelt. It’s billed as the oldest continuously operating inn in the United States, and it looks it, inside and out. The sturdy structure has weathered over time into a comfortable bunker that is best experienced in the dead of winter, when you can pull up by a roaring hearth with a frothy libation and some of the tastiest pub food around.

 

The inn is a warren of small, low-ceilinged rooms featuring exposed beams, big stone fireplaces, and all manner of Revolutionary War–era accoutrements. In the center is the aptly named Colonial Tap Room, where on any given Friday evening (if you’re so inclined), you can get sociable with a local crowd presided over by longtime bartender Rob Santini. There are six taps, featuring Sam Adams, Anchor Steam Liberty Ale, and Stella Artois (a Belgian entry). The inn’s restaurant, called the Traphagen (after the original 18th-century owner), serves food in the various dining rooms. There is no longer a separate pub menu, but upscale versions of pub fare like onion soup, burgers, pot pies, and fish and chips are available, as are more sophisticated offerings such as grilled salmon. The Beekman Arms (845-876-1766) is at 6387 Mill Street (Route 9).

 

Across the river in Kingston, Virginia and Padraic Bradley — known to their regulars as Ginny and Pat — run another venerable tavern, the Hoffman House. The couple bought the 1679 stone and wood-frame building more than 30 years ago, after it had been empty for 10 years, and restored it to the point that it’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

Wide floorboards that once languished beneath six layers of linoleum are buffed to a high gloss; the ancient fireplaces are operational (although now fueled by gas); and the Colonial-style tavern bar features cozy wooden booths and a genuine overhead grill. Heavy wooden beams add organic heft to the white stucco interior. It’s beautiful, comfortable, and as Old World as can be.

 

Just blocks from Kingston’s government offices and courthouses, the Hoffman House has been a favorite haunt of lawyers and businesspeople since 1977. There’s plenty of beer (Budweiser on tap, Sam Adams, Bass, Killian’s, and Becks in bottles) and wine, with soups, wraps, and hot and cold sandwiches at lunch. The more ambitious (though still moderately priced) Continental fare at dinner includes steaks, seafood, and homemade pasta. The lamb shanks (a special) and duckling with various sauces (the apricot was a recent favorite) are well worth the visit. Hoffman House (845-338-2626) is at 94 North Front Street.

 

Down in Rockland County, there’s serious competition in the historic department from the Old ’76 House in Tappan. Built in 1686 and later enlarged, the stone dwelling served as a safe house for Americans in an area thick with Tories during the Revolution. In 1780, it became the impromptu prison of Major John André, the British spy who was nabbed in Tarrytown while carrying the plans to West Point he’d gotten from Benedict Arnold. André was held there while standing trial, and eventually was strung up nearby. Current owner Robert C.D. Norden and others maintain that George Washington ate his meals in the tavern when his HQ was down the street.

 

The place is authentically beamed and stone-fireplaced and oozes historic charm. The beers are good — on tap are Stella Artois and Newcastle, among others; bottled brews include Brooklyn Brown, Guinness, and Bass Ale — and the hospitality is as toasty as the fireplaces. The dinner menu includes some fancy choices like foie gras and porterhouse steaks, but the simpler, classic stuff like fish and chips, chili, and Yankee pot roast are best bets for the true tavern experience. The Old ’76 House (845-359-5476) is at 110 Main Street.

 

Smith’s, in downtown Cohoes, Albany County, seems as if it were frozen in amber in 1939, when Democratic Party boss Big Mike Smith owned the place. It has a spectacular, nearly 50-foot-long mahogany bar. The matching mirrored back-bar is graced by a pair of five-foot-tall Japanese palace urns, allegedly over 350 years old, that Big Mike took from the ruins of a nearby estate. “He also brought the bar here,” says Margaret Kehn, who runs Smith’s with her mother, Eunice Antonucci. The bar originally served politicos in

Tammany Hall in Manhattan.

 

Constructed in 1873, the building has done duty as a silent-film theater, a pool hall, a tavern, and a speakeasy. Smith bought it in 1937 and ran it until his death at age 90 in the late ’40s. The present owners have been running the place for more than 20 years, and it’s still got a rep as a political hangout, if only because the long taproom — with its wood-paneled walls and high, tin ceiling — seems custom-made for political dealing.

 

It’s a taproom without taps, though. “We don’t have any beers on tap,” says Kehn. “Just bottles. The old tap system’s here, but we can’t use it because of the travel distance to the cooler downstairs.”

 

It doesn’t matter. The atmosphere trumps everything. “A lot of people from out of state come back because of nostalgia, because the place hasn’t changed,” says Kehn. “They say, ‘I remember when I was a kid, my parents used to bring me to Smith’s.’ We’ve been here that long.”

 

The food is pretty good, too. “It’s American; a little international,” says Kehn. Each menu heading offers an array of choices — under “poultry,” for example, you can get chicken Teriyaki, Française, Parmigiana, Dijon, or Cordon Bleu. Smith’s (518-237-9809) is at 171 Remsen Street, just steps from the Cohoes Music Hall. It gets pretty crowded on show nights.

 

It seems both George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette dined at the Stissing House in Pine Plains, Dutchess County. The rambling 1782 beauty of a tavern has hand-hewn timbers everywhere. Upstairs, there’s a domed ballroom that once hosted society dos. Downstairs are two cozy hearths and a fine old bar. Antiques round out the atmosphere along with a wood-fired brick oven, from which you can order everything from pizza to roast leg of lamb au jus off the French/American brasserie menu. As of last October, the husband-and-wife team Michel and Patricia Jean became the new owners.

 

Among other good moves, they chose to keep bar manager Denice Osofsky. Beers on tap include Guinness, Weizenbock, Dogfish Head, Ramstein Blonde Wheat, Bass, and Stella Artois. There’s a long wine list as well. The Stissing House (518-398-8800) is at 7801 South Main Street.

 

New School

Anchoring one end of Poughkeepsie’s Dooley Square, Mahoney’s Irish Pub is nearly brand spanking new. Still, co-owner and carpenter extraordinaire Emmett Woods, an Irishman from County Tyrone, made sure the space he reclaimed from the old J.D. Johnson & Co. plumbing supply house (and once home to the Vassar Brothers Brewery) was architecturally relevant to the past.

 

For example, he took the old corkscrew auger that was used to bring grain into the former brewery and imbedded it in the floor. The building’s original hand-hewn beams loom overhead; the ones Woods deemed structurally unsound he imbedded in the floor as well. The old shutters were rehung inside. Doors were refurbished and re-used. There’s a fireplace, some comfy couches, and a great square-rigger of a bar with 10 beers on tap, including Guinness, Yuengling, and Smithwick’s. And there’s a circular wooden dance floor with a map of Eire painted on it — all 32 counties. Once you find the one you come from, you can look overhead and find its county crest.

 

Despite the Irish theme, Mahoney’s isn’t exactly a pub or tavern. With two spacious floors, it’s large and roadhouse-esque, with many nods to modernity. There are televisions everywhere, video games, a pinball machine, and a pool table, as well as bands or deejays four nights a week. Among the many menu choices there’s a paean to the college crowd: the “Marist Sampler,” a platter of chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, chicken tenders, and potato skins.

 

But on slow days there’s a warm, cozy, and convivial atmosphere, with tweedy types lining the bar. For the pubbiest feeling, sit near the fireplace between 4 and 7 p.m. and order up a Smithwick’s and some bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, or a Poughkeepsie Combo plate off the dinner appetizer menu. (That’s Cajun beef tips, sautéed chicken, jumbo shrimp, and garlic bread accompanied by a big glob of horseradish sauce.) Mahoney’s Irish Pub (845-471-7026) is at 35 Main Street.

 

The Black Swan, an old-looking but recent-vintage pub in Tivoli, Dutchess County, was reportedly dubbed “Best Pub in the Hudson Valley” by New York magazine. Founded by Irishman/bon vivant Gerard Hurley (whose girlfriend, actress Lili Taylor, frequently graced the premises), the pub has already gone through its initial generational hiccup. Hurley recently sold the bar portion of the establishment to Mike Nickerson, himself a renowned party-meister who once held court at the legendary Rhinecliff Hotel.

 

Nickerson hasn’t changed much. There are still a bunch of beers to choose from — 17 on tap, including Guinness, Bass, Harp, Grolsch, Smithwick’s, Brooklyn Lager, and Keegan’s Hurricane Kitty Ale from Kingston. The menu has been scaled back a bit but still includes pub favorites like burgers, chicken salad, mac and cheese, shepherd’s pie, goat cheese and bruschetta, black bean soup, and chicken wings.

 

What sets the Black Swan apart is the profusion of characters who nightly descend upon the place. As Sybille Schubert, a former chef there, once observed: “An atmosphere of theater emanates from the Black Swan. On any given night one may encounter the scholar, the drummer, the recluse, the artist, the laborer, the widow, the poet, the comedian, the lawyer, and all who hold the stage in the play that composes the life of this tiny village.”

 

True, that. One night, I encountered a bearded sailor named Scott who enlisted me to accompany him to the shore of the Hudson to search (with a flashlight) for his catamaran, which had drifted away with the tide. “I forgot to tie her up,” he said. “She’ll come back. It’s happened before.” The Black Swan (845-757-3777) is at 66 Broadway.

 

Down the road a piece…

In the densely packed Hudson Valley towns closer to New York City there are a few pubs that could qualify for anybody’s top-12 list. But it’s also harder to pick a standout. Just down the street from the Turning Point in Rockland County’s Piermont is the Harbor House. This Irish pub, say committed pub-seekers Tim Bartz and his British wife Vanessa Saunders, approaches the real thing. “They serve Smithwick’s,” notes Bartz, pronouncing it “Smiddick’s.” “That’s the closest to real British beer my wife’s found. They have bangers and mash, and my wife says they have the best fish and chips in the U.S. The ingredients are all fresh.”

 

About five years old, Harbor House boasts a suitably long 30-foot bar and is another good, unpretentious spot to snuggle up with a beer and a good book next to a fire. It’s at 457 Piermont Avenue (845-398-9802).

 

Then there’s Horsefeathers in Tarrytown, Westchester County, which was designed as a haven for hungry wordsmiths or comic geniuses. Loaded bookshelves surround the booths in the dark, paneled interior, and in case you missed the point, there’s a wall-length mural featuring caricatures of such luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe, W.C. Fields, Mark Twain, and Groucho Marx.

 

Although as much a restaurant as a pub, the insouciant attitude counts for something, as does the very long bottled beer list. A lot of the food goes well with beer — especially the renowned burgers and the “Dante’s Inferno” chili con carne. You can also get omelets and crêpes, salads and steaks, and all manner of sandwiches. The kitchen is proud of its reputation for doing things right. If you order a tuna melt, for example, the cheese on top will be hot and bubbly. Horsefeathers (914-631-6606) is at 94 North Broadway.

 

In the Warwick hamlet of Bellvale in Orange County, the Iron Forge Inn gets right to the heart of the matter. Upstairs in the circa-1760 house is a nice country restaurant featuring meals whipped up by chef/proprietor (and Culinary Institute of America grad) Erik Johansen. (See our review in the September 2005 issue.) Downstairs is the wonderful den-like Tap Room, with the requisite fireplace, low-beamed ceilings, and a pub menu serving burgers and such as well as more exotic fare like barbecued spare ribs and blackened catfish. It’s a little corner of the world where you can forget what century it is. The inn (845-986-3411) is at 38 Iron Forge Road.

 

The power of one…

Thomas Hope is one of those tavern presences — he’s the owner in this case — who so infuses the place with personality that you’re a regular before you know it, even if you live an hour away. Hope, who lives and breathes his Welsh heritage, named his pub in Chatham, Columbia County, Peint O Gwrw — pint of ales. In business since 2001, the place is run like a school of Welsh culture, as well as of local elbow-bending.

 

As far as Hope knows, it’s the only Welsh pub east of the Mississippi — which doesn’t mean you’re drinking Welsh beer. In fact, among the 14 brews on tap (including Smithwick’s and Old Speckled Hen) and many more in the cooler, none are Welsh. “Nobody but me likes Welsh beer,” he says. “It stinks.”

 

The bar area is pleasant and comfortable, with a mirror-lined wood bar and dark walls festooned with relics, banners, and photographs of Wales. Simple pub food under unpronounceable Welsh headings makes up the modest, modestly priced menu. There are burgers, including a “super sloppy chili burger” and a “Pacific salmon burger.” Under the “Ffriod Nad Mor” (not so fried) section, there’s vegetarian lasagna, roast beef and turkey sandwiches, and a “nacho chili cheese mess.”

 

 

With Hope holding court, the subject of Wales is always ready to surface. If you’re of Welsh extraction, you’re ratcheted up to most-favored status, and might even get a tour of the upper regions of the brick building — a legal “smoking room” with a pool table, many other games, and a wall-mounted water buffalo head. Peint O Gwrw (518-392-2337) is at 36 Main Street.

 

    Another of those straws that stir the drink is John Stoate, a self-described Man of Kent who named his pub in Rensselaer County’s Hoosick Falls after himself. According to the BBC, a “Man of Kent” hails from east of the River Medway (which flows through the county), while a “Kentish Man” is from the west. “It appears that the Men of Kent resisted William the Conqueror more stoutly than the Kentish Men, who weakly surrendered,” says the Beeb. This conclusion is vigorously disputed by offended Kentish men, but you get the point.

 

    Stoate bought the former roadhouse in the mid-1980s and transformed it into an English-style tavern. He has 14 taps going, not a “lite” beer among them. There’s the prized Smithwick’s as well as Fuller’s ESB, Twisted Thistle, and Old Speckled Hen. There’s also a selection of 80 to 100 bottled beers, “mostly English ales,” says Stoate.

 

The owner is routinely on hand behind the L-shaped bar. He greets you when you walk in, and has been described by one Albany aficionado as “a tremendous, wonderfully warm publican who can hold you in conversation for hours without your interest waning.” He’s done a bang-up job making the place welcoming; unusual British paraphernalia adorns the walls and ceiling, and you’ll find traditional English pub food like Yorkshire stew, ploughman’s lunch, and grilled sandwiches.

 

Stoate roamed the globe for almost 30 years before settling down at the gateway to rural Vermont, to let the world come to him. An hour at the Man of Kent is an adventure not to be missed. Even Kentish men are welcome. “They’re not too bad,” says Stoate. “They’re just born on the wrong side of the river.” The Man of Kent (518-686-9917) is at 4452 Route 7.

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