Even in fog, these dinner options are worth the risk.
By Hal Rubenstein
There was a curious omission in a recent New York Times article about how an increasing number of venerated open all-night eateries in Manhattan are now stopping service at 1 or 2am, and others that previously stayed open until then are now closing their kitchens at 10pm. Some of the reasons given had to do with out-of-town residing employees having to deal with abbreviated hours of public transportation, customer safety in neighborhoods that’ve gotten sketchier and the increased intoxification and decreased civilized behavior of famished night crawlers. But there’s another category the article overlooked entirely. A growing percentage of many popular restaurants’ core clientele are dining earlier.
It’s all COVID’s fault, of course. With no office to shlep to, housebound folks got used to jumpstarting dinner just to break the monotony of multiple, consecutive Zoom calls. Many of us are still working isolated at home, so any opportunity to run out the door can’t come soon enough. Hence, the uptick in requests for tables before Lester Holt and David Muir can sign off on the evening news.
The upside of this is that dining out Upstate is no longer the drastic adjustment it used to be. Fifteen years ago, while reviewing for New York magazine, I routinely made reservations between 8:30 and 9pm. So, when we first started coming Upstate, long before the pandemic, it felt as if the Hudson Valley had supplanted Boca Raton as the bastion of those seeking early bird specials. Dining rooms were full at 7pm, seating ceased around 9pm. Today, despite the recent influx of urban émigrés, things haven’t changed all that much, and it’s not so one can hit a spate of late night clubs and rooftop bars popping up just off the Taconic Parkway (when local buildings are rarely more than three stories high, rooftops lack the requisite drama), and more likely because, unless you live near a town like Kingston or Rhinebeck, most restaurants and cafes are at least 20 miles from your home via an unlit, curving, two-lane road. Dining earlier is more pragmatic, safer and healthier. But it better be worth the trip.
Last week, we drove to the Tavern at Rivertown Lodge in dense fog. It probably wasn’t the wisest idea, but there are two things Rivertown offers that I can’t get at home. So, I can only equate my disappointment at learning that the house had put away their frozen Negroni machine for the season to having your single mom admit that Herschel Walker is your biological father. The house’s icy gin, Campari, sweet vermouth and orange is the most addictively delicious cocktail for miles. I would happily order it coming in from a blizzard and am pondering a petition to make it available year-round, though in this land without Uber you should never order more than one and then be allowed to drive. The house sourdough bread, however, was still available, and despite all the lost-puppy-level wailing and hand-wringing that accompanied the sudden, and baffling closing of Breadfolks, just months after Food & Wine magazine deemed it the best bakery in the state (‘Thanks for making us such a success! Bye. Gotta go.’), no leavened dough on or off Warren Street can best the thick slices of this tangy, sharp, dense but porous bread. If they sold it by the loaf (I’ve asked numerous times), I’d drive in weekly for my fix.
But Rivertown’s appeal goes way beyond mere bread and booze, provided you’re an adventurous diner. Its menu is deceiving, perhaps even daunting. In fact, this may not be the ideal place to take friends or family members who simply eat to live or are satisfied with slight variations on the familiar. Even for those who consider themselves gustatorily fearless, you’re as likely to know every ingredient on the menu as you are to get Wordle on the second try three days in a row. (If, however, you frequently order dishes with ají amarillo, umeboshi glaze, pipián, anchoïade and hoja santa, I’m in humbled awe). As sure as Ryan Murphy’s Jeffrey Dahmer Netflix miniseries was a knee-slapping laugh riot, there’s no way you’ve already sampled any of Chef Efrén Hernández’s unexpected compositions unless you’re either his roommate or sous chef.
Chef Hernández is one clever and gifted fellow, whose drive for vibrancy nearly matches his ingenuity—so be brave and be rewarded. Endive is often relegated to a supporting role in salads and appetizers, and yet combining it with pistachios, cacao and gouda winds up highlighting its refreshing nutty bitterness. Conversely, foie gras often overtakes all attempts to harmonize with other ingredients but finds new appeal as a team player alongside a mélange of stewed Bartlett pears, fennel and pecans. Ricotta caught in the swirl of blueberry mostarda is sheer indulgence, like savory pudding for savvy grownups. For me, mackerel is a leap of faith. Sweet but oily, it’s easily my least favorite fish and the idea of it bathed in coconut milk and ají amarillo (a mild pepper with a mangolike fruity note) doesn’t read well. But it tastes so disorientingly good, I questioned Parker, our smart, charming waiter, as to whether the chef was holding out on an ingredient or two. Nope.
Grilled pork ribs boast neither a wet nor a dry rub, but a singularly delightful amalgam of sesame, jalapeño and umeboshi (a pickled Japanese plum). Tried once, it’ll tempt you every time you come here. We ordered it as an appetizer for the table so everyone could get one, otherwise we might’ve missed out on such standouts as a squid ink cavatelli that’s sparked by briny red crab and hoja santa, a peppery, savory leaf with a subtle smoky undertone somewhere between root beer and cocoa—I know. It reads weird. But as Evan Hansen says, “Words fail.” Your taste buds know better. You also don’t want to overlook a tender, juicy, luscious duck breast with a yin-yang of cherry and radish over a lightly scented mustard sauce. Wild blue fish is another strong fish choice made even more intense by a sauce based in anchovies and capers (anchoïade). It’ll satiate those partial to bluefish but may not win many converts, not like the succulent scallops, atop a bewitching swirl of parsnip buttermilk, under a shower of snack worthy fried turnips.
Desserts are decidedly not the house specialty. Occasionally there’s a damn good cobbler, but when I went, the choices were either a chocolate mousse, a dessert that has never made me dive in, and a clove ginger ice cream that’s working way too hard to be unique (but then herbal ice creams are as foolhardy as Brooks Brothers trying to do streetwear. No customer will be happy with the outcome). Still, you got to admire a house that when you want to switch to a soft drink because you’re driving, offers Coca-Cola bottled in México, where they still bottle it with cane sugar instead of high fructose syrup and you suddenly realize why this drink used to be a second nature choice.
I’ve only one major complaint about Rivertown Lodge Tavern. It’s not about the service, which is warm and knowing. And it certainly has nothing to do with the food. It’s that the interior lighting is so dim you can’t see how visually exciting the dishes are coming out of Chef Hernández’s kitchen without turning on your iPhone’s flashlight. I’ll happily drive home in that fog that still hasn’t lifted. But what’s plated at Rivertown deserves stage lighting or a follow spot. Then again, I could forgive everything for a frozen Negroni.
Rivertown Lodge Tavern
731 Warren Street Hudson, NY
518 512 0954
The Corner at The Hotel Tivoli
I live near Chatham, a handsomely restored town that’s sadly lacking a distinct identity except during its annual film festival, due to its Main Street of shops that feel randomly selected and the fact that the place pretty much folds in on itself by 5pm. I don’t live near Tivoli, but I’m more inclined to go there because, though it’s probably half the size, it radiates twice the charm. It’s obvious the moment you walk into The Corner at the Hotel Tivoli and are greeted like a returning friend by whomever is closest to the front door, regardless of whether they recognize you or not, that you’re welcome here. It’s obvious from eavesdropping on nearby conversations (you don’t have to be much of a snoop since sound travels easily in the restaurant’s three spare, well-lit spaces) that though the restaurant is there to service hotel guests, locals readily frequent The Corner. And it’s obvious from the delightfully oversized mid-century starburst chandeliers that dominate each interior dining area and the spacious, wide outdoor veranda, as well as the eclectic, hand-crafted garb of the breezily engaging staff, that The Corner wants you to relax your shoulders and lighten up while you’re in their store.
Whether behind the bar, on the floor or in the kitchen, everyone at the Corner is invested in you enjoying your time here. That said, the menu, not unlike the one at Rivertown Lodge, is small and specific. It doesn’t try to be everything for everyone. The chef, Christopher Colby Miller, has a definite bent toward strong juxtapositions of local produce, root vegetables, Mediterranean, North African and Middle Eastern spices. The quality and skill of his preparations are never in question. It’s just whether you favor his choices. This past summer, Miller’s menu offered several dishes—crunchy rock shrimp with watermelon radish and avocado, mussels zapped by jalapeño and ginger and corn, basil and ricotta agnolotti—that were as irresistible as a perfect tan line. Based on my personal tastes, his fall menu, is a little more problematic.
For example, I’d gladly buy a bottle of the bracing harissa spiked salad dressing Miller has crafted to toss sliced apples, goat cheese and radish over a bed of kale, but I have never understood why anyone would prefer this now popular green raw to spinach, romaine or arugula. Expertly cooked and scored beets lose some of their thrust because the surrounding slightly sweet labneh provides insufficient contrast. Strips of roasted squash flecked with pistachios are a welcome framing for burrata, but maple syrup dampens the delicate buttery richness of the cheese. The table next to ours, however, devoured the dish in minutes.
Much more successful are the entrées, some of which are justifiably popular holdovers from the summer menu, including spaghetti with cockles brightened by a savvy dash of preserved lemon, briny capers and a spark of chili. If you’re a fan of tagine, then you won’t be disappointed by chicken cooked with a gently aromatic blend of ras el hanout. Seafood stew is a hearty bowl of cockles, halibut, shrimp and mussels that might be even spunkier with a little less coconut milk and a little more red charmoula but it’s still a lot more vibrant than classic bouillabaisse. Thick slices of seared duck breast, accompanied by figs, rainbow chard, leeks and sweet potatoes could not be bettered. Simply super. And make sure to order the za’atar fries with extra saffron aioli. The best desserts are the rich chocolate torte and vivid blood orange sorbet.
One notable bonus about The Corner is that its wide, expansive bar presents a great option for those who find themselves hungry, solo and not in the mood for takeout. Each time we’ve dined in the bar room, there have been patrons perfectly content to be seated at the marble counter, in no rush to race through a meal, some with something to read, others ready to make conversation with the congenial bartender and some who rightfully believe good food makes for good company. Raw kale and I will never be friends. Chef Miller’s duck breast and I, however, are already BFFs.
The Corner at The Hotel Tivoli
53 Broadway, Tivoli, NY 12583
Daily Planet Diner
If you’re my contemporary, then you don’t remember growing up surrounded by strip malls featuring an endless succession of food chain eateries. The roadways weren’t overloaded with outposts of Applebee’s, Chipotle, Cheesecake Factory, Outback Steakhouse, Houlihan’s and Red Lobster. Instead, it was the golden age of uber diners. These establishments that commandeered every four-lane suburban turnpike, bore little relation to the original classic diners which resembled elongated Airstream trailers featuring a lineup of six booths under the windows on either side of the front door and a dozen seats along the counter. Rather, these were massive emporiums, clad in polished stainless alternating with lacquered panels in primary colors, framed in neon, seating at least 100, lit so they could be seen by John Glenn as he orbited Earth, boasting menus with nearly as many pages as a Jane Austen novel, offering fare ranging from western omelets to matzoh ball soup, chicken chow mein, moussaka, veal parmigiana and lobster thermidor. These grand diners were the go-to option for breakfast, lunch, early family dinner, pre-drive-in, after bowling league, post wedding reception where there hadn’t been enough food, après coital hunger pangs and bong induced munchies.
I remember my parents even dressed up to go to their favorite, Blue Bay Diner on Francis Lewis Boulevard in Fresh Meadows. It’s still in operation. Alas, many of them aren’t, done in by soaring real estate prices, dining habits elevated by more sophisticated options and tainted by the daunting proliferation of cheap, fast food. Lucky for us, there’s one that still thrives right off the Taconic Parkway on State Road 55 in LaGrangeville, NY.
For nearly two decades, starting back when we’d head up on Friday nights as Hudson Valley weekenders, we’ve dined regularly at Daily Planet Diner, waited on by succeeding members of the graduating classes at Poughkeepsie High School. The décor used to be a cluttered, poster-filled homage to Hollywood B movies of the ’40s and ’50s, awkwardly alternating with mounted vintage TV’s running clips from the early black and white days of television. The menu had guests marveling that the kitchen didn’t take up half the vast parking lot. The clientele on some nights seemed to comprise the rest of the student body who wasn’t working the floor, their families and teammates, sitting at tables of 8, 10 and 16. We were often the only deuce, and the only ones not dressed in sweatshirts and sweatpants. About half the patrons had ordered some form of breakfast for dinner. As for average portion size, an order of pancakes could handily feed a family of four and required about a quart of maple syrup. It took us years to admit that an order of skirt steak or a rack of ribs was more than enough for both of us. We originally stopped there because it was at a little more than the halfway mark of our trek. We continued to go there, not only because it was convenient and inexpensive, but because the food was really, sometimes impressively good.
Like so many other dining rooms, the pandemic clobbered Daily Planet Diner. But unlike many other Upstate eateries, it didn’t close for good. In 2021, it began seating people outside with a very limited menu. This year, after a renovation that stripped all the kitschy retro artifacts for cleaner mid-century décor it has fully opened, and though the menu no longer requires a bookmark, it’s still extensive. The local teens have returned as servers, pleasant and apple cheeked. And the food is still pretty good. What’s so surprising is how much of the fare, particularly vegetables and sauces, doesn’t come out of a can or doesn’t taste recently thawed. Much is fresh and freshly made. You might cock an eyebrow, but I don’t hesitate to order seafood paella, a rack of barbeque ribs, matzoh ball soup, chicken pot pie, pork chops with mashed potatoes or roast chicken in olive oil and garlic with cornbread and sausage stuffing
I’ve never ordered breakfast for dinner or at any time, though the waffles, omelets and flapjacks seem to be as popular and towering as ever, often followed by a formidable ice cream sundae. Daily Planet not only has a full bar, but they make malteds, ice cream sodas, root beer floats and egg creams. Sandwiches, paninis and wraps are so full you will probably toss the bread because it’s in the way. In fact, the only item I’ve never ordered again at Planet is the burger. It’s not a great one, which one might expect. But the grilled salmon with mushroom risotto will surprise you. Now, can the latter come close to Daniel Boulud’s roasted arctic char at his one Michelin starred Le Pavilion? Come on, really? But Daily Planet’s entrée is $23 while Boulud’s char is the main attraction of a $135 prix fixe dinner. Even better, you can savor your salmon while wearing sweatpants. Michelin would be wise to factor in stuff like that, especially for those of us who eat early and then have a long drive ahead. Even in a fog.
Daily Planet Diner
1202 NY-55, Lagrangeville, NY 12540