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Albany’s Marvelous Taverns

February 9, 2010

For all that I complain about the state of food in Albany, there is one perpetual bright spot on the landscape.  And that is the region’s marvelous taverns.

There is no equal to these establishments on the West coast.  Perhaps the closest match would be California’s Hofbräus.  But that comparison doesn’t do the tavern justice.  On some level they share an aesthetic, and probably a similar history, despite their difference in geography.  But it is geography that I think really shaped the institution of the tavern.

Upstate New York is cold.  And its winter is long, dark and bleak.  The antidote to these inhospitable living conditions is the warmth and conviviality of the tavern.  Almost every neighborhood can lay claim to at least one tavern, and it’s a gathering place.  Bodies make warmth.  It’s a place for people to eat hearty portions of comforting food at reasonable prices.  And it’s a place for people to imbibe and rekindle their spirits.

If you are from around these parts, you know all of this.  Maybe you will care to read my love letter to the institution.  But if you live beyond the Capital District, you should read about what we do well out in this corner of the world.

My first experience with the form was when I stepped into Ralph’s Tavern.

One surefire way of finding a good place to eat is by looking for two things.
1)    A building that appears to be in dire need of repairs or at least cosmetic updates.
2)    A full parking lot at mealtimes, despite the rundown exterior.

Ralph’s has these in spades.  The building could be your grandmother’s house.  Except that it is surrounded by parking spaces that are generally filled with cars.  Inside the entryway one is offered two doors that lead to different pleasures.  The door on the left will take you to the restaurant.  The door on the right will take you to the bar.

The menu at taverns is bar food, and more often than not with a heavy dose of Italian American dishes.  Little is better than chasing the winter blues away than a basket of wings, a pizza and a pitcher of beer.  That is, unless you get a sausage sandwich on a torpedo roll with onions, peppers and marinara sauce, smothered in melted mozzarella.  But you could easily make a meal out of a hearty bowl of pasta fagiole with some warm bread.

Portions are gigantic.  I have never seen anyone finish a plate of pasta.  Mrs. Fussy usually orders a half-portion of pasta and still may leave some on the plate.  Young Master Fussy’s kid size portion of penne with Alfredo sauce is probably a perfect portion for a sensible adult serving.

And prices are low.

Could the food be better?  Sure.  But one doesn’t go to a tavern for great food.  One goes for soul-soothing comfort foods.

A while back I wrote about two different pizzas on New Scotland Avenue in Albany, Pasquale’s and The Fountain.  Pasquale’s makes a far superior pizza, but the place is almost always empty.  The Fountain is generally packed at dinner, but their pizza is merely adequate at best.  

People claim to love The Fountain’s pizza.  I think what they love is the toppings.  In some ways the pizza at The Fountain epitomizes tavern food.  It’s a mediocre crust, topped with decent sauce, an absolute ton of thick cheese, and plenty of fatty meat.  It is tasty, gets you to where you want to go, and doesn’t cost a lot of money.  And if you eat it in the restaurant, you are surrounded by other people enjoying themselves, which given the desolation of an Albany winter, is not a feature to overlook.

Pasquale’s makes much better pizza with better ingredients.  But it’s more expensive and the place just doesn’t have the same warmth.

Just last week the entire Fussy clan went out to dinner at The Orchard Tavern.  Despite a scathing review by Celina Ottaway in the Times Union, early on a Friday night the place was packed.  The bar had people standing three people deep in places, and I carried the kiddo past the crowd into the dining room.

Once seated, it was loud enough that Little Miss Fussy’s protestations went completely unnoticed by neighboring tables.  Mrs. Fussy and I were able to relax with beers, and recharge on the Orchard’s signature rectangular pizza (which must be asked for “crispy”) and wings (which next time I will order hot), while the boy ate his grilled cheese sandwich and French fries.

And even if the wings weren’t the best I had ever eaten, they were significantly better than even the best wings at the Times Union Wing War.  And without a doubt the meal was better than a comparable meal at Friday’s.

I hope the people of Albany know how lucky they are to have their taverns.  I fear sometimes they are taken for granted.  They should be enjoyed now, because they may not be around forever.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Jessica R permalink
    February 9, 2010 12:27 pm

    Here is a plug for Troy’s Marvelous Taverns too!
    – The South End Tavern (home to the famous “Ladies Entrance” sign)
    – The Red Front
    – Holmes and Watson
    – The Ale House
    – Knotty Pine Tavern

  2. llcwine permalink
    February 9, 2010 1:06 pm

    a few more:
    Otis & Oliver’s in Latham
    Mousetrap in Latham
    McIntyre’s in Watervliet

  3. February 9, 2010 7:53 pm

    Another good barometer of a true regional tavern is when their Friday specials involve seafood, likely fried. (Bonus points if this is true of Wednesdays as well.)

    “Fasting” with a fishfry, and fried shrimp, and whatever else can come out of the water and go into the oil, is a Catholic culinary choice that, since the Second Vatican Council, has only been relevant during the Lenten months — which, incidentally, begin a week from tomorrow.

    In the old-fashioned tavern, this institution continues year round, not so much out of dogma, as this is just the way they’ve always done it.

    Look no further than Troy’s South End Tavern for an example of this at work. I’m sure there are others.

    Thanks for the writeup, Daniel. I’m convinced that you’re the Jane Goodall of Albany restaurants.

  4. February 9, 2010 8:41 pm

    I have to suggest Sutters for wings and burgers (get the cheddar sauce). Good article Dan.

  5. Ellen Whitby permalink
    February 9, 2010 10:18 pm

    Orchard Tavern. I’m a fan.

  6. February 10, 2010 1:09 am

    Some of my teen friends tell me that the best place to dine with kids is Town Tavern. Haven’t tried it yet, but it’s on the list.

  7. phairhead permalink
    February 10, 2010 9:08 am

    Sch’dy: The Grog Shop
    Scarborough’s

  8. kerosena permalink
    February 10, 2010 12:13 pm

    Had our first not-so-great pie from The Fountain a few weeks ago. Center of pie stretched too thin, undercooked and flabby, and missing an essential ingredient (cheese). The outer portion was ok. We alternate who gets to choose the toppings- pepperoni when it’s his choice, white broccoli for me. The bad pie was on Ladies’ Choice day.

    I guess we’ll take a little break from The Fountain. Truth is, we’ve been neglecting The Orchard lately, anyway.

    A few Orchard tips- ordering multiple toppings leads to sogginess. Skip the nachos.

  9. February 10, 2010 3:33 pm

    I agree completely with the pizza at The Fountain. It’s not the best, but the toppings make it a bit better.

    As for Ralph’s, I adore that place. I was introduced to it way back when I was a freshman in college and I keep going back. And yes, the portions are huge- I can just about finish the half portion by myself!

  10. Brendan Noonan permalink
    February 10, 2010 11:07 pm

    Thanks for listing us Daniel B. We here at the Orchard appreciate your continued business.

  11. Glenn permalink
    February 11, 2010 9:04 pm

    I’m a big fan of all three – the Orchard, the Fountain and Pasquale’s. The Orchard’s shrimp scampi pizza is fantastic and their wings are meaty and tangy. And, the patio music in the summer can be really fun. The Fountain pizza is great because of the garlic – you can never have too much garlic. Pasquale’s is crowded sometimes and certain meals, like chicken parm, are wonderful. It’s a great place to bring a bottle of wine (or two) and take your time socializing with friends. Find the things that work for you in each place and appreciate each for their strengths. And appreciate each for their owners, their staff and your neighbors who you will find there.

  12. Dan permalink
    February 20, 2010 9:57 pm

    The Fountain has the best pizza around. They’ve worked at crafting their pies for years, and for you to put them down with your snobby-ass comments is wrong. Just because you have your nose in the air and expect perfection everywhere you dine doesn’t mean you have to demean an establishment because it isn’t up to your snobby ass standards. Go back to California if you can’t find food good enough for you here, and do us all a favor.

  13. Tonia permalink
    February 21, 2010 2:03 pm

    Now I’m going to have to go try all three places just to see what the fuss is about.

    My favorite ‘tavern’ has always been Ralph’s for pizza.

    Dan, I gotta say, I’m right there with you on the pizza thing though. I usually make my own crust/sauce at home so when I go out its got to be reallllllllllllllllly worth it. There aren’t too many places that make pizza ‘right.’

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