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Eat Like a Local: Saratoga in Track Season

June 28, 2013

[Note from the Profussor: Last night I was at the sneak preview for Park Side Eatery in Saratoga. They are doing some great things–I’m particularly excited about their corned beef–but I need to transcribe my interview with the chef first, and that takes time. So for now, I’m pleased to present to you this guest post from Burnt My Fingers.]

By Burnt My Fingers

Saratoga may have finally escaped its boom-bust cycle for good. Two large new hotels are going up and a 13 screen downtown cinema will open this year, directly across Church Street from Jason Baker’s highly anticipated new restaurant.

The expansion reflects Saratoga’s success in making itself a year round tourist destination as well as the influx of well educated immigrants, who may work in Malta or Albany or Clifton Park but prefer to live in Saratoga. (Hopefully this means we’ll eventually have the base clientele to support real ethnic restaurants like Ala Shanghai in Latham, though we’re not there yet.)

Unfortunately, good times means that dining out in downtown Saratoga during tourist season will be an even bigger disaster—unless you enjoy long waits for casually prepared, overpriced meals served by an inexperienced wait staff. What do the locals do? (Other than renting their houses to the tourists and going to the Adirondacks or the shore, of course.) Here are a few tips.

Breakfast
One of Saratoga’s best attractions happens soon after sunrise, and it’s free. Get to the Saratoga Race Course as early as you can, while the steam is still rising off the infield and you can watch the horses being exercised. (Bring your camera.) There’s usually very knowledgeable commentary on the PA system about the horses, riders and trainers. You can visit a buffet which is supposedly improved but still overpriced; a better choice is to bring in your own coffee and a croissant from Mrs. London’s, or a bagel and schmear from Uncommon Grounds. Or, join us at Compton’s or Sarge’s Triangle Diner, two “locals” places with solid food and an opportunity to overhear the locals complaining about the traffic from the tourists.

Lunch 
Instead of waiting for night to fall and the prices to go up, visit us at noon when Saratoga on a sparkling summer day is at its finest. If you’re headed to the track, you’re permitted to bring in your own food and beverage in non-glass containers and eat in the picnic area. (Bring a folding chair because the tables immediately fill up when the Race Course opens at 10 am.) Go to Healthy Living in Wilton and get a Cuban Reuben and a small tub of delicacies from their pickle bar. Get a box of fried chicken from Hattie’s Chicken Shack in Wilton. (It tastes the same as the stuff on Phila Street and it’s cheaper.) Go to Ben and Bill’s Deli in the Route 50 Price Chopper where you can get a huge half-sandwich, a bag of Saratoga chips, cole slaw and a pickle for $5.99. Or go to Roma Imports on Washington and pick one of the region’s best subs. (The crowds are noticeably lighter at most of these establishments after first post at the Race Course, which happens approximately 1 pm.) Then stop by EBI on Excelsior and choose from a good selection of craft brews in cans.

If the track is dark (or not yet open—the season starts July 19 this year) visit the vegan buffet at Four Seasons, put together a meal in a compostable to-go box, and take it down the street to Congress Park. Be sure to get a large bowl of gazpacho if they’re serving it—world-class.

Dinner 
If you’re still in Saratoga and it’s dinnertime and you’ve got a parking spot, you probably feel ahead of the game. Unfortunately, things are about to go downhill. In preparing this post I visited one of my favorite on-the-edge-of-town spots on a weeknight in the hopes they’re far enough out they can be recommended as an option. Nope: the bartender confirmed they’ll be packed every night during track season and trying to train a new staff which will get their chops just about Travers time (last big weekend of the meet).

The key to enjoying Saratoga in the evening is to separate the strolling, people watching and boulevard sitting from the eating experience. Grab an empty seat at a sidewalk café if you can find one—doesn’t matter which. Order a drink and appetizers which will take forever to arrive but that’s okay, because you have a front row seat for the action. Or buy a gelato at Plum Dandy or a bag of kettle corn in the Downtowner Motel parking lot and just sit on the brick wall and enjoy the show. Then grab a bite at Bar-B-QSA down Route 9 on the way out of town. Come back and see us again—and don’t forget to bring money.

P.S. I sent you down Route 9 to leave Saratoga because it’s quicker, and night has fallen so you won’t notice the closed businesses and shabby motels catering to horse players down on their luck. But arriving in Saratoga should definitely be done via Union Avenue, the next exit to the north. It’s your opportunity to, as sportswriter Red Smith put it, “turn left and go back 100 years” as you proceed on a broad boulevard past Yaddo, then the Race Course, finally ending up at the medallion of fresh flowers at the top of Congress Park.

Burnt My Fingers is a Saratoga resident and cranky gourmand who has his own food and drink blog at http://www.burntmyfingers.com

 

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2013 10:24 am

    Nice post Otis and some really helpful tips. A few additional comments:
    I’ve lived in the area, just south of Saratoga, for 10 years; my husband since the 60’s. Growing up here, he religiously avoided eating in Saratoga during track season. I asked him to give it a try and we have had some really good experiences. We know that we need to be patient and we’ve met some really nice people while enjoying cocktails at Hattie’s and at Chianti. By the way, the pricing at both of these restaurants is reasonable. Hattie’s food is okay and we think Chianti is great – and have never been disappointed there.

  2. June 28, 2013 11:58 am

    1. Can’t believe this left out Comfort Kitchen. Also, the doughboys at Esperanto are a Saratoga institution, something everyone should try once.
    2. Plum Dandy doesn’t serve gelato — they serve froyo.
    3. There is indeed plenty of good dinner food, if you can handle the crowds. To get away from downtown a bit, one could always hit either Longfellow’s (fancy) or Mama Mia’s (not fancy).

    • June 28, 2013 2:57 pm

      Thanks KB.

      1/I love Comfort Kitchen, but am afraid they’ll be slammed in the summer like the other downtown places. I agree everybody should try a doughboy–once–but hate to be the one who enables that experience.
      2/good catch, thanks.
      3/I was specifically looking for a strategy to avoid crowds, which equate waiting in summer time. I’d rather be strolling down Broadway than standing in a restaurant’s tiny or nonexistent waiting room.

  3. June 28, 2013 3:55 pm

    Haha! What are we doing here? Trying to capitalize on the pre-track season surge in “where to eat in Saratoga?” Google searches?

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