Saratoga Race Track
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher
In the 1920s the fashionable New York resort Saratoga Springs was a happy hunting ground for well-heeled families with marriageable daughters, for in the summer season eligible bachelors were in ready supply here. Since those times Saratoga has had its ups and downs, but these days it is decidedly up especially during the warmer months. Set in the foothills of the Adirondacks, Saratoga is again a popular watering hole.
An accident of geology accounts for the earliest visitors. Mohawks and Iroquois shot deer, moose and bear, which congregated at the area’s abundant mineral springs. The Indians’ fruitful hunting ground was named Sarachtogue, "hillside of a great river," and "place of the swift river."
During the American Revolutionary War Saratoga was the site of the first major defeat of the British Army. On October 17, 1777 British General Burgoyne surrendered his troops to colonial forces, thus encouraging the French to support the rebels.
In the ensuing centuries, a great deal of history was made here. Decades later there is much more to Saratoga than there was some 80 years ago during that Gilded Age.
Now there are worlds within worlds—the ballet world, the music world, the college world and the most popular one, that of the track. The town’s lists of firsts and oldest would as they say, choke a horse. Despite the expansion of attractions, the Saratoga seems caught in a time warp, physically at least. The homes, hotels and stores look like they date from the 19th century and that after their completion time stood still. A strong preservation program is in evidence.
Broadway, the main commercial street, was, in fact, laid out by Gideon Putman in the early 1800s to connect the upper and lower villages. For a complete description of the city’s architectural styles, pick up a brochure at the Visitor’s Center and use it to guide you on a strolling tour along Broadway.
Another leaflet points the way to a tasting tour at 16 public springs that spout naturally carbonated water. The Iroquois Indians were the first to know about the cure, which came from not only soaking in the mineral springs, but from drinking it, too.
The largest and most popular bath houses are the Lincoln and Washington Baths, which opened respectively in 1930 and 1935. Located near and in Saratoga Spa State Park, these facilities hold individual tubs. The tubs are filled with warm effervescent water. Many patrons feel as though they are sitting in aqua mineral con gas. After the bath an attendant wraps you in warm sheets and leads you to a bed to rest. Spa services include facials, massages, body and beauty treatments.
Saratoga has grown as a cultural center in the last century. Certainly the founding of the well thought of liberal arts school, Skidmore College, has strengthened community commitment to higher education. Tang Teaching Museum, an adjunct of the college, has fostered an interest in art. The opening of the Performing Arts Center now brings to town the New York City Ballet in July and the Philadelphia Orchestra in August, as well as operatic and jazz performances. At Yaddo, only the gardens are open to the public, but the presence of an institute that supports artists and writers by offering long stays for the purpose of working enhances the reputation of the area.
No one would argue that the largest crowds are drawn to the area because of the Saratoga Race Track, which opened in 1863. The six-week span begins at the end of July and ends on Labor Day weekend. For a short course in the history of the track’s greats, wander through the National Museum of Racing to see the silks of famous stables, the names of horses, trainers and jockeys and the portraits of legendary owners.
The Travers, the most important race of the summer, occurs late in August. During the period when the thoroughbreds race, one of the most inspired traditions is breakfast at the track served on the clubhouse porch. For horseplayers this is a chance to watch an equine ballet as colts and fillies dance through their workouts. After breakfast hordes of fans tour the stable areas.
As the racing season winds down, the Saratoga Final Stretch, a music festival takes place on Saturday and Sunday nights before Labor Day. In 2004 nine bands—jazz, bluegrass, classical, folk, country, Latin and Cajun, including vocalists—positioned themselves on Broadway and created an electric atmosphere along the promenade. Crowds wandered from band to band pausing every few blocks to listen to the entertainment. At some of the stops people danced to the music. Little ones stepped to the sounds, too, and seemed to be having the time of their lives.
Saratoga is special. The people who live there love it and when you leave some Saratogan may say to you, "Thanks for coming. See you next year." And there’s a good chance he will.
The Chestnut Tree Inn, a B&B, in a converted family home personifies the friendliness and informality of Saratoga. It is so named because the property is said to contain what is possibly the last live chestnut tree in town. Owners, Cathleen and Bruce Deluke, he an antiques dealer, have hosted guests in their seven bedrooms for the last 16 years. Located at the end of a quiet residential street, the two-story house’s fanciful Victorian details come into sight just as you turn the corner. The grey and pink shingled and clapboard inn has gingerbread trim, dormer windows and white wicker furniture on a front porch as wide as the building. A garden with a white picket fence sits on the left of the side porch.
Each room has its own individual quirky décor. Ours, a plush burgundy, held furniture like that in Grandma’s house. The English and American antiques on display had been purchased by Bruce during his business travels. The most original detail is the collection of vintage wedding dresses, one of them worn by Cathleen’s mother, and a christening gown hanging in the hallways. The
gowns are so stylish that you want to try them on and ask whether they are for sale.
Cathleen and Bruce invite their guests to sit down in the living room, breakfast room or outside in the patio to chat and get acquainted. Returning clientele become friends. Among them are William Grimes, former dining critic of the New York Times, and his wife who have been staying at Chesnut Tree for 11 years. Grimes knows his restaurants. With a little help from him, the Delukes are able to make good suggestions about where to dine.
Chestnut Tree Inn, 9 Whitney Place, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866. Tel. 888-243-7688, 518-587-8681.
Inn at Saratoga
The Inn at Saratoga is the oldest one in town and has been in continuous operation since 1848.
Located right on Broadway at the intersection of Circular Street, it has a large and shaded private courtyard. The dining room is done in a turn-of-the-century motif with arches, dark colors, chandeliers made of glass spheres and floral paintings that you wouldn’t hang in your own home, but look fine here. The secluded courtyard is the perfect spot for finishing the morning paper and a last cup of coffee.
The dining room has a good reputation and is popular with guests and non-hotel guests, who often begin their evenings in the airy lounge whose floor-to-ceiling windows face the street.
The main house contains 38 nicely appointed suites and rooms. One year ago the old Brownell Cottage on an adjacent lot was annexed and refurbished into four suites. The accommodations in the cottage are the inn’s most pricey, with very grand bathrooms that include oversized steam showers and Jacuzzis.
Inn at Saratoga, 231 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866. Tel. 800-274-3573.
Chez Sophie Bistro
Bar at Chez Sophie Bistro
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher
During one of his stays at Chesnut Tree Inn William Grimes helped put Chez Sophie Bistro on the map when he wrote in the New York Times, "three and a half hours to France by car."
During the 35 years that Chez Sophie has been serving unlikely food in this unlikely location, it has had three addresses. Today it is ensconced, possibly permanently, in a gleaming stainless steel ‘50s roadside diner in Malta, a village just south of Saratoga.
Expecting a fancy exterior, we nearly drove by the restaurant. Despite an in-your-face sign, we didn’t see the bistro until we stopped across the road and a villager pointed out that we were looking directly at it.
The inside has been transformed into two Art Deco-style dining rooms, one with a long bar, stools and a clock that might have been found at a Parisian flea market. On display are artwork and sculpture by the original owner, Joseph Parker. We arrived in daylight, but because the room was dimly lit, the atmosphere turned romantic as time went on.
The menu is tweaked daily and is based on "fresh ingredients and inspiration." Entrees are listed with their sources; most of the purveyors are local farmers. On a separate sheet 20 suppliers, many of them located nearby, appear along with the products that the restaurant buys from them.
Rye bread and white bean spread are so good that you want to ask for more, not withstanding the fact that a big, but well-paced dinner is ahead. An eggplant and linguine appetizer dressed with sesame oil had a pleasantly smoky taste. A crisp salad composed of organically-grown baby greens was tossed with a slightly sweet, but tangy house vinaigrette. Hot soup prepared with red roasted beets was seasoned with pepper, perhaps to balance the sugar in the root vegetable.
Roasted pheasant with port and cream sauce was surprisingly succulent. When we mentioned this to our hostess, Cheryl Parker, a second generation family member, she said that the fowl had been farm grown as opposed to the often served dry pheasant raised in the wild. Red deer, a type of American elk, napped with a cassis reduction, was tender and flavorful, but again tasted of black pepper. Sides of crunchy barley in shells and a mix of Yukon potatoes and root vegetables were well paired with our main choices. My one criticism of the chef, Paul Parker, is that he uses pepper too frequently and too heavily.
The desserts were excellent. Ginger and grape combined well in sorbet and both flavors came through clearly. Blueberry cobbler was rich, but not cloying.
The restaurant has an extensive list of beers, wines and wine by the glass.
Chez Sophie Bistro, Route 9, just south of 1-87, Malta, NY, Tel 518-583-3538.
In summer at the Saratoga Lake Bistro at Brown’s Beach some guests choose to dine out of doors on a terrace facing the water and marina. Strictly speaking that water is a lake, yet it has the feel of a beach on a sound. At dusk hundreds of sea gulls push the bathers off the sand and claim the territory as their own. Like curtains stretched across the sky, pink streaks turning to orange behind the clouds create a free flowing design. The marine blue restaurant is decorated like a waterside shack and is lit with ship lanterns.
On weekends a raw bar and facilities for steaming seafood are set up on the deck. Because of their saltiness, Eric Masson, chef-owner, suggested pairing fresh oysters and clams with a slightly salty Muscadet from the Loire Valley. The sauces, horseradish and mignonette, accompanying the raw seafood were properly tart. Oysters and clams pernod had just the right amount of garlic.
Filet mignon au poivre was prepared from a tender cut of beef, but was spiced with too many peppercorns. Duck breast came with delicious raspberry sauce. Portions are oversized.
A dessert of fondant au chocolat was densely rich and covered with a heavenly sauce.
Shame on Masson for serving melted cafeteria-style butter in tiny plastic packets. A restaurant with the prices and aspirations—2004 was its first season—of this one needs to serve good- quality butter kept cold over ice.
Saratoga Lake Bistro serves better wines by the glass than most restaurants. With the beef and duck we drank a rich and full bodied Red Zinfandel tasting of cherries.
Saratoga Lake Bistro at Brown’s Beach, 511 Route 9P, Saratoga Lake, NY 12866. Tel. 212-587-8280.