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Robert Sietsema

Is Phoenicia Diner the Ultimate Upstate Hickster Restaurant?

Robert Sietsema looks at another trendy farm-to-table Hudson Valley restaurant

It’s summer again, the season when I head up to the Catskills in search of hickster eateries. What’s a hickster? Well, you already know plenty of people driven out of their apartments by high rents. But what if they relocated, not in another neighborhood of New York City, but in a small town upstate, where the rents were still really, really, really cheap? Hipsters who move upstate become hicksters. Just like hipsters, hicksters require restaurants, but mostly what they found up there were diners, pizzerias, and roadside taverns. So they started their own, and quickly found that the distance from farm to table could be astonishingly short.

Two years ago the subject of my summer hickster piece was Table on Ten, a wood-fired joint along the lines of Roberta’s in the dairy farming hamlet of Bloomville, population 213. During the day the place sold things like avocado toasts, salads, cookies, and creative homemade sodas in a laid-back, flower-bedecked farmhouse setting. But on Friday and Saturday, the dirt parking lot filled up with the cars of customers wildly excited about the pizzas, available only those evenings. The menu also offered pies trucked in from Brooklyn’s Four & Twenty Blackbirds. That’s totally hickster! I’m happy to report the place — now five years old — is still thriving.

Last year the subject was Brushland Eating House, an ambitious restaurant in a two-story white frame structure on the main street of Bovina, 151 miles north by northwest of New York City on a tributary of the Delaware River. The restaurant — which boasts a bar made from a bowling alley — is a project of former New York City residents Sohail Zandi, Sara Elbert, and chef Jordan Terry, whose collective resume included stints at Prime Meats, Dear Bushwick, and Pulino’s. Reflecting those experiences, the menu ran to wildly topped crostini, pork schnitzel served with a buttermilk-dressed salad, and chanterelle bucatini. Popular with area residents was a fully outfitted burger with great fries, just the way Brooklyn bistros do it.

In search of similar places, a friend and I scoured the landscape between Hudson and Oneonta and points south this year, up mountains and down vales; along roaring, cataract-studded creeks; and through towns small and large: some with sumptuous summer houses lurking behind locked gates, others a collection of abandoned storefronts with broken windows that told a different tale. We dined in many promising bôites, including a Malaysian-themed outdoor bar in Hudson, a coffee shop selling waffle-wrapped wieners on sticks in Margaretville, a bakery café with luscious pastries in Saugerties, and a biker barbecue aimed at families in Grand Gorge. For one reason or another, none quite merited the full hickster designation.

Phoenicia Diner Robert Sietsema

Then we dropped by Phoenicia Diner, after spotting a display ad for it in Edible Hudson Valley and Catskills — a sure sign of culinary hicksterism. It’s located on the state highway that bypasses Phoenicia, a village west of Woodstock known for its tubing on nearby Esopus creek, a sleepy place where VW buses with peace signs in the windows park in overgrown driveways. Flaunting its 60s architecture, Phoenicia Diner operated like a normal diner until it ran out of steam and closed in 2011. The next year it was bought by Mike Cioffi, a Brooklynite who had moved upstate after working as a builder of movie and TV sets. He had no previous restaurant experience.

With the help of Glickman Schlesinger Architects he refurbished the diner — with extra chrome, hanging globe lighting, tongue-and-groove ceilings, and rippled glass dividers — but kept the original bones intact. The logo from Gabriele Wilson Design features a jazzy 60s station wagon, its roof stacked high with camping and sports equipment, while the walls and paper menu — which doubles as a placemat — make reference to many aspects of life and culture in the Catskills, with pride and perhaps a bit of reverence. Web links are provided for surrounding attractions. Alienating the locals was clearly not on the agenda.

We arrived around 2 p.m. on a Monday, and were surprised to find the place nearly mobbed, with a diverse crowd ranging from ponytailed oldsters to ear-ringed millennials. The place opens early and serves breakfast and lunch exclusively, open every day and closing at 5 p.m. in the summer. The menu consists of breakfasts (including stylish skillets), lunches (sandwiches, soups, and salads are the categories), and a few larger meals called platters. A separate card flogs bespoke cocktails, local beers and wines, and daily specials.

Above: breakfast tacos and trout platter. Below: Salad with watermelon and feta.

More interesting, perhaps, is the way the menu divides almost 50-50 into revamped diner classics and modish modern fare. In the former category find things like French toast, salmon on a bagel, burgers, and tuna sandwiches. But all are given locavoric, eco-minded, seasonal, and other stylish twists: the meatloaf, for example, is made with grass-fed local beef and served with mashed potatoes and sautéed greens. Other dishes seemed calculated to attract city slickers accustomed to bistro fare, including an avocado and salmon tartine, CBLT (crab cake BLT), and a fried chicken waffle sandwich. Prices are kept low, so that a full meal is likely to cost you $10 to $15, and plates come stacked high.

The pair of faddish breakfast tacos we tried were excellent, a forest of greenery and scrambled eggs dotted with chorizo. A trout platter featured a pan-fried specimen from a nearby hatchery that came splayed and perfectly cooked, with fingerlings and grilled asparagus on the side. Featuring watermelon, feta, arugula, red onions, and toasted almonds, a salad dressed with balsamic tasted as if it might have been spirited up from Greenwich Village or Carroll Gardens, only better. Only the minted chocolate buttermilk pie disappointed; the crust was thin and hard as a rock. Maybe Four & Twenty Blackbirds should have been summoned.

Cioffi is certainly onto something in Phoenicia. He’s invented a formula whereby a modern culinary agenda is promoted and farm-to-table values are preserved in an establishment that can be enjoyed by tourists, indigenous locals, and, yes, hicksters. The prices are low enough and the food familiar enough that all constituencies are satisfied, yet he’s tweaked the diner idiom enough that the food is consistently exciting. In fact, one glance at the menu, and you’ll be flummoxed over what to order — it all sounds so good. Expect to find more places like Phoenicia Diner dotting the Catskills in the future.

Robert Sietsema is Eater NY's senior critic. See his archives here.

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