For the last four years I’ve been crisscrossing the Catskill Mountains like a modern-day Rip Van Winkle searching for hickster restaurants. What’s a hickster? It’s a hipster who, tired of paying ridiculous city rents, heads upstate looking for cheaper living arrangements. Missing the dining opportunities the city provides, hicksters have been opening their own restaurants. Who’d be surprised that these new eateries often resembled New York City bistros more than the red-sauced Italian joints, Irish bars, and country diners that have been flourishing in the mountains?
This summer I spent several days among the rolling green hills, craggy peaks, and roaring torrents of the Catskills, revisiting old places and new, trying to get a picture of how far the citification of country food has progressed. Here’s my report.
Prospect at Scribner’s Catskill Lodge, Hunter, NY — Cruising into the area’s quintessential ski resort from the east, a friend and I immediately spotted this new luxury resort perched on a hillside, featuring balconied units and a somber black exterior. With entrees in the $19 to $38 range, the resort’s restaurant must be among the most expensive in the Catskills. A dining room and deck offers spectacular views of Hunter Mountain, but the build-out is tacky and smells of knotty pine and shellac.
Nevertheless, we thoroughly enjoyed a wonderful plate of smoked duck breast, chanterelles, and roasted Hakurei turnips swimming in mussels foam like spume on the shoreline. The asparagus app was tasty, too, and so was the fresh bucatini with a sauce of English peas, mint, and ricotta, with many ingredients of our meal sourced locally. The roasted chicken in its morel cream sauce tasted like a rich person’s chicken pot pie. But really, we might as well have been dining in the West Village or Soho.
Table on Ten, Bloomville, NY — The next day we revisited the original hickster restaurant on Highway 10 in a small dairy farming hamlet. Now five years old, the place is flourishing. It was crowded for weekday lunch, with babies conspicuous among the patrons. A slightly expanded lunch menu featured eggs-in-a-skillet, baguette sandwiches, excellent cookies, and Four & Twenty Blackbirds pies (the dinner menu — available Friday and Saturday evenings — has expanded beyond pizza, too). We delighted in eggs poached in tomato sauce, a sort of country shakshuka, and in a Dutch spice cookie. A product line features T-shirts and Irving Farm coffee. — 52030 NY-10, Bloomville, NY
Lucky Dog Farm Store, Hamden, NY — This is the mother of all improvisational rural cafes, equal parts country hippy and hickster — a rustic storefront in a remote farming town, now 17 years old. The front of the store sells produce, frozen local meats, vintage apparel, antique postcards, and kitschy souvenirs, while the back devotes itself to a very comfortable café with mismatched furniture, serving a mixture of panini, soups, and savory pies. Served with a kale salad, the chicken pot pie was delectable, and meatloaf, chili con carne, Belgian waffles with fresh fruit, vegetable tarts, and cookies were also available on an ever-changing seasonal menu. — 35796 NY-10, Hamden, NY
Two Old Tarts, Andes, NY — Two old tarts refers to the couple who run this combination bakery and café deep in the Catskill Mountains on the Tremper Kill, a Dutch-named creek. The town is something of a tourist trap but a pleasant one, and the café has a sunny outdoor deck with a view. Cakes and pies compete for attention, and savory fare runs to sandwiches and meal-size salads. Breakfast all day is an attraction, including an egg and sausage sandwich on a Portuguese roll made in the bakery. The carrot cake wasn’t bad, either. It’s definitely a citified place, like something found in Chelsea Market. — 22 Lee Lane, Andes, NY
Bull & Garland, Hobart, NY — While Irish bars in the Catskills serving burgers and Guinness are common, this handsome tavern — housed in an historic crossroads inn dating to 1800 — is quite a different proposition in that it includes Scotch eggs, chicken liver pate, pies (chicken and ham for our visit), a seafood platter, and a fish and chips as good as any you’ve tasted before. Local craft beers and invented cocktails available. The Catskills has never seen anything quite like it. — 760 Main Street, Hobart, NY
Mama’s Boy Burgers, Tannersville, NY — If the ramped-up fast food burgers at Mama’s Boy seems a lot like those at Shake Shack, it’s probably no accident. The free-range meat is sourced nearby at an East Jewett Farm, and both sides of the patty are prodigiously seared. The foliage on top is vibrant in its freshness. Hofmann’s hot dogs from the legendary Syracuse meat packer are available in white and red versions, and so are tater tots, thick shakes, and soft serve in surprising flavors like German chocolate cake and espresso. Outdoor picnic tables provide views of the bustling tourist town not far from Kaaterskill Falls, the area’s premier hiking destination. — 6067 Main Street, Tannersville, NY
Here are a couple of great places from previous hickster reports:
Brushland Eating House, Bovina Center, NY — Located in an imposing storefront across the street from a branch of the mighty Delaware River, Brushland specializes in farm-to-table meals, and really comes alive in the summer when a crowd streams down from the surrounding mountains to appreciate it. Rather than serious, the menu is often playful, and may include roasted carrots in diverse colors, kale salad, guinea hen, pork schnitzel, and a “one-flip” burger that is popular among the village’s year-round residents, said to number around 500. This is probably the best restaurant in the Catskills. — 1927 Co Road 6, Bovina Center, NY
Phoenicia Diner, Phoenicia, NY — What was once a standard diner on the road that runs along the south side of Phoenicia — the region’s tubing and canoeing capital — has been spruced up via Brooklynite Mike Cioffi with a more modern menu along farm-to-table principals, while retaining the standard diner stuff in amped form. Thus there is a trout entrée featuring fish from a nearby hatchery, jazzy breakfast tacos, and a salad of watermelon and feta that provides abundant summer refreshment. —5681 NY-28, Phoenicia, NY
Miss Lucy’s Kitchen, Saugerties, NY — Located at the gateway to the upper Catskills, Miss Lucy’s Kitchen was one of the first in the region to espouse local and sustainable principals, and has continued to do so for a steadfast 14 years. The brick-clad dining room is decorated with flowered aprons, battered cooking vessels and kitchenware, and the menu runs to baguette sandwiches showcasing freshly made mozzarella, crisp pork belly with a honey glaze, farmed mushroom ragout, and salt cod fritters with jerk aoli — most ingredients are from local sources that are cited on the menu. Desserts like chocolate bread pudding and strawberry shortcake provide a sweet finish. — 90 Partition Street, Saugerties, NY
Check out the other stories in the series: