Working on a supper club piece in 2008, I heard from a couple of Wisconsin old-timers that the supper club had by legend originated in rural New York. And over the ensuing years when traveling upstate, I searched for supper clubs that might still be around. Then around the holidays in 2012, I hit paydirt in the small farming town of Ghent, north of Hudson in Columbia County.
There by the side of a rural highway stood Kozel’s Restaurant, founded in 1936. The building was long and low-slung, with a facade composed of brick and white siding. Inside was a foyer bedecked with plastic flowers where you could remove your boots and coats. Then the room opened out into a bar and dining area, separated by a wooden partition. A few regulars drank at the bar; the large dining room was half full with customers sitting next to the windows, which overlooked an auto body shop.
As in the Wisconsin examples, the menu was centered on red meat and fish, though most of the fish was of the saltwater variety. Present also was something missing from Wisconsin supper club menus: Italian food. My heart soared when the waitress, unbidden, brought a plate of raw carrots, radishes, and green onions for nibbling, and later an old-fashioned three-bean salad.
I asked the waitress the most popular drink, and she unhesitatingly told me it’s the old-fashioned. I asked her how it was served, and she said sweet or not sweet. I ordered the sweet and it came garnished with maraschino cherries and orange segments. I was instantly transported back to Wisconsin.
In the ensuing years I ate my way around the menu, enjoying steaks that were beautifully crosshatched, but invariably cooked a little too long; thick-cut prime rib, oozing pink juices; crisp fried chicken; hamburgers with good fries; overstuffed sandwiches; roast turkey with stuffing, and trout from a local hatchery. My friends and I became sadly reacquainted with the taste of frozen vegetables, but thrilled to receive a baked potato with sour cream, something we hadn’t had in years.
Meals were spread out-affairs; Kozel’s is not the type of place where you’re expected to eat and run. Bread baskets with plenty of butter were replenished, water glasses monitored and refilled, and the waitress never forgot to ask us, midway through the meal, if we wanted more raw vegetables or three-bean salad.
There wasn’t the interplay between bar and dining room seen in Wisconsin, though the drinking preferences and menu remained at least partly intact. Kozel’s doesn’t provide the greatest food in the world, even by Hudson Valley standards, but both upstate and in the city, it’s rare to find a place where guests are so well treated, where hospitality seems to be the main objective, rather than turning tables, upselling, and piling up cash. Here’s hoping Kozel’s remains open another 80 years.