SCOTIA — The Turf Tavern’s name doesn’t reflect its menu—it serves food from both land and sea, either alone or in the classic surf-and-turf combinations.
Tom Gallant, who with wife Maria Gatta-Gallant is only the third owner of the Scotia landmark in its nearly 80-year history, said the name has an origin that made more sense when it was chosen: There was no Northway, so folks heading north to the Saratoga Race Course would take state highways, and turn onto Route 50 at the corner where Turf Tavern sits.
Back in 1940, “turf” was a common term for the sport of horse racing, though it now refers only to the grass surface on some courses.
The more important question than the name’s origin might be: How does a place last eight decades under the same name in the fickle restaurant business?
Just serve great food in a comfortable atmosphere six days a week, Gallant said.
“Consistency, pride in our work, from our dishwashers to our cooks to our servers,” he explained. “My wife runs the front of the house, I run the kitchen.”
Last Tuesday evening, the parking lot was nearly full and the kitchen its usual beehive of activity. A low hum of conversation filled the dining rooms as dinner progressed.
Gallant describes the vibe as “casual elegance,” which seems about right — it’s a good balance of formal and comfortable.
The menu is classic American — hand-cut steaks, fresh seafood, salads, pasta. Gatta-Gallant has been adding her baking skills to the mix as well, and she now has a regular presence on the dessert menu.
“She makes a spectacular hummingbird cake,” Gallant said. “It’s a little bit of Southern deliciousness. It’s unique.”
The couple has owned the Turf Tavern for nearly a quarter-century, buying it in 1996 from the Karamanos family, who’d run it since the 1950s.
It has been good to Maria and Tom, and allowed them to send their four children to college. But as anyone in the restaurant industry knows, the money is hard-earned, with heavy work and long hours.
PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Owners Maria and Chef Tom Gallant at the Turf Tavern in Scotia Wednesday, April 17, 2019.
None of the children has voiced any plans to follow their parents into the business.
“Maybe they saw the grind we put in.” Gallant said. “It’s a lot.”
But he allowed: “Pride comes when you put a solid workday in.”
Gallant has spent his adult life in the business.
“When I was a kid in the Boston area, I was a caddie, and I hung out at the snack bar. I sort of enjoyed watching the guys in the restaurant and the snack bar.”
There was an excellent vocational education program in his school district, and Gallant got on the culinary track.
An internship with Disney followed, then jobs at Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center in Florida, then a long stint at Marriott’s old food service division. The last assignment was at GE Global Research in Niskayuna, across the Mohawk River and downstream from the Turf Tavern, whose owners were getting ready to sell the place.
PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Seared Scallops with Rigate and Spinach from the Turf Tavern in Scotia Wednesday, April 17, 2019.
Gatta-Gallant’s uncle was friends with the Karamanos family, and alerted Tom and Maria to the impending opportunity.
The couple bought the Turf Tavern, and got a little advice from the departing owner: Change the name, which by 1996 didn’t make quite as much sense as in 1940. He said he wished he had done so himself, back when he bought it.
No thanks, Tom and Maria decided — by that time, the name was too well-known to lose.
And so it remains Turf Tavern. But the place today is significantly changed in size and layout from the Turf Tavern of 1940. With multiple expansions, the dining areas and banquet hall each seat about 100, and the kitchen is sufficient that both sides of the house can operate at the same time. The only thing they can’t do is function as a single 200-seat venue — the dining and banquet areas are too widely separated by the kitchen.
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The restaurant also has an off-site catering business. Gallant said they considered food trucks at one point but opted not to join the boom.
Turf Tavern is a neighborhood place frequented by generations of locals but it also draws from beyond Scotia and Glenville, thanks to word of mouth and a little advertising here and there.
Gallant is especially proud when someone from northern Saratoga County drives past a bunch of places closer to home to eat at his restaurant.
“It’s nice to see folks coming from areas very populated with restaurants,” he said.