When horse racing fans go looking for a great dining experience away from downtown Saratoga Springs, more likely than not they’ll choose the Wishing Well Restaurant.
Just north of the city on Route 9 in the town of Wilton, the Wishing Well has been drawing the racing crowd for just under 75 years and continues to be a huge part of the Saratoga summer season.
Originally built as a Colonial-style farmhouse in 1823, it has been a restaurant since 1936 and has undergone two substantial additions, the first in 1940 and another in 1976.
But despite becoming larger, it has retained the cozy atmosphere of the original farmhouse. And while Robert A. Lee’s business does pretty well throughout the year, now is the time when things get really busy.
“The people who run a business in the Saratoga area live for the summer season,” said Lee, whose father, Robert W. Lee, bought the restaurant in 1968. “Make no mistake about it. The racing season is what Saratoga is all about.”
Members of the racing crowd have enjoyed dining at the Wishing Well since John W. Hedricks of Utica bought the place from Margaret Stiles and opened the restaurant 73 years ago. Some of the sport’s biggest names, as well as other celebrities, are regulars at the Wishing Well.
“This was a popular place with racing clientele long before my family was involved,” said Lee. “We’ve always had jockeys, owners and trainers and other celebrities in here. They know they can kind of sail under the radar in here. They enjoy what we do, and they come back and see us again.”
Well-known trainers such as D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito are among the regular summer visitors to the restaurant, as is former New York Giants’ coach Bill Parcells and 2009 Kentucky Derby and Preakness-winning jockey Calvin Borel.
“A lot of times I’ll hear two or three days later that the guy at table 83 was so-and-so, or whoever,” said Lee. “But we get to know them because they keep coming back, and we look forward to seeing them again after 11 months.”
When Bob and Brenda Lee bought the Wishing Well more than 40 years ago from Jack and Irving Zeibert of Troy, they moved into the upstairs with their four children. That very first night, a fire broke out downstairs.
“We didn’t have a phone yet, but there was a pay phone downstairs and I can remember my father running downstairs, grabbing a dime off the cash register and calling the fire department,” Lee said. “It didn’t do that much damage. It was mostly just the smoke, and fortunately we haven’t had anything bad like that happen since.”
Lee’s father had been a sales manager for Ballantine Beer and had also run a restaurant in Morristown, N.J., before moving to the Saratoga area. After purchasing the restaurant, the family lived upstairs for five years before finding another home not too far away from the business. The elder Lee became a member of the New York State Racing Commission and a long-time box holder at the race course, and when he died of cancer at the age of 72 in September of 2002, they named the fourth race of the day “The Wishing Well” in his honor.
“If you were sitting at the bar waiting for a table, Bob knew it and he would come along and grab your drinks and escort you to the table when it was ready,” said Kathleen Doescher, a Schenectady native who has lived in Wilton for 56 years and worked at the Wishing Well in the ’80s. “He was just a wonderful man, and it was a great place to work. My mother and I used to make corn sticks in the kitchen during the racing season, and my daughter and son have also worked there.”
Doescher remembers when Saratoga socialite Mary Lou Whitney and Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat, would frequent the establishment.
“They’ve always had famous people as customers, and I can remember Bob singing his favorite song, ‘What a Wonderful World,’ at the bar,” said Doescher. “It’s always been a special place and it still is.”
The younger Lee left the Saratoga area, went away to school and after working as a cook at an inn in Vermont, got into the newspaper business. In 1992, he returned to the family business.
“I was a reporter in the Hudson Valley and in Pennsylvania for about five years, but at some point I always knew I would come back to Saratoga,” said Lee. “It’s a great spot, but sometimes you have to be away from things awhile before you really appreciate them. I started assuming more and more responsibility for the place when I got back in 1992, and then my dad died in 2002.”
Lee’s mom is still a part of the family business as is his wife, Mary Alice, and their two children, Christina (11) and Max (9). During the summer, the full- and part-time staff of about 20 employees increases to 60. During the summer season, the place opens every night for dinner — 4 p.m. on Sundays and 5 p.m. the other days — and a pianist provides live entertainment every night.
Visitors enter through the bar, which is the 1940 addition. They then can move to either the left side of the restaurant, the original old house, or go down a few steps to the right into another dining area, the 1976 addition. The place seats about 175 people and if needed there is another small dining room upstairs.
There are photographs and paintings on the walls throughout, usually relating to horse racing. However, there is one autographed photo of Saratoga native and pro golfer Dottie Pepper, and behind the bar is a large mural of a horse-drawn coach carrying four riders as it approaches a home. It is approximately 16 feet by 4 feet, and was painted by Art Sontag for the restaurant soon after it opened.
“It’s a very unique painting, and people are always coming in asking about it,” said David “Hook” Steele, who has been the bartender at the Wishing Well for the past 12 years. “We do have regular bar customers, and I’ve really enjoyed serving them. It’s a great place to work.”
While the drinks and conversation tempt some, it is the food that usually draws customers, Lee said.
“We’re known for our steaks, lobsters, lamb chops and fresh seafood,” said Lee, who last year hired a new chef, Pat Longton. “One of the challenges of running a restaurant is to continue to move with the times while at the same time paying homage to your loyal clientele and knowing that they’re accustomed to certain items. Pat’s been great helping to give us a fresh perspective on our presentation while we’ve been tweaking our menu a bit.”