Mother Goldsmith remembers it well. Monty Woolley, Oscar-nominated movie star, was in his nightly seat, seat No. 1, at the bar of Mother Goldsmith’s elegant eating spot, The Country Gentleman, painted flamingo pink, on Saratoga’s south side.
“Monty had a few drinks in him, not drunk, but feeling pretty good about himself,” Goldsmith says, “when all of a sudden this guy, obviously loaded, comes up behind him and gives Monty a huge bear hug.”
“Thornton Wilder, you drunk S.O.B., you haven’t drawn a sober breath in your entire life,” Mother recalls Woolley shouting for all of the patrons to hear. “And that’s the way Saratoga was back then,” he says, “one night, Thornton Wilder, next night, who knows who?” And note that I said “he,” because Mother Goldsmith, as anyone just a little familiar with the Spa City knows, ain’t no mother.
He is Nate Goldsmith, the elfin force behind two restaurants where once beat the pulse of the town, including The Country Gentleman, one of probably four places where you wanted to be seen after the ninth race each August, along with the Wishing Well, the old Tradewinds on south Broadway and Panza’s on the lake. “Never knew what big personality might walk in the door,” says Nate, recalling again that night in 1961, or maybe ’62, when Wilder, winner of three Pulitzers for his novels (“The Bridge of San Luis Rey”) and plays (“Our Town”), got sloshed at his bar while calling out Woolley, his drama teacher at Yale.
But it’s not the hoity-toity Country Gentleman that holds the best memories for Nate; it’s Mother Goldsmith’s, his namesake restaurant on Phila Street, opened in 1939, more gourmand than gourmet, gathering spot each August morning for the most important trainers in thoroughbred racing, along with owners and jockeys’ agents and every newspaper reporter (or “turf writer,” as they longed to be known) who needed a story or who could not finagle a free breakfast out of NYRA.
“Allen Jerkens, Woody Stephens, all the big Hall of Fame trainers came here each day at nine a.m. from workouts at the track,” says Nate. Grits, sweet buns and rugalah were the menu and sometimes a stiff belt of whiskey. “Remember, these guys got up at 4 o’clock to be on the backstretch so this was the middle of their workday, and they could use a drink,” he explains.
“One year, the entire place erupted in ‘Wood-eee, Wood-eee’ when Stephens came into Mother Goldsmith’s for the first time after winning one of his five consecutive Belmonts. I don’t remember which Belmont, but the ‘Wood-eee, Wood-eee’ went on for four or five minutes before the place calmed down.”
It was one of those “Cheers”-type joints. Pretty good comfort food but the real fare, the camaraderie and such, were not written down. There was the “family table” right in the middle of the floor, where all the homegrown Saratoga big shots like Leo Roohan the dentist or John Hogan the barrister found lunch. Looking down on them were the caricatures of racing types done by a New York City artist, Sy Wallick, for which the subjects themselves paid $1.50 apiece.
Presiding over all of this were the gnomish Nate with eyeglasses the depth of a crystal paperweight and his manager-maître d’ Eddie Williams, who had a wonderful ability to ingratiate himself with the rich and famous in town.
“I forgot that,” said Nate as I recalled the August in the late ’70s when Eddie Williams drew tough
duty. The Maktoum brothers of Dubai were arriving in their baby 747 at the Albany Not-Quite-Yet-International Airport for a couple of nights at the yearling sales, and Eddie Williams was enlisted as their pre-visit food critic. For two weeks, Williams had to visit the best restaurants in the area, sample several entrées and write up a report so that common fare would not mess with the Maktoums’ palate.
Nate Goldsmith was born in Saratoga on Sept. 27, 1915, eight months after Alexander Graham Bell himself inaugurated U.S. transcontinental phone service (the busy signal was invented later) and just 10 days before Georgia Tech would beat Cumberland University of Lebanon, Tenn., in football by a score of 222-0 (a rebuilding season, no doubt, for Cumberland).
Restaurateuring was really a fallback. Goldsmith easily would have traded his eating spots for a career in showbiz. He spent two years in the 1930s hanging out at the Brill Building, headquarters for the music industry at Broadway and 49th in Manhattan, trying to get his songs published. Thankfully, he knew from blintzes. The “Mother” moniker he got from “Chinny” Farone shortly after Nate opened a luncheonette on Phila Street and advertised “Mother’s Pancakes.”
Today, Nate is 96 and completely blind — never could see well enough to get a driver’s license. He and Roz, his wife of 52 years, live on Saratoga’s West Side, a print of Forego hanging above their couch with a caricature of Nate opposite. The latter came from Mother Goldsmith’s, which is now under new ownership and a new name, the Seven Horse Pub.
He has not been to the track in probably a decade, health and a minor dislike for the country fair atmosphere keeping him away.
“But you know what?” says Nate. “You and I may not like it so much, but one thing remains true: It’s still Saratoga and it’s still the greatest. From all over the world they want to come here. Why? Just because it’s Saratoga.”
John McLoughlin is a freelance columnist and a veteran Capital Region journalist now at NewsChannel 13. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily those of the newspaper. Reach him at JMcLoughlin@WNYT.com.