Patti Priest of Ballston Lake remembers Schenectady’s busy downtown from the 1960s.
Shops and restaurants bustled. Weekends were busy; Thursday nights were social events, times to see and be seen on city sidewalks.
Priest figures that the lull began during the 1970s, when people began moving out of Schenectady.
“I hope it’s coming back,” she said on a recent Friday night, as she and her husband Mike had dinner at Cafe Nola on Union Street. “There’s Nola and Marotta’s; we’ve been coming to Nola for the last couple of years.”
Nola chef and owner Kevin Brown, who along with his wife Robin opened the New Orleans-influenced restaurant during the summer of 2010, is happy to give Cajun educations to people like Patti and Mike. He’s glad his courses — like crawfish jambalaya and shrimp and grits — are popular in Schenectady.
Other places are popular, too. Lunch and dinner options include Johnny’s, Aperitivo Bistro and Bomber’s Burrito Bar on State Street; Cornell’s and More Perreca’s on Jay Street; and Marotta’s and the Van Dyck Restaurant and Lounge on Union Street.
A restaurant resurgence is part of Schenectady’s new downtown. The massive Mexican Radio restaurant at State Street and Broadway, in the old Off Track Betting building, is scheduled to open this year. The Parker Inn on State Street, next to Proctors, is currently being renovated. On Jay Street, Cornell’s interior is being updated with new carpeting, wainscoting and paint. Last fall, Marotta’s opened a second-floor space designed to entertain bar crowds and feature late-night entertainment.
Recent reconstruction on State Street has attracted investors and their restaurants. Such an equation is generally successful in metropolitan settings, according to the Albany-based New York State Restaurant Association.
“I can look at two places,” said Rick Sampson, executive director of the restaurant association’s education foundation and immediate past president of the association itself. “The big one, close to home, is Saratoga Springs. I can remember when Saratoga Springs’ downtown, you couldn’t give the real estate away. Those forefathers got together, I guess it was in the ’80s, and decided to do something with downtown again. Now all the big places, all the hot shopping, is downtown and not at the Wilton Mall. And restaurants keep opening up downtown because restaurants attract other restaurants. It’s a place to be. I’m seeing the same type of results in Glens Falls.”
Dinner and a show
Promotion and new businesses are necessary to sustain the surging popularity. Sampson said it always helps when a city has a prime attraction, such as Proctors in Schenectady and Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs.
“I lived in Syracuse for 15 years, and it reminds me of downtown Syracuse,” he said. “They had the Landmark Theater; they invested money in the theater and brought it back to what it used to be. Downtown Syracuse today with the restaurants and nightlife, it’s a hot spot.”
Mazzone Hospitality’s Aperitivo, located a few steps away from Proctors, was full on a recent Friday night. There was an attraction at Proctors — the first weekend night showing of the touring play “War Horse.” The Keith Pray trio provided light mood music on sax, guitar and bass for people sitting near the exposed brick walls in the front dining room.
Peter Blackman, who co-owns the restaurant, thinks the place has a “Manhattan-style vibe.”
“We’re all different, but we’re similar,” Blackman said of Schenectady’s new roster of restaurants. “We all have niches, which is good for the consumer.”
Sisters Emily and Amalia Pawlak of Schenectady and their friend Peggy Clark of Princetown sat near the front door, plates and dishes of pizza, hummus and fried Brussels sprouts on their table. They said they come for the food and the entertainment.
“We come here rather than Albany,” said Amalia Pawlak. “I think it’s the choices. We love Johnny’s; we love Villa Italia.”
Restaurateurs have their own ideas why people are filling tables on many nights.
Brown believes part of the restaurant boom can be attributed to affordable leases for businesses and successful building renovations downtown. When he and Robin were planning their own place — adding a restaurant to their Cajun-style catering operation — they considered Schenectady, but not that seriously.
“Schenectady was low on the list until I saw this block,” Brown said. “When I walked into the building, it was gutted and it was a perfect fit for what my landlord had envisioned.”
Word of mouth helped build the business. Nola shares the block with the Manhattan Exchange, Marotta’s and The Bier Abbey, and Brown knows people are strolling and sampling.
“We’re a destination now,” Brown said. “You may have dinner here, an after dinner drink at The Bier Abbey, maybe dessert at Marotta’s or vice versa.”
Like other places in downtown Schenectady, Cafe Nola is generally busiest on Friday and Saturday nights.
“December was our worst month; traditionally it is,” Brown said. “Everybody’s shopping; they’re at the malls. But we’re picking right back up.”
Brown also realizes restaurants must try new things to keep people coming back.
“The most important thing I did in August was put a bar in,” he said. “We had beer and wine, but we didn’t have a bar to sit at. That’s important, especially for business people who may be by themselves and feel kind of funny sitting at a table by themselves.”
Downtown improvements — the redesigned State Street and new Movieland theater complex at State and Broadway — have increased pedestrian traffic. But progress has also hampered some businesses.
John Keller, who owns Katie O’Byrne’s pub with partner J.P. Maloney, said 2013 was the first year the nine-year-old restaurant did not show growth.
“Honestly, I think it was for reasons that were out of our control — the construction on Erie Boulevard,” Keller said. “We were right in the middle of it. For the long term, what they’re doing obviously is a good deal. In the short term, we had three or four months where anybody who had an hour to go to lunch was not even considering going to that neck of the woods, even at night, the happy hour, the rush hour.”
At first, Keller didn’t want to believe construction and congestion were keeping customers away from beer, sandwiches and dinner specials. “But when you talk to enough people who have said, ‘Yeah, we just avoided the area... ,’ ” he said. “So there was a little bit of frustration with that.”
Keller believes changing attitudes about Schenectady have brought more people into downtown corridors. When he was younger, he said, evening diversions were always planned for either Albany or Saratoga Springs.
“We knew we had choices,” he said, adding that similar selections are now open in Schenectady.
“If we can keep all the Rotterdam, Niskayuna, Scotia and Schenectady people from going to Albany and Saratoga for their entertainment, that they have choices where they can park their cars and walk ... I really think that benefits everybody,” Keller said.
Keller believes his business, and other existing restaurant businesses, would benefit from non-culinary additions downtown. With Schenectady fully stocked for lunch and dinner stops, Keller hopes the next wave of development includes new housing for young professionals and shopping outlets.
Some of that is happening. The new $3 million “245 Broadway” luxury apartment complex has 18 one- and two-bedroom apartments and 7,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor. Other apartment projects are in the works.
In November, the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority purchased the former Olender Building on State Street and, under an option agreement with the city of Schenectady, secured the former Robinson Furniture site next door. Olender will be demolished, and a mixed-use project is planned for the nearly one-acre site.
“As for lower State, we are looking for residential developments with ground-floor retail — good mixed-use buildings,” Ray Gillen, the Metroplex chairman, said via email.
Marc Renson, co-owner and chef at the Ambition bistro on Schenectady’s Jay Street, believes longevity and established customers have contributed to Ambition’s success story. The eclectic restaurant opened in 2000 in the space once occupied by the Jay Tavern.
Like Keller, Renson believes Schenectady is full when it comes to restaurants.
“Every time a new restaurant opens up, they reach into my pocket,” he said. “We do take an initial hit for the first three or four weeks because everybody wants to go check it out. They change their patterns; they change their habits. Of course, we hit downtown with coupons whenever that happens to keep our face and name out there.”
The customer base comes from Union College, Schenectady County Community College and downtown Schenectady. He believes Ambition’s full booths in 2013 can partly be pegged to the cinematic release of “The Place Beyond the Pines,” which attracted media and citizen attention — it was shot in Schenectady County during the summer and fall of 2011.
Renson said he received no assistance from Metroplex and dislikes some of the agency’s funding practices.
“Every time a new restaurant opens, my pocket gets lighter,” he said. “My pocket has not been funded by Metroplex, although Metroplex is doing great things for the city. The way I look at it, it’s unfair competition. They’re funding a couple restaurants that are now competing against me. I gave money to Metroplex to complete against me.”
Joining the crowd
Other restaurants are prospering — and not just on the weekends.
Maria Perreca Papa, who owns More Perreca’s on Jay Street, closes at 8 p.m. But she’ll still serve 100 customers on Friday and Saturday nights.
“We do well on Sunday as well,” Papa said of the business, located next to her family’s landmark Perreca’s bakery. “I think we’re atypical in that case because we’re open for Sunday breakfast, so we get the people in and it just stays busy for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Papa is happy with the current restaurant numbers in Schenectady’s downtown.
“People want to go where there are people,” she said, adding that she believes visitors are curious about the city’s past heritage and its recent improvements.
Papa is also cheered by people who are looking for living spaces in downtown.
“Look at all the buildings going up — loft apartments are being rented,” she said. “I think downtown Schenectady is no longer a place where you would live if you had no other choice. I think those days are gone, hopefully forever.”
Papa says new residents mean potential new customers. She believes places on Jay, Union and State streets are all pretty easy to reach, even on foot.
Armondo Cioccke, executive chef at Cornell’s, has been with the business since the early 1990s. He’s worked as a dishwasher, busboy, prep cook and bartender’s assistant, among other positions.
“We try to stay consistent with food and service; we try to keep things new,” Cioccke said. “You have to ever evolve in this business, and we do a great job with that here.”
Cioccke said Cornell’s clientele ranges from young executives to families and senior citizens. Like other places, Cornell’s does brisk business during the weekends. And also like other places, weeknight crowds can be hard to attract. For some, early work days are waiting; couples with small children can have trouble getting baby sitters on school nights.
Cornell’s location in the smaller Jay Street corridor is not considered a liability.
“The North Jay Street Section of Little Italy is unique, and we appreciate that distinction,” Connie Hume, a partner in the business, said via email. “There are three Italian food eateries, whose origins date back within the first four decades of the last century. We do a good job representing real Italian food. The city and Metroplex invested heavily in the area initially, with the Little Italy footprint going beyond North Jay. There are such great opportunities to build on the initial concept. People love the idea of Little Italy.”
Thriving in the city
Some are using creative ways to attract new business and keep customers interested. Bomber’s, located across the street from Proctors, puts families at first-floor tables for lunch. A second-floor bar attracts a younger, night-life-seeking crowd.
General manager David Stutzman knows Proctors’ renovations have also contributed to the street’s restaurant success. The stage was enlarged several years ago, allowing theater officials to secure bigger productions for longer stays.
“We work with Proctors very closely,” he said. “Different promotions with the show staff and crew — we do a lot of stuff with them where we give discounts for the crew and staff of each show. They come before the show, they come after the show; sometimes we rent out our private party space to them at no charge to encourage them to come over here.”
At the Van Dyck, owner Bill McDonald was mixing and pouring drinks on a recent Friday night. Every seat at the bar was taken. Clusters of men and women in their 20s and 30s stood behind the chairs, as a 40-year-old song from rock band Yes drowned in the buzz from dozens of conversations.
For weeknights, McDonald runs specials to keep people interested.
“We do different things with our beer — we have our own niche product, we make our own beer,” he said. “We have happy hour specials and theme nights during the week. Monday nights we do ‘burger and a beer,’ Tuesday nights it’s ‘pizza and a pint’ — $10 gets you a burger and a beer, pizza and a pint. We have a mug club as well.”
There’s even room for small places. Bel Cibo, open for breakfast and lunch on Jay Street, has five four-seat tables inside its narrow building. Six two-seat tables on Jay Street provide patio seating during spring, summer and fall. Gourmet panini sandwiches and wraps are the draw at Bel Cibo, which means “beautiful food” in Italian. So are specialty foods.
“I just love the feeling on the street; I love the pedestrian walkway,” said owner Jeanette Massaro, who opened her business in 2012. “Everybody on the street is like family.”
Massaro believes the modest businesses in downtown, like the small restaurants, support the bigger businesses. And even though Schenectady’s downtown may be in “boom” mode, she believes restaurants have to be able to weather slower times — like cold weather months and stretches when Proctors is dark.
“It’s getting through that time to be able to hang on long enough ... to maintain the business,” she said.
Like Cafe Nola’s Brown, Papa believes people mix and match on dinner nights — dinner at one restaurant, coffee and dessert at another, a nightcap cocktail at a third. “You don’t have to park your car to go to Proctors for a show and then run back to your car,” she said.
While some restaurateurs have mixed feelings about all of the choices in Schenectady, Papa believes that more businesses make everyone better.
“I went to business school, and the only things I remember are the third generation usually kills the business and that competition is good,” she said. “We’re the third generation at Perreca’s, and we’re doing our darnedest not to rock the boat and kill our business. In 2009, we did not have this competition, and we’re doing close to 71 percent better in 2013 with all the competition than we did in 2009 without the competition.
“We’ll do $10,000 over the weekend in a 45-seat restaurant,” Papa said. “That’s great for us. Imagine what everybody else is doing.”
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at email@example.com.