The little district of restaurants on Union Street has taken a hit in recent months, with Bier Abbey and Cafe Nola closing their doors forever, but there will be three new ones opening up in the next three months.
And if a building’s owner is successful in his search for a new tenant, a fourth new restaurant will open in what used to be Bier Abbey.
Between Broadway and Seward Place, there are six restaurants now operating. There are two shuttered restaurants, one of which has been gutted and is being rebuilt for an October rebirth, and two more eateries being created from scratch, one in a former tavern, the other in a former yoga studio.
Add in the assorted restaurants within a block or so on various side streets, and there will be 19 places to sit down and eat in the little neighborhood by end of the year.
The three new eateries on the drawing board are all very different from each other. The first to open will be an old familiar name, operated by a familiar face on the downtown Schenectady restaurant scene.
Phil Ruggiero, owner of Nico’s Pizza on State Street, is renovating the former Union Inn at 517 Union St. for a September debut with 18 beers on tap, a four-page menu of tavern fare and a backyard event space big enough to hold 400 people.
Its name will remain Union Inn.
“It’s been a bar since 1867,” Ruggiero said. “I remember going to the bar when I was kid, and I’m an old guy. It was just sitting there — what a waste.”
Ruggiero, who is actually only 51, bought the building from the city in December and went to work on it. The previous owner had shut it down in 2014 and stopped paying property taxes after her basement repeatedly flooded.
Newly poured concrete walls and floor eliminated the basement moisture, but it turned out that just about everything else needed to be replaced — the upstairs floors, walls and roof were compromised and the plumbing, wiring and kitchen equipment were shot or simply gone.
“Once we got into the building, the floors were rotted,” Ruggiero said. “We wound up doing a lot more repair than I thought we had to.”
Ruggiero, a Wynantskill native now living in Delanson, set out in life to be neither a building contractor nor a restaurateur. He earned multiple degrees in hopes of being a math or physics teacher.
But through that lengthy college career, he worked a decade at the landmark Tony Polito’s Tavern in Guilderland. Polito, a 450-pound, opera-singing high-school dropout, made a major impression on the young Ruggiero and probably an unintentional influence on his career choices.
“He was such a great man. I learned more about business from this gentleman than I did in some of my college classes,” he recalls.
Ruggiero emerged from college into a tough job market for young teachers and joined the ranks of the unemployed. But someone told him about a downtown Schenectady pizzeria that was up for sale. … Twenty-one years later, he’s still cooking and managing Nico’s. In recent years, he’s added a rooftop tavern that’s become a popular watering hole.
He’ll be hands-on at the new Union Inn as well, and expects to hire a staff of about 20.
The second of the new restaurants to open (in October, if the construction schedule holds) will be Malcolm’s, at 617 Union St. — the former Cafe Nola, a Cajun restaurant shut down by the state late last year for non-payment of taxes.
Nate Germain, a Scotia native who graduated from Syracuse University and the Culinary Institute of America, has worked in New York City restaurants for seven years, increasingly in management roles. He’s wrapping up now at Mas Farmhouse in Manhattan’s West Village, and splitting his weeks between New York and Schenectady as he works on his restaurant.
This is the first restaurant he’ll own himself, and it will be named after Malcolm Germain, his late grandfather. The longtime General Electric draftsman wasn’t a restaurateur or even trained chef, just a bon vivant who enjoyed life and loved good food.
Quitting the hypercompetitive New York City scene and returning to this area was a decision Germain was ready to make at age 31
“The city life is tough, wears you down,” he said. And the cost of starting a restaurant there can be astronomical.
Malcolm’s will offer four-course or ala carte French-themed American meals using local ingredients under a model called restaurant-supported agriculture. He’s already partnered with two farms that will be suppliers, one in Delaware County and one right in Niskayuna.
Malcolm’s will be different from most upstate New York restaurants in a few ways:
- The bar will be mainly a service bar. There will be no seats, so that Malcolm’s presents itself as an eating rather than a drinking destination. People can drink while waiting for a table, but they’ll have to stand.
- As craft beer continues to boom in popularity and proliferate in restaurant coolers, Germain will focus on wine. Some beer will be served, but wine will be front and center and wine pairings will be suggested with various menu items.
- The kitchen will be open with counter seating; the chefs will be out interacting with diners, and bringing the food out to them in some cases.
“The first time I saw it was at a restaurant in Copenhagen,” Germain recalls of chefs serving diners.
This carries benefits all around — chefs who serve food join the tipping pool, raising their pay; the restaurant can attract better kitchen talent because their pay is higher; and the diner gets to see the food being made and talk to the person who will make it.
Germain wanted to put the kitchen right in the middle of the ground-floor dining area but couldn’t make the ventilation system work in that configuration.
To prevent culinary mishaps while the other chefs are out in the dining room, Malcolm’s will have a chef tournant — a cook who moves from station to station as needed to keep everything on track — who’ll remain in the kitchen rather than roaming the dining room.
A BAKERY TO BE NAMED LATER
Coming later this autumn will be a bakery and wood-fired pizzeria at 609 Union St., the most recent commercial occupant of which was Orenda Yoga and Healing Arts.
Reza Mahoutchian, who has had a hand in a lot of reconstruction and renovation in the area over the past 20 years, is finally going to take a stake in an eatery after renovating several buildings into restaurants operated by others. (Turns out he’s a bit of chef himself.)
He’s not naming names or setting an opening date at this point, but he’s partnered with a baker, ordered the equipment and is aiming for November completion of renovations.
The pizza oven — a two-ton lava rock behemoth — is the holdup at this point. Mahoutchian already ordered it from the European manufacturer, however it’s arriving by way of San Francisco for reasons Mahoutchian can’t figure out on a timetable he can’t control.
But it’s an essential part of the plan, and he can’t open without it.
“I want to have the best wood-fired pizza, the best doughnuts, the best coffee,” he said. “We’re trying to go for that 900-degree temperature that breaks down the sugar molecules at a different rate, makes the pizza taste different.”
Just for good measure, they’ll make their own mozzarella, too.
Mahoutchian, head of Mahoutchian Development, has done a lot of work in the nearby Stockade over the last 20 years. Back in 2007, the building at 613 Union St. was his first acquisition in what would become the lower Union Street restaurant strip. He later bought 617 Union St., which became Cafe Nola, and has now sold it to Germain.
The building at 613 Union St. was last home to Bier Abbey, which was shuttered in 2016 for state tax evasion, reopened, then shut down permanently in 2017 for city code violations.
Mahoutchian is looking for a new operator of that space, which has an extensive beer tap system and is essentially a turnkey operation, ready to go.
“It started with the building that is now Bier Abbey,” Mahoutchian recalled. “This block was just so bad, yet it was the only block that I noticed that had flat lawns in downtown — perfect for patio dining.”
Manhattan Exchange was already serving food down the block, he said, and the little cluster of restaurants grew from there.
“It’s a team effort,” Mahoutchian said. “It didn't just get rebuilt organically.
“It has become somewhat of of a destination. As the old saying goes, I’d rather be one of five instead of one.”
EVOLUTION OF A DISTRICT
Mahoutchian credits the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority and Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp. for improving the streetscape.
“Every step of the way, Metroplex and DSIC were working with us hand in hand, and they were just great. The atmosphere at the time was, not everyone was interested in Schenectady,” he said.
“They really just transformed this section of Union Street.”
Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen said his agency’s role was to improve the streetscape by investing in sidewalks, curbs, trees, lights and repaving, as well as a new parking area — Metroplex split the $1.8 million cost of the project with the city.
He said that longstanding businesses like Manhattan Exchange led the way for others, such as Experience and Creative Design, whose storefront Metroplex helped convert into the largest retail operation in the area.
Metroplex also provided assistance with construction of a block of upscale townhouse apartments at the corner of Union and Barrett streets.
“Reza Mahoutchian did a tremendous amount of quality work to upgrade buildings along lower Union Street where many of the new restaurants are now located,” Gillen added. “The district now has attractive infrastructure, parking and a mix of housing, restaurants, office and retail.”
Capital Region Chamber CEO Mark Eagan said the impact of a cluster of restaurants can become significant when they start to be viewed collectively as a destination rather than individually as restaurants. Instead of deciding to go to a particular restaurant, people go to the street where the cluster sits, and then decide where to eat when they get there.
Kevin Dugan of the New York State Restaurant Association had a similar take.
“You have a row of restaurants in a neighborhood, it brings a bunch of different people to the neighborhood that are looking for different kinds of cuisine,” he said, creating foot traffic and new life in the area.
“That’s the theory behind it, and it can work.”
But growth can go too far, he said, if there are more restaurants than there are diners to fill them.
“There’s a tipping point like anything else,” Dugan said.
A tight cluster of restaurants can also create a community and a camaraderie among the restaurateurs, Ruggiero said.
He said he co-exists happily with all the restaurateurs around Nico’s, and will do the same with those around the Union Inn.
“I’m very accessible to the owners,” he said, citing in particular a friendship with the crew at Centre Street, down the block from the Union Inn.
“I don’t see anybody as competition, I see them as friends.”
Many choices for diners
Open for business between Broadway and Seward Place on Union Street:
- Centre Street Public House and Beer Garden
- Maria’s Cafe and Catering
- Manhattan Exchange
- Rare Craft Steak & Cocktail House
- Persian Bite
- Chez Nous
- Union Inn
- A wood-fired pizza/bakery
Open within a few hundred feet to the north:
- More Perreca’s
- Cornells in Little Italy
- Civitello’s Italian Pastry Shoppe
- Hunter’s on Jay
- Sawmill Tavern
Open within a few hundred feet to the south:
- Chopstick Bistro
- 20 North Broadway Tavern
- Pinhead Susan’s
- Tara Kitchen
- Daley’s on Yates (opening soon)