It was decades ago when I first entered the Union Inn on lower Union Street in Schenectady, 100 years old at the time (the bar, not me), sat with a colleague and sipped an adult beverage to celebrate the first week of my first real job.
Fast forward to 2014: Water damage forces the Union Inn to be closed, sold, renovated and reopened just this month. It wasn’t exactly deja vu, but there was an unmistakable familiarity as I climbed the three front steps into the large open space. A staff member behind the L-shaped bar called to us to take any one of the vacant 15 high- or low-topped tables. A few were still available at 5 p.m. When we left at 7, all seats at both the tables and the bar were occupied, and the Inn was noisy — very noisy. But it was a smiling, conversational noisy — the sound of 30-something friends being reunited after four years.
Server Scott appeared with menus and took our orders for soft drinks ($2 each with a complimentary refill). As we sipped our sodas, we perused the four-sided menu. There were no surprises here. By far, the appetizers outnumbered the other categories (salads, wraps, paninis, burgers, south-of-the-border fare and pizzas). I searched for an item that might separate the Union Inn from a similar venue.
Listed with the mozzarella sticks ($7.50) and gravy fries ($6) was wild mushroom flatbread ($9.50). The menu described the flatbread as “topped with a Parmesan cream sauce with mushrooms and melted mozzarella.” Faithful dinnermate agreed to share the appetizer with me and was happy he had. Essentially an oval pizza, the flatbread was not technically flat. It was topped with a blanket of flavorful cream sauce, unruly melted mozzarella and slices of mushrooms. Wild or not (I was unable to tell), the mushrooms added interest to the not-so-flat bread. With an added light sprinkling of hot pepper flakes, our appetizer was a knockout starter.
Given the fact that the Union Inn is owned by Phil Ruggiero, who also owns successful Nico’s Pizza on State Street in downtown Schenectady, it should be no surprise that any variation of pizza would be available. In fact, pizza with close to 19 toppings ($2/topping for an 8-cut pizza), a half-dozen specialty pizzas such as chicken spinach alfredo ($18.50/8-cut) and calzones ($10) with toppings ($1.50/topping) filled almost the entire last page.
When I asked Scott about the origin of the dough, he checked in the kitchen and learned it is based on an old family recipe of the owner’s. I wasn’t surprised.
My grilled salmon salad ($12.50) was a perfect light accompaniment to the rich mushroom flatbread. The dish was composed of a dinner-sized salad of baby greens, red onions, crumbled feta cheese and wedges of winter tomatoes. Winter tomatoes have the misfortune of being pale and mushy, and probably would have been better omitted than included. Balsamic vinaigrette in a tiny plastic cup with a tiny plastic lid accompanied the salad. Sporting grill marks, the salmon perched atop the salad was moist and tender, despite its smallish size.
John’s Union Classic Burger ($8.50) came with a choice of cheese (patriot John chose American). The menu described it as a “hand packed half pound served with lettuce, tomato, onion, fries and a pickle.” The burger, sporting prominent grill marks and nesting in a toasted bun, was cooked a perfect medium rare as requested. But it was the fries that won Best in Show. They were crispy to the point of being almost crunchy on the outside, but steaming soft on the inside. I’m not a fan of French fries, but these were winners!
Having been open only a little more than a week, the Union Inn was serving neither dessert nor coffee yet. While Scott, dressed smartly in a bright red Sam Adams blazer, baseball cap and sneakers, headed to the bar to prepare our tab, we glanced around the room.
Walls were paneled in unfinished wood. The floor was tiled, and the rear of the dining area where the pool table was located was raised on an 8-inch platform. Tabletops were simulated wood and each held a condiment carrier with salt, pepper, hot pepper flakes, garlic powder, mustard and ketchup.
We asked Scott about hours. The new Union Inn is still “experimenting” with hours of operation. At the moment, doors open at 4 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays, and at 11 a.m. the rest of the week. They close around 2 or 3 a.m. seven days a week, and food is available until the wee small hours. An outdoor patio will eventually be opened for service.
Union Inn Bar & Grill
WHERE: 517 Union St., Schenectady, NY 12305, (518) 382-9264
WHEN: Mon.-Tues. 4 p.m.-late; Wed.-Sun. noon-late (hours subject to change)
HOW MUCH: $34.50 without tax and tip
MORE INFO: Accessible from rear lot, parking also on street, all major credit cards accepted, noise level permits conversation, daily specials, pool table and dartboard, takeout, catering, outdoor patio planned.