Everything from the skull logo to the candlelit tables, to the vintage typewriter font on the menus suggests this place is straight out of a classic tale.
And the name Hamlet & Ghost tops it off nicely.
The Saratoga Springs cocktail bar and restaurant was created by Brendan Dillon and Dennis Kiingati around three years ago and has become known for its craft cocktails and, more recently, for its expanding menu.
The name comes from the saying “A town without a tavern is like ‘Hamlet’ without the ghost.”
“It has to do with these Moravian settlers who had to decide if they were going to build a tavern or a church for the first building in the town and deciding that the tavern was more important,” Dillon said.
The restaurateur grew up in Saratoga Springs and comes from a family of restaurateurs. His father used to own Siro’s and worked there as a chef for many years. But when Dillon graduated high school, he didn’t dive right into the restaurant business.
Instead, he studied English literature at Stony Brook.
“I always knew that I loved food, but I didn’t know if I wanted to work in it. But I eventually decided I was going to,” Dillon said.
Soon after he graduated, he worked at Max London's as a bartender. After working there for about six years he started working with Kiingati on the concept of Hamlet & Ghost.
“What we wanted to do was bring a new experience to Saratoga, something that didn’t really exist,” Dillon said.
To pull it off, they had to find the right venue, which took quite a while. Finally, they found a spot on the corner of Caroline and Putnam Streets. The building had been a feed and grain store in the 1870s and later on a hardware store during the Prohibition era, which also worked as a front to hide the gambling that went on within. After Prohibition, it went back to being a full-time hardware store and there weren’t any major renovations done on the place for about 80 years.
“While a lot of things in Saratoga have been renovated and changed, this had not really been touched. It had been operating under the same store for almost a century so we wanted to keep as much of that as we could,” Dillon said.
The floors are original, as well as some of the brickwork. They redid the ceiling with intricately patterned tin.
The first year of any restaurant, and especially one owned by a new restaurant owner, is known for being tumultuous. Hamlet & Ghost’s first year in business fit that stereotype. It opened at the start of 2016 and on its very first holiday, Valentine’s Day, a pipe burst, which dampened their plans. But it was a relatively quick fix compared to what happened later that year.
“It’s a long story,” Dillon said when asked about the construction that’s been going on next door and has been for well over a year.
“Two Thanksgivings ago, there was a restaurant next door that caught on fire and burned down,” Dillon said.
The kitchen of Hamlet & Ghost was severely damaged and they had to build a completely new one. It made them reconfigure the space, which worked out in the end.
“We built out a bigger kitchen and have gone a lot more food heavy than we were when we started,” Dillon said.
They were closed from the time of the fire until the start of 2017 and the kitchen wasn’t completed until August of 2017. But looking back, Dillon said the changes that came about because of the fire were positive.
“When we were just a really small kitchen we wanted to do more food, which we really just couldn’t execute,” Dillon said, “But it’s good that Hamlet started off as a cocktail bar because we have a late crowd and people know us for the drinks but then they get a little surprise when they also have a nice meal.”
Chef Michelle Hunter came on board last year and has taken over the kitchen completely.
“I can be hands-off. She very much owns the kitchen,” Dillon said.
Hunter, who grew up partly in Scotia, serves up everything from a good burger to cider-battered cheese curds to quail. But her specialty is pastry. Some of Dillon’s favorite days at the restaurant, along with the servers’ and bartenders’, are when Hunter is trying out new desserts.
“Her background is pastry so whenever she’s putting new desserts on we’re all like [pumped],” Dillon said.
Many of the bartenders and servers have been with at the establishment from the beginning, which Dillon said had been a point of pride.
“One big thing has been watching staff get excited about craft cocktails and the food and watching the food [menu] expand. A lot of people we’ve had have stuck with us from the beginning and that’s one thing I’m proud of. We don’t have a high turnover rate. I think people stick around and we try to make sure they’re learning,” Dillon said.
The five full-time bartenders frequently go on trips to cocktail bars and wineries like New York City to get new ideas.
It’s helped bartenders grow their own craft and it’s made them take ownership of the cocktail menu. When they first opened Dillon would get a few ideas from the staff, but he would mostly curate the list himself.
“Now, most of the ideas [are] from the staff,” Dillon said.
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This sense of ownership has also helped Dillon change local perspectives on what a craft cocktail bar could be. To some, craft cocktails can sound pretentious, said Dillon, but they’ve worked against that perspective.
“I think people in Saratoga picture a bar [where people] are shoulder to shoulder, packed to the rafters and it can be a different experience and that’s okay. I just as much love Desperate Annie’s and City Tavern as I do 9 Maple,” Dillon said.
Hamlet & Ghost has succeeded in creating a new option, for Caroline Street, with classic cocktails and a speakeasy-ambiance without the dress code.