I love going out in Saratoga Springs, because I always run into lots of friends, and before I know it, it’s a big party. There’s just so much to do here and big fun to be had. But sometimes it’s nice to go to a cozy neighborhood restaurant for a quiet meal and close conversation, and I needed a spot like that in town. That’s why I was super-excited when I was asked to come up with a design concept to transform the former Springwater Inn restaurant (it also had a few other unsuccessful incarnations) into something new. The owners, Bob and Mary Alice Lee, wanted a place that “captured the spirit of a Saratoga neighborhood, combined with the functionality of a working restaurant.” And that’s precisely what I’d done, when it opened its doors as The Brook Tavern.
We all know that the quality of the food is critical when we consider restaurants (five stars for the Brook’s skillet cookie—it’s de-lish!). But if you’ve ever sat in an uninspired space, been stuck straining to hear conversations or accosted by bright lights even while eating mouth-watering food, then you know that the decor’s pretty important too. And, having its roots as an 1800s horse-carriage factory, the space needed to be warm and cozy and happy and new, with a nod to the past and to the Saratoga Race Course, which, as it happens, is just a short walk away.
The first time I walked into the space, I looked at the knotty-pine walls, dated bathroom and dingy carpet and envisioned, instead, shiny black wainscot, wide-plank hardwood floors and modern light fixtures. If it was going to be a place Saratogians wanted to (frequently) frequent, it needed to feel reminiscent of a beautiful home, so we added cozy banquettes with Burberry-esque tan plaid upholstery, crocodile leather wall coverings, navy blue walls, tailored shades, shiny polished nickel everything, antique mirrors and beautiful, oversized horse photos. Four months later—and after countless design meetings, gallons of paint and numerous deliveries—the space was transformed into a Saratoga-worthy spot. It felt good.
I recall with great pride The Brook Tavern’s opening party. It was a beautiful day, and as I approached the restaurant, walking past flower boxes and freshly cut grass along Union Avenue, I saw that a crowd of locals was pouring out onto the porch, having filled the restaurant. It was the perfect party. The restaurant was comfy and inviting, with a cool vibe and great neighborhood feel. The owners knew the proximity to the racetrack would mean a busy July and August, challenging us to make the restaurant a year-round destination. That meant creating “a comfortable neighborhood place,” according to Bob Lee, who knew the welcoming attitude of the staff, combined with good food and an inviting interior, would make the restaurant “a fun spot after the races, and a great place to perhaps sit on the porch or find a warm seat in the winter when it’s snowing to listen to live music next to the fire.”
It was at that opening party that my son TJ, then 12, declared with certainty that when he was old enough, he’d work at The Brook Tavern. Being a determined kid who makes stuff happen, he presented them with his working papers and applied for a job when he turned 16, and was hired (yay!) and trained on the fine art of pouring water and stacking dishes (very helpful life lessons). This has made it even more fun for us to eat there, and when, a few weeks ago, my other son Josh and I were in the mood for a burger, we tucked into a cozy booth at The Brook Tavern. I love having dinner with the boys. We always set aside an hour or two and cell phones are kept in pockets. This, with the added new pleasure of teasing my adorable busboy, and the lively bar full of friends, makes it a place we always want to return to. And we do. You should go, too.