The 2023 Saratoga racing season passed by in much the same fashion as track seasons of the last 150 years. Popular restaurants (*cough* Panza’s) were booked out for weeks on end, and popular bars (*ahem* Dango’s) ushered in hundreds of late-night revelers who were willing to stand in line down the block just to get in. The main difference between 2023 and, say, 1993? This year, with the pandemic mostly in the rearview and food industry workers enjoying fairer wages as a result of Covid-caused staffing shortages, the madness didn’t end come Labor Day.
“For a relatively small city,” says Steve Barnes, a writer who has been covering the Capital Region’s food scene for the Times Union since the late ’90s—when the town still fully revolved around track season—“Saratoga’s got an extraordinary amount of quality restaurants.”
Sure, the entire city sees a dip in business post–racing season, and some bars and restaurants may shut down for a week in September to give their staff a break. But, come fall, it’s business as usual for virtually every Saratoga establishment (Siro’s being the obvious exception). These days, there are a heck of a lot more restaurants than back in the day, when Panza’s, The Wishing Well and a handful of now-closed eateries were track-goers’ only dinner options. And today’s resaurants offer a lot more variety, despite what critics of Saratoga’s current food scene may say.
“It’s a lot more diverse in number and in style,” says Kim Klopstock, who got her start in the food scene working at Mrs. London’s, The Adelphi Hotel and Rock Hill Bakehouse in the late ’70s and early ’80s before starting boutique catering company Lily and the Rose. “I mean, we never had a Champagne bar.”
Indeed, in Saratoga you can now get white sturgeon caviar (Bocage), fried chicken (Hattie’s), Fra diavolo (Solevo), Irish nachos (Harvey’s), and spicy octopus (Sushi Thai Garden)—and even ride a mechanical bull (Nashville)—all on one street. Yes, the aforementioned Solevo is one of no less than a dozen upscale Italian restaurants in town but, according to Barnes, that’s both fairly typical of an upstate New York city and, actually, an underappreciated facet of this area’s food scene. “We don’t actually realize what a blessing we have in terms of Italian abundance,” he says. “People who leave here realize that when they go somewhere else, they can’t get good Italian. And we’re overrun with it.”
As for the fact that Saratoga is lacking in other areas—most notably Vietnamese (can we get a pho place, please?!), Greek, dim sum, traditional Spanish, French bistro and African—Barnes says it’s not that unusual. “Albany didn’t get its first sub-Saharan African restaurant until a couple of years ago when Keobi opened,” he says. “There are plenty of things that we don’t have, and I think it’s a matter of somebody risking it and finding success with it.” One example of a restaurateur who took that risk? DZ Restaurants President David Zecchini, who had success with his two Italian joints but decided to open the tapas-style restaurant Boca Bistro after returning from a trip to Spain. Spoiler alert: It’s been a success.
Another spoiler: Saratoga’s nightlife scene is enjoying similar levels of off-season business and diversification—we’ve got dive bars, cocktail bars, clubs, you name it—all while the bar industry folks become closer-knit than ever in the wake of several safety scares last year. That’s thanks to regular meetings and a new app that allows bar owners to communicate about problem customers in real time. “There’s a lot more communication between the managers, the bar owners, the staff, the bartenders,” says Jay Fitch, who co-owns Saratoga City Tavern and Kings Tavern with his brothers. “Everyone cares. Everyone has the same MO: Make money for their families, but then also get home safely.”
On a lighter note, Fitch adds that as far as trends go, he’s noticing a shift away from beer and toward seltzers, High Noon and mocktails. And he recognizes that his bars may not be able to provide everything this generation of party-goers are looking for. “I have no issue saying, ‘You want a cool cocktail? Go to Misfit. You want a great trivia night? Go to Tap & Barrel,’” he says. “There were 15 heartbeats, and now we’re starting to get back to one heartbeat.”
And one last trend? Well, that one has to do with us, the customers. “Covid changed our whole mindset,” says Klopstock. “Rather than just going out for dinner, now we want the community. We want to see our chefs and our mixologists. We want to be recognized when we walk in a restaurant. We want everyone to know who we are.”
So forget about Saratoga’s “food and drink scene.” Welcome to Saratoga’s food and drink community. Pull up a chair.