A French Bistro in a diner?
It didn’t seem logical, but we were willing to try, when we heard raves about the food. Sure enough, Chez Sophie proved to be a highlight of a recent weekend in Saratoga Springs.
What with the racing and the music, Saratoga has become one of THE places to be in New York State in the summer. We could certainly see why, even in the late spring, when I attended a conference at the Gideon Putnam Resort and Spa.
Now Gideon Putnam settled in the area in 1795, where he built a guesthouse near a high rock spring. The resort, built in the same area as the original, opened its doors in 1935, in the Saratoga Spa State Park. These were Roosevelt years, in an era of government created jobs to help bring the country back from the great depression. The state park is full of beautiful spa buildings, stately trees, walking and biking paths, and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The newly restored Gideon Putnam Resort and Spa is the centerpiece of it all.
The Gideon Putnam Hotel is owned by the state, but is run privately. The hotel is as old as I am, but it has had a face lift (something I won’t try, but it certainly was good for the hotel.) Our well-decorated room had no flaws, which is rare in my experience, because I’m a very fussy guest. It was large, the bed was extremely comfortable, I got a down pillow within minutes of the request, the bathroom had very good light, lots of hot water, (with the tiniest aroma of sulphur, but if I could take it, so could you) cross ventilation, two comfortable chairs with an ottoman, copious drawer space, and large closet, and lovely views out below the beautiful canopy of trees which surround this National Register property. The hotel is set in the midst of the Saratoga Spa State Park. It is a good example of your tax dollars at work, but I’m not sure I can say that about the golf course. My golfer reported to me that it could be a great course, as it is very well laid out, but that it needs refurbishing and better maintenance.
(There is an up-scale golf course in Saratoga, called Saratoga National Golf Club, which I am sure is a better-maintained course, but the greens fees are in also the up-scale category, which the course in the state park were decidedly not.)
Our check-in was a breeze, and guest parking was handy, but we opted to take a quick drive down to the village to see how much we remembered from our last visit, almost 20 years ago.
The main street has changed a lot, as you can imagine. The history of Saratoga is practically a history of the United States in microcosm, at least of the Northeast. Here there were Indian tribes, as far back as the 14th century, who discovered and used the spa waters. Here later was the battle of Saratoga in our Revolutionary War. Here came a man called Gideon Putnam in 1795 to make his home near the high rock spring, near which he built a guesthouse for future generations to enjoy. The current hotel and the expansive spa and bath buildings were built during the Roosevelt era.
More recently the great bucolic move of the 19th century, the love affair with the outdoors, and the healthful properties of the baths brought New Yorkers and other big city folks to the mountains and lakes in the northern part of the state. Then came the horse racing, which is now the backbone of the Saratoga “season.”
Down on the main street, called Broadway, there were giant old-fashioned hotels from the gilded age. The Adelphi was one that I remember seeing 20 years ago. Very few of these old piles remain in their original state. However, you know you are still in America when you see that these buildings now house The Gap, Borders Books, Chico’s, Starbucks, and other ubiquitous chains or franchises. In addition, there are lots of restaurants, and what look like some survivors of local stores, which I hope are also doing well. This town must be a gold mine in the summer.
Driving farther up Broadway, toward the very attractive campus of Skidmore College, we saw many incredibly well restored turn-of-the-century homes.
Thoroughbred racing and harness racing bring their own followers, greatly adding to the summer population and the excitement. In addition there are the summer music festival crowds, all of which made me feel we were in Saratoga at just the right time, off-season.
Congress Park is just off the Broadway, and houses the Saratoga Springs History Museum, some of the historic springs, and even an old carousel. Also in Saratoga Springs is Yaddo, a working retreat for professional creative artists. The only part of Yaddo that I’ve ever seen is the rose garden, but it is worth visiting.
The highlight of our weekend was a dinner we had at the aforementioned Chez Sophie. I was intrigued when a friend at the conference told us it was a French bistro housed in a diner. That was an irresistible come-on.
Opened in 1969, Chez Sophie has had a few minor growing pains, but got very high marks from us for the meal we had. The décor is everything you would hope a smart diner-make-over artist would do. The counter is still there but it is now the bar. The bars stools are now chic, black, top-of-the-line, state of the art. The booths have gotten the same treatment. A rather large room has been added in the rear. The staff was very well trained, very welcoming, and seemed to all be members of the family.
I had a salad of local farm greens with a superior house made vinaigrette, and roasted Poussin with Madeira, tarragon and cream. Jim had watercress and onion soup followed by pork loin with shallot marmalade. Jim’s dessert: a genoise (a sort of sponge cake) with fresh blackberries and strawberries and dried cherries just hit the mark perfectly. I had a taste of someone else’s chocolate mousse, perfection in a spoonful. The well-balanced wine list, veering a bit toward the Austrian, was a refreshing change. It was altogether a felicitous evening.
I am certain, given the swelling crowds of swells who appear in Saratoga in the summer, that there are many more good restaurants and other discoveries to be had in that area. Can’t wait to go back and try them!