Counterculture in the Catskills
The Catskill Mountains have become a haven for forward-thinking chefs, artisans and shop owners priced out of New York City. F&W’s M. Elizabeth Sheldon goes road-tripping.
As a native of New York’s Finger Lakes, I’ve been driving through the Catskills to reach New York City since I was a kid. The decrepit farmhouses and the tired towns, which had fallen on hard times in the ’70s, never seemed worth a stop. But over the past few years, the area has become a haven for artists, chefs and artisans looking for a beautiful, affordable alternative to New York City. The result is a network of hamlets, each harboring its own thriving creative scene. Phoenicia, for instance, is now home to a stylish motel designed by one of the cofounders of New York City clothing store Oak; there’s also a fantastic chrome diner serving silver-dollar pancakes in a modern dining room with touches of camping kitsch (look for the bait-and-tackle boxes near the counter). Farther north is the town of Andes, which compensates for lack of cell-phone service with a world-class antiques shop, an impressive hard cidery and a café that bakes perfect tarts filled with velvety, sweet pears. The time to go is now—here’s everything you need to know for the ultimate Catskills road trip.
WHERE TO EAT
This tin-ceilinged restaurant in Narrowsburg doubles as a town meeting place. The regulars sitting next to me are greeted with hugs by the otherwise-shy teenage waitress, so I copy their order. I am rewarded with a dish of smoky andouille mac and cheese and fantastic fried chicken. The meat is juicy and covered in a craggy copper-colored crust that’s too hot to touch when it lands in front of me, delivered by The Heron’s co-owner Marla Puccetti. Her partner, chef Paul Nanni, a Marcus Samuelsson protégé, pours us glasses of crisp Wayside Cider (pressed just north of Narrowsburg) and explains the learning curve the couple faced in opening the town’s only ambitiously local restaurant: “Our poultry farmers froze their fresh chicken because they weren’t sure they would be able to sell it in time. We convinced them that there is demand here, and now we get delicious chickens within hours of them being killed.” The Heron’s new downstairs music venue (serving Catskills Brewery IPA) is also a hub for a community that notices even the smallest changes. As I leave, I pass a sign pleading for the return of The Heron’s beloved bear toilet paper holder: "I was stolen Saturday night!" 40 Main St., Narrowsburg; theheronrestaurant.com.
BÀ & Me
Who knew the town of Callicoon could produce a bowl of rice noodles and lemongrass pork that holds its own against any I’ve tracked down in Manhattan? Nhi Mundy grew up working in her parents’ Vietnamese restaurant before becoming a design blogger. After moving upstate, she opened two small (and stylish) locations of her restaurant, a takeout spot in the Catskills and a dining room on the Pennsylvania border. 26 Upper Main St., Callicoon, NY; 1023 Main St., #2, Honesdale, PA; baandme.com.
This shingled retro diner is the ideal amalgamation of locavorism and ’50s nostalgia. The owner, a former Broadway set designer, sources nearly every ingredient from the Catskills: The trout stirred into my eggy breakfast skillet was smoked locally, and the menu lists a battery of milkshake options, like one made with Catskill Distilling’s bourbon. 5681 New York Rte. 28, Phoenicia; phoeniciadiner.com.
Two Old Tarts
At Scott Finley and John Schulman’s tucked-away café and bakery in Andes (turn left at the lending library to find it), guests grab seats in the dining room for savory plates like pesto flatbread pizzas. Or they make a beeline for the pastry counter, offering tender sour cream coffee cake, a twist on Key lime pie served in a buttery macadamia-nut crust and a creamy pear-and-almond tart; all are presented in a highly Pinterest-worthy display under an ancient American flag. 22 Lee Ln., Andes; twooldtarts.com.
5 More Stops
Brushland Eating House
Book the upstairs apartment at this remote farmhouse restaurant, so you can linger over your hand-rolled pasta or crispy pork schnitzel. 1927 Co. Hwy. 6, Bovina; brushlandeatinghouse.com.
Reserve far in advance to stay in one of the two coveted rooms at this bucolic inn. From $200 per night; 259 Van Tuyl Rd., Barryville; hillsideschoolhouse.com.
Mama’s Boy Burgers
A Gramercy Tavern alum serves upgraded burgers, artisanal milkshakes and perfectly crisp onion rings at this roadside stand. 6067 Main St., Tannersville; mamasboycatskills.com.
A former farm, this small creek-side inn and tavern bills itself as a “bed and bar.” You can pick fresh herbs from its garden to use in your kitchenette. From $69 per night; 2080 Spruceton Rd., West Kill; sprucetoninn.com.
Table on Ten
This restaurant and inn is beloved for its wood-fired pizzas served with toppings like marinated fennel and smoked pepperoni. 52030 Main St., Bloomville; tableonten.com.
WHERE TO SHOP
Kingston Wine Co.
One of upstate New York’s best new wine shops, filled with geeky but affordable bottles. The owners pay special attention to locally produced choices, like a funky and minerally 2012 Eminence Road Cabernet Franc, made with grapes from my own Finger Lakes. I promise to return for one of their hikes, which end with wine tastings. 65 Broadway, Kingston; kingstonwine.com.
Kabinett & Kammer
I never made it to this curiosity shop when it was in New York City. That location closed, but this Andes outpost, only open on weekends, is flourishing, its tables covered in old botany prints, sweet-smelling beeswax candles and vintage ceramics. At an annex across the street, owner Sean Scherer sells wildflowers and turns part of the space over to the folks at Wayside Cider to use for tastings. 7 Main St., Andes; kabinettandkammer.com.
The holy grail for a design-obsessed, city-dwelling hoarder like me: a massive Narrowsburg garage, every corner occupied by salvaged porcelain light fixtures, library card cases and a healthy amount of taxidermy. French owner Juliette Hermant, a beekeeping former Brooklynite, exemplifies the new spirit of the Catskills: a creative artisan who has joined this community for the long haul. 226 Bridge St., Narrowsburg.
WHERE TO STAY
The Arnold House
Entering The Arnold House through its sunroom, I feel like I’m breaking into the home of a reclusive professor with great taste in Scandinavian lounge chairs. At the reception desk, I receive a handwritten welcome letter (standard practice for owners Kirsten Harlow Foster and Sims Foster, the latter a hospitality executive raised in the area); later, in the Tavern, I’m greeted warmly by a crew of locals who are pleased, if a little incredulous, that anyone would drive from New York City to hang out here. The Fosters run the nine-room, one-suite inn as a passion project, incorporating modern touches like a spa and craft cocktails while preserving elements of retro style such as the pink bathrooms. The Tavern’s menu leans heavily on local products, like an astonishingly good cow-milk cheese from Tonjes Farm Dairy. From $159 per night; 839 Shandelee Rd., Livingston Manor; thearnoldhouse.com.
The Graham & Co.
This Phoenicia motel was an early favorite of urban refugees— I’ve spotted its signature catskills vs. hamptons T-shirts more than once in my Brooklyn neighborhood. “Would you like a Budweiser? The bonfire and s’mores start at 7,” says the receptionist at the open-air check-in desk, perched beneath a hand-lettered sign that reads don’t hassle me, i’m local. The former motor inn was renovated, DIY-style, by a group of artist and fashion designer friends to include reclaimed wood walls, filament light fixtures and soft, screen-printed wool blankets on the bed. The overall effect is charming but more summer camp than boutique hotel: En route to the pool, I stop by the palo santo–scented game room to try my hand at the massive jigsaw puzzle started by fellow guests. From $150 per night; 80 Rte. 214, Phoenicia; thegrahamandco.com.