Old Woodstock spaces get new looks…and menus

At the Commune Saloon in Bearsville. (photo by Dion Ogust)

At the Commune Saloon in Bearsville. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Woodstock’s got new blood surging through its aging veins this winter. Or at least new eats and plenty of fresh libations.

Try to find a seat in Shindig, located at the crosswalk where Mill Hill Road meets Tinker Street, in the space that was formerly Corner Cupbard and way, way back an establishment known as Pan’s. Ever since its soft opening back in early December the tiny space has maintained a steady stream of folks stopping in from breakfast through dinner.

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“I grew up in town and wanted this location for the longest time,” says Lari Lang, the most public face of the restaurants crew of owner partners. “I tell people it’s a great place to wait for the bus but the people seem to be coming for other reasons.”

Across town at the Commune Saloon, located in the Bearsville complex’s Petersen House — in which Albert Grossman opened the town’s first Chinese restaurant nearly half a century ago, the crowds are somewhat thinner, although increasingly loyal by all appearances. Some sip the new Bearsville’s well-made boutique cocktails, or a nice array of affordable craft beers. But more often than not, says the complex’s new part-owner and manager, Nicolas Geeraerts, people are taking to his establishment for its new-to-town concept of “small plates” repasts, and the quality of Commune’s food and service.

“So far all is positive,” he says of the place that got its soft opening with a crowded guest-listed soiree curated by local publicist Abbe Aronson a few weeks ago. “It’s one part of the different eating experiences we’re playing with for the complex here. I just never expected it would take nine months to get such a small space up and running. But it’s Woodstock; you learn to be patient.”

Outside Commune, a fire gets lit in the new firepit-centered patio that is surrounded by the satellites of the old Petersen House, The Bear, The Little Bear, the Bearsville Theatre, and the Utopia Studios building that also houses WDST-Radio Woodstock. It’s a chilly night but still folks huddle by it, chatting excitedly.

How did these new entities come to be and how do those envisioning and now running them see them not only surviving but flourishing in a fast-changing Woodstock?

Lang, daughter of Michael Lang, the locally-based concert promoter, had gotten involved in restaurants when she moved to Los Angeles in the 1990s. After coming back home she realized how much she’d learned of the business, as well as how much she’d enjoy running something here.

Enter Mary and Ryan Giuliani, long time family friends and part time Woodstockers running a successful catering company in New York City. Ryan introduced her to his friends Jennifer Potenza and Lukus Hasenstab, who own the successful Kips Bay restaurant Penelope in Manhattan. Allison Garskof handled the restaurant’s local rollout, and came up with its popular beer and wine lists. Potenza’s husband, Michael Tsompas, handled the actual build-out of the new eatery in what had long been a deli.

“I got the location, ,” she continued, “But it was Jennifer, Lukas, Allison and Ryan who gave us all the ability to actually open.”

Giuliani, who’s kept a weekend home in Woodstock since 2004 and has been spending more and more time here over the past three years (he’s also developing the old Tinker Village behind the Center for Photography as Woodstock Way, filled with short-term vacation rentals), brought in Potenza, who also has a home in town.

“We all wanted to get more invested in the Hudson Valley, and our town,” he said. “When the location came along it was perfect.”

The resulting Shindig serves classic comfort food with a highlight on local purveyors. The place seats 30, plus a special party room. There’s an upstairs prep kitchen in addition to the one off the main room, and a pass-through window to a vestibule opening onto the street that will be opened up come Spring. Eventually, everyone’s looking to open an outdoor space with about a dozen seats in a small sliver of property between their building and Houst’s next door.

At Commune, Geeraerts — Antwerp-born but restaurant trained all around the globe — talks about how hard it was to come up with the right idea for his new saloon with food. The old Petersen House was a bit discombobulated, in his estimation. From the start he and his partners John Kirkpatrick and Michael Roark felt it best to see it all as separate spaces. They liked the idea of a pool table in the skylighted atrium-like space behind the bar and main dining area. They played with tall tables at first but then chucked the idea; the whole process of getting what is now there took time, but felt organic. Add to that the craftsmanship needed to work with repurposing what was there from Grossman’s day and one sees how the time flew.

Eventually, the restaurateur adds, a gallery/coffee shop space (“with international newspapers”) is planned for the large front room, with art to be curated to include artists from outside of the Woodstock community, as well as within it. Just as a new menu and layout changes are being planned for the theater, including real glassware for drinks — and food. Plus quite a few changes to the complex’s parking, inevitably leading to a drop-off area with valet parking service.

As for The Bear, Geeraerts expects minor shifts to the menu, but not the ambience. And not so locals can really notice. The Little Bear, with a lease, will stay the same for now.

“The small plates menu, while more common in the city, is a fresh concept for Woodstock,” he said. “Already we’re finding that overall business at The Bear and theater has been up as people get a sense of something new happening here. Woodstock seems to be changing and we feel we can be part of that, by bringing in national acts to the theater again and adding new concepts while keeping The Bear for the loyal locals…We’re working to restore the place to what Albert Grossman’s vision was at the start.”

Back across town, Lari Lang noted how the restaurant is often filled with people she doesn’t know, a sign of shifts in Woodstock’s make-up. And yet Nic Geeraerts and Peter Cantine have also been loyal customers. Even Oriole9 and YumYum’s Pierre-Luc Moeys.

Geeraerts, whose kid is asking why he can’t keep one huge space in the Bearsville complex reserved for him as a play room, laughingly mentions Frederic at the Cub Cafe across the street when asked how he gets along with the other Belgians in town, specifically noting that Moeys is Dutch.

Then he tells a story: When he was younger, he says, he used to tell everyone how, while still wanting to travel the world, what he wanted most from life was to visit this place called Woodstock. Then, he adds, he decided to go up skiing at Hunter Mountain soon after moving stateside. And on the way saw signs for that place of his dreams.

The rest, you could say, is history. Or at least a new future for this old town.

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