When Julie Dabbs and Billy Simkiss first rented a pied-à-terre in New Paltz a few years ago, it was supposed to be a weekend retreat only; their livelihoods and base of operation were in Brooklyn, where Dabbs is co-owner of the Park Slope lounge Skylark. But the Gunks worked their magic on the couple, as they have done on so many others: “I got super into climbing,” Simkiss recalls. “I just fell in love with the place.”
So the pair decided to move up here full-time, cede operation of Skylark to their business partners and open a bar/restaurant right in New Paltz that would, in Dabbs’s words, “fill some holes” in what’s already offered to the community by existing businesses. “We set out to give New Paltz an adult bar,” she says, “an environment where people can hang out and drink and talk.” Now their dream is a reality: Huckleberry opened for business on December 4, 2015.
They found the ideal home for the sort of establishment that they wanted to provide — with the cozy, laid-back, lived-in feel of a 1970s living room, much like that offered at Skylark — in a location that many locals might regard as jinxed: the building at 21 Church Street that most recently housed the short-lived Naomi’s Café. Its oddly shaped interior lot offers minimal street frontage, making any business housed there all too easy to overlook. You have to be meaning to go there, so good word-of-mouth is all-important.
But Dabbs and Simkiss were undeterred by the building’s history of housing a business that never really took off, instead seeing the space’s great potential. For one thing, it has a huge brick-and-stone rear patio that can accommodate six full-size picnic tables, plus a long side yard that’s now dotted with clusters of lawn furniture and a firepit. Inside, the building is cavernous, with a high-ceilinged dining room and kitchen on the ground floor and another dining area upstairs, full of appealing nooks and crannies and big windows on three sides.
They signed a lease in June and by July were doing major renovations, pushing the kitchen wall inward to convert the entry hallway into a long bar space. That’s where you place your order; and you seat yourself, either at the bar or a booth or table or even on a vintage, well-broken in couch upstairs. The downstairs dining room is marginally more “formal,” overhung by an enormous cast-iron chandelier; the wall above the bar is covered by a multicolored assortment of old painted wooden doors that Dabbs scavenged at antique stores and salvage yards. Upstairs, there’s a counter with a selection of board games handy, and bookshelves are scattered along the walls.
All the furniture is old, grouped to be conducive to casual dining, drinking and conversation. New Paltz old-timers may recall the converted basement space below the Homestead that was officially known as the Wine Cellar, but affectionately known as “the Dump,” where you could sit on a beat-up couch and chat and drink with a small group of friends around a coffee table, without the bustling social activity and loud music of the bar’s main floor. Huckleberry will seem familiar and welcoming to anyone who enjoyed that sort of vibe; it has a similar look and feel — only with lots of sunshine in the daytime.
The bill of fare is a bit more upscale than the old Homestead, though. Craft beer fanciers will be in seventh heaven here: There are a dozen different choices on tap, many of them from New York State breweries (I recommend the $7 Roscoe Trout Town Brown Ale). Your beverage choices span the gamut from a basic Genny Cream Ale for $3 to fanciful designer cocktails in the $10 to $12 range.
As for the comestibles, they’re bar food in style — but bar food of a higher order, made with very fresh, high-quality ingredients and ingenious contrasts of flavor and texture. “Small plates” ranging in price from $6 to $9 could be an appetizer, a side or a light meal; I tried a tasty White Bean Dip ($8) made with spinach, bacon, roasted garlic, feta cheese and basil, served with super-crunchy tortilla chips made on-premises by talented chef Kyle Chandler, formerly of the Tuthill House. There are three imaginative salads; the Winter Salad ($10) is a substantial mélange of kale, apples, butternut squash and Greek yogurt dressing.
Finally, there are three burger choices ($12 each): Wagyu Beef, Homemade Chorizo and White Bean Quinoa (one of several vegetarian and vegan menu options). If you’re a carnivore, the beefburger is worth ordering for the awesome housemade pickle slices alone; but the patty itself is juicy and delicious, topped with a cheddary sauce, lettuce and (non-cardboardy even in December) tomato on a nicely charred bun, with well-seasoned hand-cut fries on the side. Servings are generous, but for $4 you can also opt for a slider-sized mini-burger, sans fries, if you just want a wee snack.
When Dabbs and Simkiss were formulating their plans for Huckleberry, one of the “holes” that they noticed needed filling was the fact that there was no place in town where night owls could grab something to eat besides pizza after about 10 p.m. So they made a point of keeping the kitchen running until 1 a.m. nightly. If you’ve ever wished that you could go to a 9 o’clock movie with friends without having to rush through dinner beforehand, instead having a leisurely meal and drinks afterwards while discussing the film that you just saw, Huckleberry is the answer to your prayers.
The new bar/restaurant will be open seven days a week year-round except for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day. Hours of operation are from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 12 noon to 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 12 noon to 2 a.m. Sunday. The place has already been “discovered” and is doing brisk business, so maybe 21 Church Street has finally found its winning formula. Check out Huckleberry’s full menu at www.huckleberrynewpaltz.com – or just stop in!