As the third-oldest settlement in New York State, Kingston has a deep and storied history. Skirmishes between the Dutch settlers and the native Esopus tribe prompted the governor of New Netherland, Pieter Stuyvesant, to construct a stockade around the cluster of buildings overlooking the Esopus Creek in 1658. The ghost of the stockade survives in the layout of Uptown Kingston’s streets; and at the corner of North Front and Green, there still exists a stone building that might have served as a lookout post and fortification for the stockade, according to Ginny Bradley, owner, with her husband, Pat, of the Hoffman House restaurant, which occupies the structure. The evidence is the set of steps from the second-floor attic leading to the roof, she said.
Ginny Bradley believes that the Hoffman House – as the landmarked stone building with the Dutch-style split front door, cedar-shake gabled roof and white shutters is called – dates back to the 1600s. William B. Rhoads, in his architectural history of Kingston, notes that “the earliest part of the house” was deeded in 1707 by Antoine Crespel to his daughter, Jannetje Crespel Hoffman, wife of Nicholas Hoffman. It’s unclear how much of the structure was built in the 1600s; the Bradleys believe the building dates prior to 1679, but why quibble? The fact is, the Hoffman House is, by American standards, ancient: a rare survivor of the Dutch Colonial era whose heritage the couple, in more than 40 years of running their restaurant, have taken pains to honor.
If it weren’t for Kingston historian Edwin Ford, the building wouldn’t exist: It was one of several Colonial-era stone buildings targeted for demolition by Kingston’s Urban Renewal Agency in the late 1960s. Ford lobbied Urban Renewal officials to redirect the funds that would have paid for tearing it down to rehabbing the building instead. The agency complied, and after doing work to shore up the stone exterior, put the Hoffman House on the market.
“There was no interest in it at all,” recalled Ginny. “The price kept coming down. It was a shell.” She and Pat, Kingston residents who were then in their early 20s and fresh out of college, bought the property in 1976. Initially their intention was to restore the building and sell it; but as they got deep into the restoration, they instead decided to open up their own restaurant. During the restoration, Pat apprenticed for free at a restaurant in Rhinebeck for a year to learn the trade.
They opened the Hoffman House in 1977, and ever since they been welcoming patrons into the four dining rooms (three with massive fireplaces) and cozy bar for steaks, pasta, chicken, lamb and fish dishes, roast duckling, French onion soup and the like. They created their own Kingston tradition – way before Uptown was bustling with transplanted Brooklynites and weekend tourists – while meanwhile preserving, on a corner of the city that functions as the gateway to the Stockade District, an important piece of Kingston’s Colonial heritage.
Although neither was into history when they bought the building, the commitment grew and became an obsession. “We took pains to do the research,” Ginny said, recalling that after opening, “my sister and I made all the uniforms for the waitstaff, consisting of long aprons and dresses and bonnets for the women. I made all the original tab curtains…until I got to the point where I couldn’t keep up with it.”
As explained on a back page of the extensive menu, the Hoffmans were a prominent family. “One gentleman who visited said one of the Hoffman daughters was engaged to Washington Irving,” Ginny said. “The building is fairly large and the ceilings are quite high, which were a sign of wealth,” since most houses had low ceilings to conserve on heat. Antony, son of Nicholas, was a blacksmith and trustee of family-owned estates in Ulster and Dutchess Counties; he was a member of the Provincial Congress of New York City in 1774 and a signer of the Articles of Confederation in 1775. After independence, he was appointed a judge in Dutchess County and served as a regent of Ulster County. The house was burned by the invading British in 1777, but the Hoffmans made repairs, and it remained in the family until the early 1900s. It was bought by the Salvation Army in 1908 and later was used as a warehouse.
By the time the Bradleys bought it, the building was dilapidated. While the three-foot-deep stone walls were intact, the interior was a mess. After removing the unsightly dropped ceilings and cheap paneling, the couple discovered the original beams, wide-board floors and plaster walls. They hired an expert carpenter who was able to restore the original elements: a tactic that included flipping the warped floorboards and straightening the bowed original woodwork comprising the windowsills. The original nails were salvaged and reused.
They researched Colonial taverns in designing the bar, which is crafted from wood taken from a 200-year-old barn. Poised above it is a wooden grille, a replica of the standard item in Colonial taverns, which was lowered over the bar each night to prevent lodgers from stealing any liquor. The Bradleys also had their carpenter construct wooden tables with grooved surfaces, which was the style in the 18th century. All the pictures and other artifacts displayed on the walls are true to the period, so that when one is sitting in the Hoffman House, with light and warmth from the roaring fire reflected off the dimly lit walls, one can imagine one is in pre-car, pre-industrial Kingston.
The Bradleys had the kitchen dug out of the basement (trudging up and down the stairs is “our staff’s gym fare,” kidded Ginny). A covered patio in the back is a coveted dining space during the warm-weather months. It overlooks a side lawn, also owned by the Bradleys, that is a popular place for drinking cocktails in the summer.
The menu features a daily special soup, appetizer, entrée, rangoon (a wontonlike concoction, whose stuffing varies) and pasta for dinner, and quiche, omelet and quesadilla for lunch; the sauces for the salmon and duck also change every day. Besides traditional entrées such as prime rib, grilled leg of lamb, sirloin steak and roast duckling, the menu includes a variety of seafood and chicken dishes, as well as a few vegetarian entrées. Ginny said that the restaurant’s three chefs – two of whom have been with the Hoffman House for well over a decade – continually update the menu, although removing an old standby always runs the risk of alienating customers, in which case it stays on the menu. (“We’d never take off our London broil or the quiche from the lunch menu, which have been with us from Day One,” she said.) The meats are locally sourced, and fruits and vegetables “are as local as we can get.” The restaurant also serves local beers brewed by Keegan Ales and Arrowwood Farms, based in Stone Ridge.
The Hoffman House employs eight full- and five part-time staff. “We’ve had very little turnover,” Ginny said, noting that “We must have put 50 people through college.” Patrons include “people who worked for us and then their kids.” Besides having generations of help, they’ve also catered to generations of customers.
Reflecting the changes that have occurred over the past decade in Uptown Kingston, Ginny said that the Hoffman House gets “a big influx of people from the City on weekends. It’s wonderful, and I would like to see more retail stores open…Quite a few years ago, we decided to close on Sundays because it was like a ghost town. Now Kingston is vibrant and alive.”
Last year, the Bradleys replaced half of the cedar-shake roof. Every winter they close for a month, refinishing the floors, painting and making other repairs – ensuring that the Colonial look and atmosphere stay fresh and up-to-date, as if a fellow in a tri-cornered hat and wig had just stepped out the door.
How have they managed to remain in business so long, in one of the world’s hardest-working and most time-consuming industries? “You have to really like people,” she responds. “The building itself has kept us here so long: the beauty of the building and the blood, sweat and tears it took to get it to where it is today.”
She and Pat raised four children (all of whom had a part in the restaurant) and now have a grandson with whom they’d like to spend more time. “We are trying to retire and would like to find someone who could take the restaurant over and love the building as much as we do. We’re actively selling the place to the right person. It’s been our whole life.”
Hoffman House, open Tuesday-Saturday for lunch/dinner, light-fare menu 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., full dinner menu 4:30-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4:30-10 p.m. Friday/Saturday, reservations suggested Friday/Saturday nights, 94 North Front Street, Kingston; (845) 338-2626, www.hoffmanhousetavern.com.