There’s something about a country roadhouse bar that is quintessential Americana, evoking images out of a Hank Williams song from a decade long past: pool tables and jukeboxes; honky-tonk women batting their false eyelashes and tattooed good ol’ boys spoiling for a fight; ceilings stained with cigarette smoke and floors sticky with spilled beer. Such hangouts could be seedy and disreputable, but they could also serve as essential community hubs in tiny hamlets where not much else was going on. Not many of their ilk are still to be found in an ungentrified state these days.
One such backwoods watering hole, just south of Gardiner in the Dwaarkill neighborhood of the Town of Shawangunk, was long known as the Hoot Owl Bar & Grill. The oldest part of the building, built in 1856, served as the Dwaarkill Post Office, the postmaster’s home and a general store. It was expanded around the turn of the century, and became a speakeasy during the Prohibition years. According to local lore, at one time it also functioned as the local brothel. Under the ownership of Alfonso Mercurio, it became a successful restaurant and developed a reputation as a “biker bar” where folks were occasionally known to ride their Harleys right inside.
The Hoot Owl went out of business in 2013, but the place still holds fond memories for many longtime residents. “One guy came in and told me, ‘I had my first drink here — my father brought me, when I was 14,’” recounts Arif Khan, who purchased the building this past February, along with his wife, Sabeen Hasan. While underage drinking is not the type of nostalgia that the new owners wish to foster in the freshly renovated Hoot Owl Restaurant, they do appreciate the building’s history, and are committed to renewing its usefulness as a hangout where locals can meet to catch up on each other’s news.
Both second-generation Americans whose parents immigrated to the US from India, Arif and Sabeen don’t exactly fit the redneck stereotype of rural tavernkeepers. Khan grew up in Rockland County, got his BS from SUNY Buffalo and his MA in Urban and Regional Planning at Portland State University in Oregon. After establishing a career in community planning and global disaster relief management, he completed a Loeb fellowship at Harvard in 2016. Born in New Jersey, Hasan got her BA from Rutgers and her MA from Harvard, going on to practice law in New Orleans prior to moving to the Hudson Valley.
When the young couple decided to marry last year, they moved to Gardiner — partly because they wanted to live within a reasonable distance of both sets of parents, and partly because they both love the kind of outdoors activities afforded by the Shawangunk Ridge. Their home is within walking distance of the Awosting Reserve entrance to Minnewaska State Park, and Khan is a particularly avid cyclist.
During part of his years in Portland, he worked as a waiter. “I liked cooking and serving,” he says, but was actively discouraged by friends and relations from fantasies of opening a restaurant one day. When Arif and Sabeen began coming to the Gunks regularly, “We used to drive by this place with the little ‘For Sale’ sign in the window and talk about buying it,” he says. “We both like creating things. We both like adding value.”
Eventually they called the phone number on the hand-lettered sign, and ended up hitting it off with the owner, who was pleased that they wanted to reopen the Hoot Owl and spruce it up, with respect for the building’s colorful history. “We said, ‘Let’s retain the charm and the character first,’” Khan recounts. “Rolling with the context was something really important to us,” Hasan agrees.
The renovation has succeeded in returning the Hoot Owl to its former rustic glory without making it look too upscale for the locals to afford to eat or drink there. “We don’t want anything super-modern or super-fancy,” Arif says. The wood-plank floors were refinished, the walls painted in a fern-green stucco finish above newly installed pine wainscoting, mismatched furniture replaced by locally crafted pine tables. Low ceilings, a working fireplace, deep built-in shelving, dozens of owl figurines and views of a horse pasture right across the street create an atmosphere that is clean, cozy, warm and rural. “We’re planning to add some comfy couches and ottomans,” Sabeen notes.
The couple report finding the Dwaarkill residents very welcoming and supportive of their project. “We’ve gotten to know many of the folks in the community during the renovation,” Sabeen says. The couple borrowed tools, gave salvaged materials to a local scrap dealer, invited neighbors to lend a hand during communal workdays. And since they opened for business on May 10, “A lot of locals have come out of the woodwork,” she says — many of them with fond stories to tell of the Hoot Owl in its heyday. The new owners promise a free beer to anyone who can come in with definitive information about the building’s history (including when it first acquired its avian moniker) or donate an old photograph of it for a planned “timeline wall” behind the grand L-shaped bar.
The biggest change to the place has undoubtedly been the cooking, though. The Hoot Owl was never known as a culinary destination, particularly; but that is about to change. “We are not quite sure why he agreed to join us at the Hoot Owl. But we are so grateful to have him,” the new owners write on their website about their improbable luck in adding chef Johannes Sanzin to their staff. One of the hottest rising stars on the Manhattan and Brooklyn restaurant scene back in the 1990s, Sanzin at 23 was the youngest-ever sous-chef at trendy Bouley in TriBeCa. He then went on to cook at Le Bernardin, helped launch Pitchoune and then opened a string of places on his own or in partnerships, including Sanzin, 131 Duane Street, Bistro St. Mark’s, Pequeña, Maggie Brown, Olea and Souperman. Restaurant critics from The New York Times, Village Voice and Gourmet magazine raved about his cooking, and soon you will join them.
Mixing traditional American comfort foods with globally inspired dishes, the menu at the Hoot Owl features something for everyone, from vegans and gluten-avoiders to unadventurous meat-and-potatoes guys to serious gourmets. Sabeen and Arif want their place to attract the same odd mix of wealthy horse-breeders, blue-collar trailer-dwellers, farmers and artists that populates the Town of Shawangunk; folks who come for Sanzin’s superbly juicy Owl Burgers (on rolls from Bread Alone, accompanied by hot, crunchy hand-cut fries) will end up coming back for the Indian curries. This correspondent also tried the Hoot Owl Trio, a sampler of three dips with pita points, and found everything delicious. The flavor blends are piquant without being overpowering, the colors and textures varied and vibrant.
The Hoot Owl Restaurant is located at 26 Awosting Road in Pine Bush (the part of Pine Bush that’s on the east side of the Ridge), at the southern terminus of Rutsonville Road, just a few hundred yards off Bruynswick Road. “It’s not on the way to anything,” Arif admits; but good word-of-mouth is getting around, and the place is already being discovered. It’s open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday; closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Check out the lunch, dinner and weekend brunch menus at https://hootowlrestaurant.com, or visit www.facebook.com/hootowlrestaurant or call (845) 670-4668 (HOOT) for more information.