Three Days in Saratoga Springs
For 11 months of the year, Saratoga Springs can rightly be called a small town. In August, however, the population — and the excitement — explodes. Three days really isn’t enough to sample all the Spa City has to offer. But it’s a start
by David Levine
Assuming your hotel doesn’t include a morning meal, pack your maps, guidebooks, and Daily Racing Form and head to one of these breakfast spots:
â€¢ Country Corner Cafe, 25 Church St. Try the blueberry pancakes.
â€¢ Beverly’s, 47 Phila St. Try the omelets and the wickedly strong coffee.
â€¢ The Bread Basket Bakery, 65 Spring St. Try the city’s best baked goodies at this bakery overlooking beautiful Congress Park.
â€¢ Compton’s, 459 Broadway. Try not to stare at the ragged dudes who have been up partying all night.
After breakfast, go for a stroll and a spot of retail therapy. For years, Broadway remained charmingly free of big-box, brand-name stores. Small local merchants not only survived, they thrived. Sadly, the rents have gone through the roof, forcing many mom-and-pops out. Borders, Starbucks, Anne Taylor, and Eddie Bauer, to name just a few, have mall-ified the downtown district a bit. Before Saratoga goes entirely corporate, please support these local merchants:
â€¢ Lyrical Ballad Bookstore, 7 Phila St. Get lost in the maze-like layout of this subterranean, superbly stocked antiquarian bookseller.
â€¢ G. Willikers, 461 Broadway. The toy store you remember from your youth — including classic toys — and no dumb giraffe on the storefront.
â€¢ Celtic Treasures, 456 Broadway. Everything Irish, from wool sweaters to tin whistles to the Book of Kells (abridged).
â€¢ Hot Stuff of Saratoga, 10 Phila St. When you think of Saratoga, you think salsa, right? Not so much? Perhaps you should. Here you’ll find every sauce, rub, and spice known to man, which is why they humbly call themselves “the best kept secret in the salsa industry.”
People-watching is as important as parimutuel wagering in Saratoga. Snag a table at one of the many restaurants on Broadway with outdoor seating, grab a nosh and enjoy the parade. Some best bets:
â€¢ Lillian’s, 408 Broadway. For slightly upscale fare.
â€¢ Stadium CafÃ©, 389 Broadway. Quality sports-pub grub.
â€¢ Wheatfields, 440 Broadway. Try the tasty homemade pastas.
If you’re new to Saratoga, take a tour:
â€¢ On your own: Pick up Hoofing It: 8 Walking Tours of Historic Saratoga Springs, at the Borders on Broadway.
â€¢ On the bus: Saratoga Experience offers glitzy bus tours with guides in period costumes (518-587-9100).
â€¢ Behind a horse: Horse-drawn carriage rides get people staring at you (800-320-6211).
The college kids at Skidmore like to boast that Saratoga has more bars per capita than anywhere in the world. College kids are given to hyperbole, but there are a lot of pubs in town. Wander the side streets off Broadway and see what strikes your fancy. Possibilities, depending on your mood and how late you stay up, include:
â€¢ 9 Maple Avenue, for live jazz, a great Scotch selection, and friendly bartenders.
â€¢ MarÃ¨ Ristorante, 17 Maple Ave. Known for its trendy ostrich-fabric-and-glowing-walls lounge.
â€¢ Hattie’s, 45 Phila St. The back bar has a New Orleans house-party feel.
â€¢ Venue, 30 Caroline St. For when it’s 1 a.m. and you need to get down with your bad self.
Today is all about the horses, and the place to start is Breakfast at the Track. Enjoy the cool morning air, watch horses work out in the mist, listen to expert commentary, and maybe pick up a hot tip in the 4th. Oh, and load up at the all-you-can-eat buffet (adults $13.95, children under 12 $6.95).
After breakfast, take a free tram ride to the backstretch paddock, where the prerace action is. Learn about “a day in the life of a Thoroughbred.” See how horses are taught to use the starting gate. And, if you’re lucky, step in some authentic horse poop. (Available every racing day except Travers Day and Labor Day. The first tram departs at 8 a.m., the last at 9:15 a.m. But they fill up fast, so you’d be wise to get in line by 8:30.)
Don’t go anywhere. Post time is 1 p.m. every day but Tuesday, when the track is dark. Get your racing form and a pencil, and figure out which horse will pay for your daughter’s college tuition.
The big stakes races are on Saturday, with the Travers, the oldest continually run stakes race in the country, on August 26.
Weekends are also good for giveaways. If you must have a Saratoga T-shirt, blanket, or bobble-head doll, this is your chance.
Grandstand general admission is $3; reserved seats are $6 on weekdays, $8 Friday-Sunday. Clubhouse general admission is $5 (clubhouse reserved seats are already sold out). They go on sale each morning at the reserved-seat sales office at the Union Avenue gate beginning at 8 a.m. (7 a.m. on Travers Day).
After the last race, head to Siro’s (168 Lincoln Ave.). It’s adjacent to the racetrack, and since the 1930s everyone from the high rollers to the $2 window players has congregated to lament the Sure Thing that’s still looking for the finish line.
“I Hit the Pick Six!”
Chez Sophie Bistro. “In Manhattan, Chez Sophie would qualify as a top-quality neighborhood bistro. In Saratoga County, it seemed like a mirage,” wrote William Grimes in the New York Times. This award-winning — if pricey — French restaurant has just moved into new, state-of-the-art digs at the Saratoga Hotel at the City Center.
“The Late Double Saved my A**”
PJ’s Barbecue. This roadside joint has great ribs, chicken, and Buffalo-style beef-on-Weck, all in 1950s-era trappings (Rte. 9 South, about a mile from downtown).
“Hey, It’s Only Money”
The Parting Glass, 40 Lake Ave. “Bartender, a shot of Old Bushmill’s, Guinness back. And a bowl of Irish stew. Can I run a tab?”
“There Goes My Daughter’s College Tuition”
D’Andrea’s Pizza, 33 Caroline St. At around 4 a.m., they start selling $2 gourmet slices for a buck.
The Gideon Putnam Hotel is the centerpiece of Saratoga Spa State Park, where we’ll spend most of the day. Start with breakfast al fresco, at the hotel’s CafÃ© in the Park. Watch the golfers. Smell the flowers. Relax.
On Sunday, brunch in the Georgian Room has a more elegant flavor (518-584-3000).
“The waters” are what made Saratoga what it is, so grab a soak at the Roosevelt Baths and Spa. Submerge yourself in a deep tub of naturally carbonated mineral water — “nature’s champagne,” as they call it.
For full decadent effect, follow it up with a massage, a facial, or some other indulgence. Appointments are necessary for all services (518-226-4790).
Head downtown to Putnam Market for gourmet specialty foods and top-notch sandwiches. Their ingredients are local, fresh, organic, and really, really good. They call themselves the best food store between Manhattan and Montreal. They just might be right (435 Broadway).
Next door, Putnam Wine proprietor William Roach, an internationally accredited wine expert, will help you select the perfect pinot for your outing. But be warned: this acerbic Brit does not suffer oeno-fools gladly (431 Broadway).
Now, where to picnic? Saratoga is loaded with spots:
â€¢ Congress Park (above). A true 19th-century urban oasis designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. Waterfalls, streams, rose gardens, flowering trees, classical fountains, sprawling lawns, and shady romantic hideaways for carefree couples (or a carousel for those with kids). Enter on lower Broadway.
â€¢ Yaddo. The famous artists’ retreat is closed to the public, but the grounds are open. The formal rose gardens are the main attraction, and there’s also a rock garden, fountains, pools, and statuary. Plus, you can gaze at the mansion and wonder what great novel or play or symphony is being written within while you tuck into your pasta salad. Enter Yaddo from Union Street, just east of the Race Course.
â€¢ Head back to the State Park. With its more than 2,000 acres, you’re sure to find a spot you like. Drive around and explore. If it’s hot, grab some lawn near the Victoria Pool, then take a dip. There’s history in those waters: built in 1934, it was the first heated pool in America. After falling into some disrepair, a recent $1.5 million restoration brought the lion-head fountains and limestone paths back to their Depression-era glory.
The Saratoga Performing Arts Center is quite simply one of the loveliest outdoor music theaters in the country. The Philadelphia Orchestra is in residence here in summer, performing everything from Gershwin to Mozart, and with lots of special guests on the schedule, including:
â€¢ Gil Shaham, August 2.
â€¢ Andre Watts, August 5.
â€¢ Yo-Yo Ma, August 9.
â€¢ Sarah Chang, August 10.
For quieter classical music, the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival showcases some of these same artists in chamber settings at the Spa Little Theater. Evening concerts are scheduled August 1, 7, and 8. Afternoon shows are tabbed for August 6 and 13.
If you prefer to let your freak flag fly, spread out a blanket on the lawn and swat the mosquitoes in time with:
â€¢ John Fogerty and Willie Nelson, August 6.
â€¢ Counting Crows and Goo Goo Dolls, August 7.
â€¢ Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Allman Brothers Band, August 13.
â€¢ Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, August 19.
For information and tickets for all SPAC events, go to www.spac.org or call 518-584-9330.