In 1973, Peter Cantine was 18 years old and working as a busboy at The Bear Café in Woodstock. In the back of the house, his friend, 15-year-old Eric Mann, was a dishwasher.
“We were part of the same little clique, but working together really solidified our friendship,” says Cantine, who never dreamed that he would one day own the establishment with Mann. “It was quite a scene back then. Famous bands like the Rolling Stones were recording albums next door at the Utopia Studio. Paul Butterfield would arrive every morning at 11 a.m. like clockwork and spend the day holding court at the bar before heading down to [the now defunct performance space] Joyous Lake to perform with Joe Cocker or Muddy Waters.”
Cantine graduated to tending bar, while Mann climbed the kitchen ranks, eventually becoming a cook. But as is so often the case in a small town, both young men left to see more of the world. Cantine hopped a Trailways bus from Woodstock to Los Angeles, where he landed a number of restaurant jobs, then later spent six years in New York City working as a server, bartender, and manager, and eventually teaching in the dining room program at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center). Mann spent 11 years honing his culinary skills under a number of French chefs in New York City. The two remained friends and sometimes returned to Woodstock to visit family. “We were up here one Sunday evening, and we were hungry and wanted to go spend a lot of money on fine wine and good food, but there was nowhere to go. That was the moment we said, ‘We’re gonna start our own restaurant up here,’” Cantine recalls. They returned to Woodstock to re-open The Bear Café in 1988. (It had closed in 1980.)
They’ve been setting the tone for fine dining in Woodstock ever since, with a cool, casual vibe, an emphasis on local ingredients, and a menu that changes weekly. Certain items are sacrosanct — the filet mignon with port garlic sauce and stilton cheese garlic butter, and the roasted chicken with green peppercorn sauce — but what does change carries an international influence that belies Mann’s French culinary training (Asian-inspired green tofu on soba noodles, for example, appeared on the menu recently).
For more than a quarter of a century, the Bear has been at the center of Woodstock’s cultural life. Co-owners Peter Cantine (left) and Chef Eric Mann first worked together when they were teenagers
Perched on the bank of the Sawkill Creek, the Bear offers diners an intimate view of the stream as it winds past. During the warmer months, you can sit on the stone patio and take in the stream’s soothing, musical burble. But on a cold winter night, the restaurant’s cozy back dining room with its handsome stone fireplace is the place to be.
Inside, you’re greeted by a sparkling, four-sided bar that dominates the entrance. Wood-paneled walls and hand-hewn wooden beams hearken back to the building’s rustic past as a barn. Large glass windows overlooking the stream are strung with fairy lights that add sparkle to walls adorned with oil paintings by Cantine’s grandmother.
It is immediately clear that there is an understated see and be seen thing going on here. After all, you could end up next to David Bowie or Uma Thurman — both are regulars and local homeowners — or Phil Jackson, who’s been in several times since he signed with the Knicks. On the night I visited, the hostess let me and my guests pick our table — a corner spot from which we could survey the scene. As we waited for our food to arrive, I tried to resist the bread basket. What it contained threatened to spoil my appetite — soft on the inside, crispy on the outside, studded with sesame seeds. Thankfully, appetizers arrived fairly quickly.
An endive and watercress salad was a study in well-balanced flavors and textures. Fat little triangles of fried herb polenta croutons and slices of crisp, sweet pear rimmed a pile of peppery greens topped with crumbled gorgonzola cheese and a mountain of crunchy, shoestring-style red beets. I dragged each forkful through the shallow pool of cranberry vinaigrette at the base of the pile to add a touch of mouthwatering sweet-tart flavor to each bite.
The standout appetizer was a plate of thin-sliced red and golden beet rounds drizzled with a rich balsamic glaze, topped with a heap of beautifully golden breaded and fried Coach Farm goat cheese, and offset by a suggestion of crispy frisee.
Fried calamari with chili-lime barbeque sauce, red peppers, and sesame was the least inspired of the appetizers. Although the peppers were perfectly cooked, the calamari was a bit rubbery and the sauce was cloyingly sweet.
Entrées arrived on hot plates. A creamy, deconstructed risotto included chunks of local “cheese pumpkin,” a type of moschata squash whose name is derived from pale, ridged skin resembling a cheese rind. The creamy rice was topped with crumbled goat cheese and a sprinkling of toasted purple quinoa that added a pleasing, nutty crunch and a welcome burst of color.
Sautéed shrimp and scallops arrived on a heavenly bed of nutty roasted cauliflower puree and were accompanied by petite rounds of sautéed purple potatoes topped with parsley and citrus zest. The scallops lacked both the sweetness and the perfect sear we’d been hoping for, but the shrimp were perfect — juicy with a crisp, savory bite.
Atlantic cod with bouillabaisse sauce is served with purple new potatoes (left); at right, the Belgian chocolate melt-away cake was described as “addictive”
But the star was the wild boar ragu over house-made fettuccine — a big bowl of hearty comfort food. As our server confirmed, there’s nothing wild about wild boar (it’s actually illegal for restaurants to serve wild game unless it has been handled and prepped in a specific way), but the pork was very tasty, nonetheless. Slow-cooked with a mirepoix, tomatoes, and spices (I detected a hint of cloves), the sauce is rich and flavorful. Served over a generous helping of wide, flat pasta and topped with fresh parsley and a heap of grated Grana Padano, there was more than enough to share.
For dessert, a Belgian chocolate melt-away cake arrived on a rectangular white plate with a pile of whipped cream and a double scoop of vanilla ice cream over oven-roasted strawberries. Forks traveled in a figure eight, nabbing a chunk of gooey chocolate before sweeping through whipped cream and then collecting strawberries and a bit of ice cream. It was so addictive that I neglected the second dessert: pear cobbler topped with house-made ginger ice cream. I did appreciate, however, the nutty crunch of toasted oats combined with tender, mildly sweet pears and spicy ginger.
The drink menu offers a number of local options from Prohibition Distillery USA in Roscoe, Harvest Spirits Farm Distillery in Valatie, Captain Lawrence Brewing Company in Elmsford, and Keegan Ales in Kingston. We were satisfied with a fruity, light-bodied white Tocai Friulano from nearby Millbrook Winery.
For the most part, the service was prompt and friendly, although we did have to flag down a busgirl after a beer arrived without a glass. Though the menu boasts a range of options, prices are on the high end, and that may explain why the crowd tends to skew a bit older.
All this food and drink can distract from The Bear’s cultural appeal. The restaurant serves as the entrance to a 15-acre complex that has been the heart of Woodstock’s music scene since 1969 when it was purchased by Albert Grossman (manager of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, The Band, and others). Cantine and Mann purchased the complex in 2004 and recently took on several new investment partners. They have big plans, beginning with a gastropub that will serve local craft brews and cocktails, as well as organic, locally sourced food.
After dinner, strains of music drifted by from the show next door — a Family of Woodstock benefit featuring a medley of local singer-songwriters including Amy Helm, Elizabeth Mitchell, Kate Pierson, Lindsey Webster, Simi Stone, and Natalie Merchant. After all this time, The Bear remains a star in the constellation of food, music, and fun that continues to draw people from near and far.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that it is illegal to serve wild game at restaurants. New York State’s policy is that restaurants can serve wild game if it has been handled and prepped under specific provisions and codes.