In the mid-1990s I resided in a rambling 19th-century farmhouse in the placid village of Rhinebeck — this was before a restaurant stampede turned the town into a Hudson Valley “destination.” At the time there were scant opportunities for diversion, at least after sundown. One option was the historic Beekman Arms hotel, which has a warm and woody tavern that, over the years, has been the financial beneficiary of my frequent and enthusiastic patronage. The liveliest spot in town was Foster’s Coach House Tavern, a perpetually packed eatery and watering hole frequented primarily by locals. If the homespun food were any cheaper, the owner would be paying diners to eat there. Generous drinks, too.
One day I was told about a hotel in nearby Rhinecliff that featured live music on weekends, and I was eager to check it out. Driving into the quaint riverside hamlet I did not have to look far for the venue: a thunderous racket from within nearly shattered my windshield. Nonetheless, I ventured inside, entering a dim bar room the dimensions of a Ford Explorer; in the center stood a mangy old pool table that doubled as a settee for a trio of young ladies sipping beer from plastic cups. The equally cramped back room, with a sagging ceiling and sloping floor, was half taken up by the musicians, leaving the audience huddled against the far wall. An added attraction was the outdoor patio, just an ice cube’s toss from the railroad tracks. Several times an hour Amtrak trains roared by, shaking the building like an earthquake.
The menu developed by Chef Rei Peraza (below) incorporates brasserie fare and English favorites
So when I heard, in 2003, that the hotel was to be restored as an upscale hostelry with a fine restaurant, I was more than a little skeptical. The peeling three-story wooden structure was in an advanced state of decrepitude, more suited to the wrecking ball than recreation. Constructed in 1854, the Hotel Rhinecliff started out as a rooming house and modest eating place for itinerants and their steeds. Some years later it graduated to a full-service hotel in order to take advantage of the busy Rhinecliff-Kingston ferry, as well as the Hudson River Railroad.
The hotel enjoyed a good run; the party wound down, however, with the 1957 opening of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge. The establishment relapsed to rooming-house status; by the turn of the century, it was considered blight on the waterfront. In 2003 the town of Rhinebeck euthanized the frail dowager with a flurry of well-deserved code violations.
Shortly afterwards, two sanguine young British brothers, James and David Chapman, came up with the winsome — or, as some thought, delusional — notion of reviving the structure into an elegant hostelry complete with an upscale restaurant. They certainly had the credentials: James Chapman, 40 years old at the time, was an experienced restaurateur; David, then 37, had been in international finance for years.
“We had a two-year plan that turned into a five-year plan,” James recounts. “And the $2 million budget became a $5 million budget.”
By all appearances, the money was tastefully spent. The nine-room, three-story hotel, done in cheerful pale yellow and white, has a wrap-around balcony and private terraces facing the river. The Bar at the Rhinecliff, the hotel’s tavern-style restaurant, has a languid ambiance reminiscent of Savannah or Charleston, with floor-to-ceiling wood-slat blinds, ocher walls, lazy overhead fans, hemlock-and-pine wood floors, and a stone hearth. The handsome old bar is one of the hotel’s few surviving artifacts. In summer you can dine on a wide, bluestone patio with a fine view of the river. James Chapman says that he hopes to attract both casual diners in search of pub fare as well as those looking for an evening of refined food and service — Budweiser and Bordeaux.
On my first visit, a Saturday evening shortly after the restaurant’s opening, I was accompanied by my wife, Amy, and our three-and-a-half-year-old eating machine, Sean. The place was jamming but we were promptly escorted to our table. That was the last human contact we experienced for more than half an hour. The flustered staff never made eye contact with us. As I rose to fetch my own cocktail from the bar I remarked to Amy that it appeared as if the servers had been recruited from passengers on a recent Amtrak train. To be fair, this was not so much the wait staff’s fault but rather inadequate training and management’s overbooking.
Stick to your ribs: Nieman Ranch short ribs are braised in red wine and served with caramelized root vegetables.
On my second visit, on a weeknight when the room was three-quarters full, service was very pleasant — and much improved. The Spanish-born chef, Rei Peraza, comes from the hotel and resort world, including a tour of duty at the highly rated Salish Lodge and Spa in Snoqualmie, Washington. His menu melds brasserie fare, bistro dishes, bracing American standards, and, not surprisingly, English mainstays like shepherd’s pie and fish and chips.
The latter arrived in a megaphone-sized cornet weighed down with golden chunks of cleanly fried monkish set over French fries, with a zesty, lemony vinegar dipping sauce. A twist on shepherd’s pie may surprise traditionalists, but it’s a savory twist: luscious braised oxtail along with caramelized root vegetables and wild mushrooms, all mired in a stout beef stock. My only quibble is that it was a tad too soupy. Then there is the British back-of-the-refrigerator staple called bubble and squeak, a sizeable and savory dish. It has many iterations, but typically it’s a skillet-fried combination of cabbage (or brussels sprouts), celery, parsnips, and leftover mashed potatoes. Chef Peraza’s crispy, herb infused adaptation certainly makes a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
One of the more curious offerings was a tongue-in-cheek take on shrimp cocktail. I didn’t much care for it: cooked prawns presented in a cocktail glass partly submerged in a light tomato-based sauce zapped with a bit of Tabasco. Also added to the mix is samphire, the briny saltwater greens that sometimes are called sea asparagus. If you benefit from congenitally low cholesterol, go for the rich and well seasoned rillettes of pork (chopped or shredded pork cooked in its own fat and served with toast and pickled vegetables), or the absolutely delicious purée of carrot soup. There is a nice cheese selection as well.
Appropriate for a brasserie, the beer list is extensive, and eclectic. (Skullspliter from Scotland, anyone?) The wine selection is limited but adequate, leaning toward France and Italy. Prices are generally fair, with plenty to choose from in the $30-$40 range. Among reds, if you want to splurge you’ll get your credit card’s worth with the silky Gigondas from Dom Brusset, Le grand Montmirail, 2005 ($49), or the fruity 2005 Vietti, Nebbiolo Perbacco ($41).
Having cleaned out the bread basket, Sean ordered the hamburger and pronounced it “good,” although dad found the French fries a bit greasy. Designer beef from northern California’s celebrated Neiman Ranch was put to better use in lusty short ribs braised in red wine with caramelized root vegetables.
The one excursion into Italian cuisine (a special) was very pleasing: a nice mélange of rigatoni tossed with arugula, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and pesto. Another seafood dish was sautéed skate wing, the boney, fan-shaped denizen of the ocean floor whose succulent sweet flesh is reminiscent of scallops. It was enhanced by a sharp-sweet sherry-tarragon reduction aromatic of lemon and thyme.
For dessert, you might return to the motherland for a winsome concoction called sticky toffee pudding. Essentially a dense cake base sweetened with gooey chopped dates, it’s slathered with toffee icing (brown sugar, butter, and cream). Hey, the Brits love it, so at least give it a try. Another winning option is the lovely anise-tinged quince bread pudding.
The dining room at the Lazarus-like Rhinecliff hotel can be likened to the proverbial dog walking on its hind legs: it may not be done flawlessly, but you’re impressed that it’s done at all. What is more, this well-intended institution represents a colorful thread in the region’s historical tapestry — another reason to lend support. And while the restaurant can be recommended even at this adolescent stage, it has the potential to become the newest “destination” dining room in town.
The Bar at the Rhinecliff
All meals daily from 7 a.m.-9:30 p.m. (to 10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.). Appetizers range from $6.95-$13.95; entrées from $13.95-$23.95, desserts $5.95-$7.95.
4 Grinnell St., Rhinecliff. 876-845-0590