The Stewart House is not new.
As many a Greene County resident can attest, the Athens hotel is a longtime presence in the community. By longtime, we mean in Hudson Valley standards — the hotel dates all the way back to 1883 when it was originally a boarding house.
Over the years, The Stewart House changed hands from one owner to the next all the way up until November 2017, when Lon and Lois Ballinger purchased it. A serial entrepreneur by nature, Lon Ballinger has overseen everything from nightclubs in Toronto to New York City’s Webster Hall, which he owned for a little more than 30 years. Right around the time he sold the hall, the Mount Kisco resident and his wife acquired the Athens hotel and promptly got to work to restore the historic retreat to its luxurious standards.
The Stewart House of today is not the same as The Stewart House of 2017. Since taking the reins, the Ballingers have carefully walked the line between preserving the hotel’s local heritage and introducing their fresh perspective. To do so, they closed the property down for six months to refit it and give it the TLC it needed. By Memorial Day of 2018, they were ready to welcome the public once more.
So what’s new about The Stewart House? Just enough for locals feel right at home and for visitors to fall quickly in love with it. From the river, the hotel’s majestic willow tree calls to boats that cruise along the Hudson and signals drivers to stop, slow down, and stay for a while. Uniquely, The Stewart House is one of only a handful of riverside restaurants in the Hudson Valley that allows boaters to tie up their rigs and come ashore for a farm-fresh dinners in Athens. The hotel has its own 80-foot dock that walks right up to its River Grill bar and eatery, which is open seasonally for light bites and drinks.
Inside The Stewart House proper, history winds its way through the hallways, along the wonderfully retro bar in the dining room, and into each and every one of the nine guest rooms. Yet never for a minute does it over power the simple elegance of the space. Instead, it harmonizes with modernity in the form of brick accents alongside crisp white sheets in the bedrooms and vibrant green salads savored under original tin ceilings at the Ca. 1883 Tavern. Much of the wood trim is original, and many new additions have been designed with a vintage feel. In the dining room, for instance, Lois Ballinger worked with Athens designer Tim Albright to craft new banquets from a rich tan leather that looks like it’s been there for years. The banquets sit near to the restaurant’s expansive mural, done by local artist Nora Johnson, which extends across the walls and brings the watercolor landscapes of the Hudson Valley to life.
“Everyone comments on how beautiful it is,” observes Bob Turner, the chef at Ca. 1883 Tavern and River Grill. “We’re striking a balance between old and up-to-date.”
Of course, the décor isn’t the only thing that’s garnering public approval. Turner’s cuisine is highly regarded in its own right. Since joining The Stewart House in August 2018, the self-described “CIA brat” (read: Culinary Institute of America graduate) channels his passion for beautiful cuisine and local ingredients into his Athens kitchen.
Drawing upon his 14 years of experience at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck and after at Rivertown Lodge in Hudson, he crafts menu items that crisscross Mediterranean flavors with Americana dishes and Hudson Valley ingredients. He’s not afraid to lean into trends (bone broth is a starter) and finds a happy balance between comforting fare (hello, smoked tomato soup) and unexpected ingredients (seared haloumi with roasted butternut squash, anyone?). His main focus is the Ca. 1883 Tavern, which is open Thursdays through Sundays for dinner and Sundays for brunch. Come summer, he’ll extend his presence to the hotel’s River Grill, where he and his team will whip up fan-favorite Highland Hollow beef burgers made perfect with a single flip and simple salads that feature seasonal produce front and center.
“We keep getting new people in,” Turner enthuses, adding that many newcomers are part of wedding parties who overnight at the hotel or stop by before heading to a ceremony in Hudson or nearby at Gather Greene or Meadow Ridge Farm. “For wedding parties, we do a great job of being an anchor point for couples getting married in Columbia and Greene Counties. We’re right next to the Hudson River and a bridge ride to Hudson.”
In the new decade, he and the Ballingers look forward to making The Stewart House a true destination along the Hudson River. In addition to turning the River Grill, formerly Happy Jake’s, into a food and drink stop-off by the water, they are also introducing special dinner programming for locals who want to try something new. On Thursdays, for instance, they invite diners for burger nights with open mic performances. The following day, on Fridays, they unwind with Fish Fridays, when they serve traditional fish and chips. As for Sundays, they’re all about English Sunday roasts with prime rib that Turner prepares whole.
Come summer, The Stewart House leans into lazy days and living in the moment. With a towering willow tree and magnificent Hudson River views, it seems a shame to do anything else.
“It is the best outdoor dining and waterside dining that exists that I know of,” Turner enthuses, admitting that he might be a little biased. “[The Stewart House] is literally on the Hudson River with a beautiful view of the Hudson Athens lighthouse and a timeless willow tree. It just slows down and feels super night out there.”
The Stewart House
2 N Water St, Athens