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The Importance of the Neighborhood Restaurant

I have waited some time before writing this post – I needed to let the significance of the event sink in. Anyone who ever spent time in Saranac Lake over the past 30 years knows Casa del Sol. “Casa” as it was known, was the consummate neighborhood restaurant. It was a staple in everyone’s diet and an important memory for those who moved on from the Adirondacks at some point. This past year, “Casa” closed its doors. Maybe its time had come. Quite possibly it was a victim of the economic downturn. It could be a result of too much competition in a small town or maybe a changing population demographic. Whatever the reason, an important part of our community culture is gone. I felt it was important to talk about the role of the neighborhood restaurant in American society along with some history of this landmark restaurant.

I remember moving back to the Adirondacks in 1976 and starting work at the Mirror Lake Inn as a chef/manager. Like most chefs, I still had a gnawing desire to run my own place (thank God I never followed through) and always had an eye open for the right opportunity.

At the entrance to Saranac Lake stood a French Restaurant/Motel combination called Le Petite Francaise. The couple who owned and operated the establishment were ready to retire and the shop was up for sale. My mind was spinning with ideas. Of course, I would make it a classic French Brasserie with all of the classic dishes that I was trained to prepare. People would flock to try my food (that’s what I kept telling myself and my wife Sharon). Fortunately, I didn’t have any money and the restaurant would require more funds than I had access to.

Harry Tucker bought the building and took a year to renovate it. Harry was going to build a Mexican restaurant in Saranac Lake, how absurd. He opened a year later and the place was packed from that day forward. He had the right concept, in the right location, at the right time. Whether it was genius or luck, I will never know, but it worked. Over the years Harry added many pieces of original Mexican art from his trips South of the Border, but rarely changed the formula: great margaritas, simple but tasty food, and most importantly: a place where everybody knew your name.

The neighborhood restaurant serves many roles, but most important is a gathering place for friends and soon-to-be friends. In most small towns, it is the role of the restaurant to provide a forum for people to talk, argue, laugh, clink glasses and enjoy the reality of where they live. Restaurants with great food come and go, it is the neighborhood restaurant that typically survives swings in the economy and changes in customer tastes.

It is quite disheartening to see certain very important community focal points call it quits and put that closed sign on the front door. Bookstores, Movie Theaters, Newsstands, Groceries, Restaurants and even Churches are falling victim to a disturbing trend. Sometimes it is the convenience of the chains, the pricing that can’t be beat, or the ease of clicking on amazon.com (I am just as guilty as most) to get what we need, but in the process we destroy the soul of our towns.

As we collectively adopt the need for supporting farmers and local producers of raw materials we must also look at the sustainability of our communities. We need to protect the core of what made America great: the small business, and in this case, the neighborhood restaurant.

After 25 years in business, Harry Tucker threw a party for the community to celebrate his restaurant and thank his neighbors. Traffic was stopped, whole goats were being roasted outside, a mariachi band played, and EVERYONE in Saranac Lake came out to toast its important landmark.

A few years later Harry passed away leaving the operation of Casa to his wife and seasoned employees. They did a great job for a few years but as is the case with many restaurant folks, grew tired of the relentless work schedules. Casa was sold to Bryan Morgan, son of Saranac Lake’s most infamous restaurateur: Dew Drop Morgan. Bryan is a seasoned restaurateur in his own right and took his role as operator of a Saranac Lake icon very seriously. Casa was back! Unfortunately, in a few years, the restaurant just could not sustain and closed its doors in 2012.

Saranac Lake is not void of other neighborhood restaurants, nor is it lacking new ones opening up, but Casa was special.

Saranac Lake still has The Blue Moon, Left Bank Cafe, The Belvedere and even the Red Foxx to lean on. Bryan Morgan even reopened a family restaurant called Morgan’s Grill just a few months ago. We wish all of these restaurants well and implore the residents of our community and those passing through to support the small businesses that work so hard to maintain a sense of community.

All across America people must rally around the idea of the neighborhood restaurant. This is, after all, the center of the community, the place where we meet our friends, toast to their good health, break bread and relish the places where we live.

Small business is the backbone of our country and the heart of free-enterprise. Think small!