You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

A year of Hidden Gems: 19 spots in CNY you didn’t know about but should

Syracuse.com logo Syracuse.com 11/3/2020 Charlie Miller, syracuse.com
a bowl of salad: The gyro over salad from Naani’s in Liverpool. © Charlie Miller/Charlie Miller | cmiller@syracuse.com/syracuse.com/TNS The gyro over salad from Naani’s in Liverpool.

Syracuse, N.Y. — Central New York does so much right when it comes to food, drinks and entertainment. We sometimes take for granted what surrounds us here.

Over the past year, I embarked on a mission to find unknown spots and share them. With the help of syracuse.com readers, I found 19 true hidden gems and documented the experience.

Over the past couple weeks, I revisited many of them to see how they were doing. For some, business has never been better. Others, however, fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic.

Here’s a look at the first year of our area’s hidden gems.

If you have a place we need to know about, call or text me at (315) 382-1984 or drop me an email: cmiller@syracuse.com. As always, if I take your suggestion, I might buy you a meal.

a chicken sandwich and fries on a plate: The steak & cheese sub from Sam’s Chicken Land. © Charlie Miller/Charlie Miller | cmiller@syracuse.com/syracuse.com/TNS The steak & cheese sub from Sam’s Chicken Land.

Hidden Gem 1: Fresh fried chicken and a killer steak sub

Venue: Sam’s Chicken Land, 527 Charles Ave., Solvay, (315) 488-4555.

Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., closes at 8:30 on Friday. Closed Sunday.

What’s so great about it? Sam’s Chicken Land is the original hidden gem. I was out reporting a story on the secret sandwiches of Central New York. A reader had raved about the steak and cheese sub at Sam’s. I gave it a shot and was flabbergasted. Seriously, it truly was one of the best sandwiches I had ever shoved down my throat.

A week later, I ate the fried chicken. It was then that I decided we needed to let the secret out.

a plate of food on a table: The Otisco perch special at the Western Ranch Motor Lodge. © Charlie Miller/Charlie Miller | cmiller@syracuse.com/syracuse.com/TNS The Otisco perch special at the Western Ranch Motor Lodge.

Greg Hrynyk, an insurance salesman from Auburn, bought Sam’s in 2009. The previous owner, Sam Awwad, taught him how to make the chicken, the sandwiches and the seasoned fries. He hasn’t changed a thing since, and that’s a good thing. During my most recent stop, I revisited the steak and cheese sub with peppers and onions. It was just as good as our first rendezvous, and just like the first time, the season fries made it so much more special.

a store front at day: Sam's Chicken Land in Syracuse. The hidden gems of Central New York. © Charlie Miller/Charlie Miller | cmiller@syracuse.com/syracuse.com/TNS Sam's Chicken Land in Syracuse. The hidden gems of Central New York.

The days after we introduced Sam’s, a line to get into the place stretched out the door almost to West Genesee Street.

Since Sam’s is mostly a takeout business, Covid-19 didn’t change much. Greg said business has remained brisk, although it’s mostly takeout now. He’s added Plexiglas dividers at the counter, but everything else looks the same.

He still won’t share the recipe for the seasoning that covers his french fries.

Hidden Gem 2: Fill your tank with gas, fill your belly with a Pakistani gyro

Venue: Naani’s, 416 Oswego St., Liverpool, (315) 870-9505.

Hours: Seven days a week 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Food at a gas station? Seriously? I found this place when I stopped to fill my gas tank. I went inside to get a drink and saw the food cart with a picture of an inviting Pakistani gyro. I couldn’t help but order some food.

It was a delightful variation on the typical gyro. Everything was fresh and cooked right in front of me. In the gas station.

Syed Shirazi, 41, opened this stand in March 2019. Sarah DuPre, who works for Syed, still does most of the cooking. She marinates the chicken for two days before cooking it on the skewers. She uses a mix of Pakistani spices and paprika, turmeric and cumin powder.

Naani’s stopped serving during the restaurant shutdown because they had a hard time getting the meat. It has since reopened, and it’s serving dozens of meals a day in between selling gas, lottery tickets and cigarettes.

The menu stands at just four items: gyro with a pita, gyro over rice, gyro over salad and the gyro special that comes with both seasoned chicken and beef with pita bread and basmati rice.

“People still come in just because they heard we served good food,” Sarah said. “What can I say?”

Well, Sarah, you can say you still serve great, cheap food. During the most recent visit, I opted for the healthier menu item: the gyro over salad. I just pretended the hot creamy sauce was fat-free. They had a special of buy one, get one half off. My neighbor thanks you.

Hidden Gem 3: Mexican food in an Irish bar

Venue: Steve’s, 401 Milton Ave., Syracuse, (315) 468-3380.

Hours: Bar is open 7 days a week, morning until late night. Restaurant is Wednesday-Friday, 5 to 9 p.m.

Mexican food in an Irish bar? Steve’s is one of the most welcoming bars on Tipperary Hill, in my opinion. You can get a 10-ounce Miller Lite draft for $1.25, and owner Mike Wojenski makes one of the best Bloody Marys you’ll find in Syracuse.

On Thursdays and Friday, though, you can get some of the best Mexican food in the city to go with that cold beer. Dave Walker, a local professional musician, rents out the kitchen in the back. The nights he’s working are the nights you’ll suddenly find 20-somethings mixing in with the older bar crowd. It’s all about the food, they say.

Dave’s specialty is a smothered burrito in a flour tortilla filled with cheese and your choice of beans, chicken or pork ($10). He tops it with chile verde, melted cheese, tomatoes and shredded lettuce. He adds sides of spiced-up buttery corn, yellow rice and beans. He’ll start you off with tortilla chips and homemade salsa.

On Wednesdays, Dave makes American food. In the fall and winter, he’s usually preparing comfort food. Consider yourself lucky if you’re there when he’s serving meatloaf or his baked garlic chicken drums smothered in a fresh creamy mushroom sauce. It’ll warm you up during these damp autumn nights.

Dave shut down in March when the state ordered bars and restaurant dining rooms closed. He reopened last week, and his customers followed.

Hidden Gem 4: An unbelievable fish sandwich at an unbelievably low price

Venue: The Fish Company of Liverpool, 209 Oswego St., Liverpool, (315) 457-9839.

Hours: Wednesday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

What’s so great about it? What caught our eye from the get-go was the price of a fish sandwich. Seriously, you get a fresh haddock sandwich for $3.69 on a good-sized roll. I fed my family for under $20 during Lent.

Cosmo Giardina learned to cook here when it was a Fish Cove. He liked it so much, and he enjoyed the customers, so he bought it 14 years ago.

He hasn’t changed much. He still cuts the fillets himself and prepares the breading. On a typical day, he’ll go through 50 pounds of haddock (much more during the Lenten season). He and his small staff also make all the side dishes.

Like many of the area’s fish spots, Cosmo will broil the haddock, and he’ll sell you the raw fillets if you want to cook it yourself.

Hint: Stop by this fall for the chowder. They make everything from scratch, and you’ll leave with a satisfying warm feeling in your belly.

Hidden Gem 5: If there’s such a thing as gourmet diner food, I found it

Venue: The Brewerton Diner, 5771 Miller Road, Brewerton

Hours: Closed for good.

What made it special? This place had it all: a large, clean dining room, a state-of-the-art kitchen and a creative menu. It was run by Mike Piraino, a guy who poured his soul into making gourmet diner food. “It’s a diner for foodies,” he said a year ago.

When we published the story about Mike’s breakfasts, the Brewerton Diner got so busy that he ran out of food for several consecutive days. By last winter, the business was up 30% over its busiest year, and he remodeled to make it even better. But then Covid hit, and they ultimately shut down and never reopened. Another diner, the Brewer Union Cafe, has moved into the building.

Mike is still cooking. He opened Bear Creek Restaurant at 5480 Bartel Road, and he remains creative when it comes to his menu. He offers a bacon board — yes, a BACON BOARD!!! — that contains thick slabs of bacon done five ways: maple, bourbon butter, blueberry BBQ, sriracha and peppered.

Hidden Gem 6: A roadside bar serving prime rib and a mammoth calzone

Venue: Frank’s Moondance Tavern, 2512 Cherry Valley Turnpike, Marcellus, (315) 673-1135.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., 365 days a year. Kitchen opens at 11 a.m. and closes 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 9 p.m. Sunday.

What’s so great about it? This roadside bar offers cold beer in a can, spirited conversation and generous helpings of delicious food. Frank Mincolla opened the Moondance in 2003 when he grew tired of working as a mason. It became a must-stop for those living nearby and those passing through on their snowmobiles or motorcycles, depending on the season.

The cooks here make the pizza dough and the sauce that goes on top, using Frank’s family recipe. Prime rib remains the big seller on Fridays, for both lunch and dinner. Perhaps the best appetizer is the Pretzilla ($8.85), a 10-ounce warm pretzel with Bavarian mustard on the side and a cup of real melted cheese.

Courtney Hourigan, one of Frank’s veteran bartenders, bought the restaurant in January when he decided to retire. It continues to be the place to eat if you’re near Otisco Lake. She redecorated and updated the inside, but she’s kept most of the menu intact. Thankfully, she continues to offer daily specials (Monday, by the way, was burger night: $8 for a half-pounder with any of the 15-plus toppings you want.). She updates their specials on the Moondance Facebook page.

Hidden Gem 7: A motel restaurant stuck in the past ... on purpose

Venue: Western Ranch Motor Lodge, 1255 State Fair Blvd, Syracuse, (315) 457-9236

Hours: Open 7 days a week. Restaurant opens at noon, except no lunch on Mondays.

Why this place? Not much has changed here since we visited last November. Then again, not much has changed at “The Ranch” since it opened in the 1950s, and that’s how Walter “Wally” Gaworecki Jr. likes it. He bought the retro-style motel in 1981, but homemade food and fun was a priority from the first day.

They switched to takeout only during the state-imposed dining room shutdown, but they reopened in late September. Lyndsey Kay is back behind the bar during the day, and she picked up where she left off. On a recent Friday afternoon, she remembered what every customer at the bar drank with their meals, right down to my cold Miller Lite in a chilled pint glass. See? Some things never change here at the Ranch.

“We’re slowly but surely getting back to normal,” Lyndsey said.

The food here is as good and rich as the history. You can hear stories of the musicians warming up in the parking lot before taking the Grandstand stage at the State Fair, and you can see pictures and memorabilia from movies filmed here.

Everything served here is made here. Wally buys the produce each day at a nearby farmer’s market. The chef makes all the soups, side dishes and entrees. He even hand-cuts the steaks.

While most of his fish is trucked in from Canada, Wally was serving perch from Otisco Lake during my most recent visit. It was $14 for about a dozen strips and a bowl of clam chowder and a salad. The perch tasted as fresh as if I had caught it myself.

Hidden Gem 8: Down-home cooking to take home with you

Venue: Joe’s To Go, 415 W. Onondaga St., Syracuse, (315) 565-5637

Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday

What’s so great about it? Every day is different at Joe’s To Go. You can thank Phil McCarthy Jr. for that. Phil, the restaurant’s manager, comes up with the specials, he helps cook the food, and he works the front counter.

While Joe’s has a dining room in the back, it remains mainly a takeout restaurant. It didn’t matter much that Joe’s closed the front door during the pandemic and installed a window for takeout orders. The food remains the same.

Phil regularly posts specials on their Facebook page. The two-page menu still features southern-inspired dishes like cheese grits and garlic-fried rice. It also has burgers, pasta, baked mac and cheese, empanadas and plenty of sandwiches.

When we first wrote about Joe’s, we couldn’t say enough about the pressure-fried chicken wings with the unusual sauces, especially the one made with Hennessy cognac and the curry coconut coating. Jerrilinn Gorman’s desserts also were a reason to stop on the way home.

Since then, though, I’ve discovered the catfish on occasional Fridays. Yet another reason to make the quick stop on Onondaga Street.

Phil said on Tuesday that business has certainly slowed since Covid, but they’re doing well, and they’ll be adding new items to the menu as the weather cools.

Hidden Gem 9: A grill in the middle of freakin' nowhere that’s worth the trip

Venue: Dugan’s Country Grill, 3228 NY Route 34B, Aurora, (315) 364-5500

Hours: Wednesday-Saturday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Closed Monday and Tuesday

What’s so great about it? Michael Dugan is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He served as a chef at some of the finest restaurants in Boston, California and Colorado. Then he moved to rural Upstate New York and opened a diner in Scipio Center, 48 minutes away from Syracuse in southern Cayuga County.

Here he makes food that comforts the many nearby farmers and those of us willing to travel this far to get some silky sausage gravy.

“These are farmers who work hard and want a good meal. They will never leave here hungry,” Michael said last winter.

His Landfill Plate (three eggs on top of potatoes and house-made hash and smothered in his gravy for $9.50) is a reason I’ll return.

When the story first appeared on syracuse.com, Michael’s business jumped to 300 breakfasts a day. They’re still doing a brisk business, he said, with people driving from the Binghamton area, Syracuse, Owego and the Rochester area. Now, though, they’re limited to 50 percent capacity, so they’re serving 150 people per day.

“But we’re still doing well," Michael said on Tuesday. "I can’t thank all of our customers enough for supporting us during this tough time. We’re not going anywhere.”

Hidden Gem 10 An old trailer that serves the Dominican flavor from a vacant city parking lot

Venue: El Trailer Del Sabor, the corner of Niagara and Seymour streets, Syracuse, (315) 965-6616

Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday.

What’s so great about it? Even on a crummy wet day in late-October during a pandemic, people still lined up to get authentic Dominican food at a reasonable price from El Trailer del Sabor (Spanish for The Flavor Trailer).

“We’re still very busy,” Manuel Lopez said from the window of the 18-foot trailer parked in this vacant lot. “We’re not a restaurant, so the pandemic didn’t really hurt us. If anything, we were busier because people couldn’t eat at the restaurants they normally would.”

He and his girlfriend, Lucy, bought the trailer for $300 in LaFayette, turned it into a portable restaurant kitchen and parked it here. They opened last September, and have been serving since. The only change they’ve made is a fresh coat of beige paint (It used to be a lively blue.).

They continue to post their daily menu on the trailer’s Facebook page.

Hidden Gem 11: A Middle-Eastern fusion restaurant tucked inside a convenience store

Venue: Syracuse Halal Gyro, 477 Westcott St., Syracuse, (315) 299-6640

Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Currently, they’re closed on Sundays.

What’s so great about it? Three longtime friends who shared a love for gyros, especially those made in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, decided one day to open a restaurant that specialized in halal food (foods allowed under Islamic dietary laws). Meru Patel’s family had owned the Westcott Grocery store on Westcott Street for 15 years, so they figured this would be the perfect spot to put their own spin on their favorite food.

They opened this “Middle Eastern Fusion” kitchen in April 2019, and they’ve developed a loyal customer base, mostly pulled from nearby Syracuse University.

When the pandemic hit, they scaled back their hours, especially when SU sent its students home. Now that students are back, business is bouncing back.

“Everything is going well,” Meru said.

It’s going so well that Meru, Rami Amer and Mohamed Soliman are expanding their business by adding a food truck. They’re equipping the trailer now and hope to have it on the road soon.

Syracuse Halal Gyro improvises on the traditional gyro recipe. It starts with mounds of shaved lamb, peppers and onions. The lamb is seasoned a little heavier than traditional gyros like you’d get at the State Fair. The tzatziki sauce also is spicier, but it’s not too hot. It’s a huge meal for just $6.99.

Hidden Gem 12: Bullhead season is short, but The Euclid is forever

Venue: The Euclid Restaurant, 4285 NY-31, Clay, (315) 622-2750

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday noon to 8 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday temporarily

What’s so great about it? Readers first nominated The Euclid to be a Hidden Gem last spring because it’s one of the most popular places to get haddock during Lent, and they’re one of few restaurants to offer bullhead.

I was surprised to learn that people flock to the Euclid to eat this boney red-blooded fish caught in the Thousand Islands, especially when you can get such good haddock and not have to maneuver around so many sharp bones.

The bullhead was indeed worth returning for, and I will come back at the start of bullhead season in April.

But the Euclid offers so much more. You need to come here on Wednesdays for the all-you-can eat southern fried chicken ($16.99). Owner Fran Fiorito dips the chicken in a honey-based batter before dusting it with breading and easing it into the fryer.

Tuesday’s special is the 2-pound of prime rib ($27.99) and chicken and biscuits ($10.99).

Hidden Gem 13: A Tipp Hill bar hires a chef and reopens its kitchen after 23 years

Venue: McAvan’s Pub, 1217 W. Fayette St., Syracuse, (315) 423-1583

Kitchen hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday 2 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Bar is open later.

What’s so great about it? When bars shut down on March 16 because of the pandemic, the folks at McAvan’s got to work. The kitchen in this Tipp Hill bar hadn’t been used in 23 years, but they wanted to use this time to remodel the bar. Then Sean Gates, an old friend of Sean McAvan who has served as executive chef at area restaurants, offered to lease the kitchen so they could get back into the food business.

When bars and restaurant dining rooms reopened in June, word quickly spread that McAvan’s was now a bar known for big burgers and top-notch chicken wings.

It spread so quickly that Sean had a hard time keeping up. He found himself getting to work earlier and earlier to prep more food that he bought fresh that morning.

“It was really busy at first,” he said recently during the end of his lunch rush. “We need this pandemic to go away so the restrictions (of dining room occupancy) can go away so restaurants can survive.”

Until then, Sean continues to churn out his gourmet burgers and high-end sandwiches and appetizers. Since college and pro sports have returned, he’s suddenly found himself busy on weekends. Perhaps the $9 wing special on game days has something to do with it.

Check his Facebook page for his specials. I was all set to order wings ($11 for 10 jumbo wings of any flavor) and the Station #5 burger (a half-pound patty with jalapeño relish, sriracha mayonnaise and onion rings for $10). Then I saw he was featuring a chicken bacon ranch sandwich ($8) and a fried shrimp burrito ($10). Both were delicious bargains, and so were the Irish egg rolls ($8).

Sean made the Irish egg rolls as I waited and watched in his kitchen. He chopped the corned beef and cabbage and rolled it in an egg roll wrapper. After a minute or two in the fryer, he plated it on top of a bed of romaine lettuce in a Styrofoam container and drizzled his own Thousand Island dressing.

Hidden Gem 14: Homemade soups and designer sandwiches tucked inside an office park

Venue: Salt City Soup Company, 301 Plainfield Road, Syracuse, (315) 399-4000.

Hours: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday, Wednesday and Friday. 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday. Closed Saturday and Sunday.

What’s so great about it? All Tim Tschernjawski wanted to do was open his own restaurant. He had worked downtown and Kitty Hoynes Irish Pub, where soup was his specialty. After working at a couple more restaurants, he finally took the plunge. He opened The Salt City Soup Company in an office park on March 10.

A week later, the state ordered all restaurants to close their dining rooms. He could still offer takeout, but the built-in customer base offered by the business surrounding his restaurant was mostly working from home now.

He adjusted his hours and promoted his homemade soups and high-end sandwiches in social media. Customers slowly returned, especially now that dining rooms have reopened and workers are spending more time at the office.

I stopped in a couple weeks ago, and Tim was boxing up an order of 12 lunches for a medical practice in East Syracuse. “We’re hanging in there,” he said. “People still want good food, and that’s what matters.”

The first time I ate here I ordered a bowl of his roasted pepper bisque ($6). That was on a 91-degree afternoon. It was excellent then, but it was even better on a 65-degree fall day. My entrée was the steak and greens: grilled steak, tomato, bacon, bleu cheese crumbles and onion straws over mixed greens. (Yes, I get it. Who orders a salad in a specialty sandwich shop? I wanted the soup to have the spotlight. It did.)

Hidden Gem 15: Feast on top-notch Middle Eastern food while getting your car washed

Venue: Baghdad Restaurant, 3512 W. Genesee St., Syracuse 315-802-6628

Hours: This location closed. It will reopen in the Salt City Market downtown soon.

What’s so great about it? This restaurant was connected to a car wash. I found it because Delta Sonic was too crowded. But I ended up staying because the food is that good. Firas Hashim, the owner, grew up in Iraq and has been cooking Middle Eastern food in restaurants for 17 years.

Watching Firas prepare and cook the food was almost as fun as eating it. He grinds his own lamb and chicken meat for kebobs, he mixes his own falafels, and he makes the sauces and spice mixes that accompany those.

He’s anxiously awaiting the opening of the Salt City Market. It should happen by the end of the year. The menu at his downtown location will be the same, but he’ll add some sandwich and more portable options for downtown workers on their lunch hour.

Hidden Gem 16: Strike some of the best chicken riggies EVER at this bowling alley

Venue: Green Lakes Lanes, 7930 E. Genesee St., Fayetteville, (315) 637-6000

Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Open until midnight Friday and Saturday.

What’s so great about it? This place could’ve easily stuck with pizza and chicken wings. It’s a bowling alley on the outskirts of Fayetteville, after all, and most people come here to bowl and maybe have a few beers.

Brian Holmes, who spent most of his adult life running dry cleaning businesses, wanted more for his customers. He also wanted more for his employees, whom he empowered to come up with good food at a good price, food that might keep the bowlers here longer and keep them coming back.

The cooks at his other business, Brick House Billiards in North Syracuse, came up with a recipe for chicken riggies that could rival most Italian restaurants in the area. Don’t take my word for it; so many customers including some local chefs who have eaten here in the past month have said the same thing. An order of riggies is $14.97, and it comes with Italian bread and a generous side salad made on the spot. The whole thing weighed more than a pound.

The hamburgers here start with a half pound of Iowa angus. Each cook knows exactly how long to cook a patty to your desired level of doneness. If you’re really hungry, get the bacon cheeseburger. It adds American cheese and two thick strips of applewood-smoked bacon.

“Before we were just a bowling alley that served snacks,” Brian said. “Now we’re a bowling alley that serves a good meal.”

Yes, they are.

Hidden Gem 17: An apple orchard you visit when you want to slow down and relax

Venue: Owen Orchards, 8174 Grant Ave., Weedsport, (315) 252-4097

Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, 9-6 Saturdays, 9-5 Sundays. The store is open mid-August through mid-March.

What’s so great about it? It was the start of the 2020 apple season when several readers suggested this orchard as a place to get away from all the apple pickers. I can see that. We enjoyed some great weather this fall, especially on the weekends. Owen Orchards was the perfect place to escape crowds of people during the pandemic.

We could pick any kind of apples from the 15,000 trees and roam freely throughout the 30 acres. Never did we fight for space in the rows of trees, or donuts and hard-pressed cider inside the store.

“We treat people here like guests,” said Gordon Tripp, the 78-year-old owner of the orchards. “Slow down and enjoy.”

That’s good advice, Gordon, and that kept us coming back.

Hidden Gem 18: A well-known restaurant creates a backyard oasis during pandemic

Venue: Eva’s European Sweets, 1305 Milton Ave., Syracuse, (315) 487-2722

Hours: Monday noon to 7 p.m.; Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday noon to 8 p.m.; closed Sunday.

Why Eva’s? The Polish food at Eva’s is certainly no secret, especially after it was featured on the Food Network in 2013. That’s not what brought me here this time.

I visited after a few readers raved about the new outdoor patio and fire pit that went up during the dining room shutdown. Owner Ewa Zaczynski and her family transformed the back yard into a peaceful dining area. Before the summer, it was just a grass-patched back yard with a not-so-pleasant view of the street. (And yes, her first name is spelled Ewa. With a W. The restaurant is called Eva’s because she finally gave up after years of everyone misspelling her name with a V.)

They grabbed every wood pallet they could find in the county and used that to create as a border. They hung outdoor festival lights, and they hauled in eight picnic tables, 10 oversized Adirondack chairs and a 30-inch rubbed bronze fire pit. They covered the lawn with easy-to-care-for gravel. “The only thing missing is a hammock,” said Allison Perkins, a server/bartender/manager for the past 12 years here.

Over the past few weeks, local artist Jacqueline Colello finished a mural that overlooks the new outdoor dining area.

But you’re going to come here for the food and drinks, so that’s what you should have. A Post-Standard subscriber turned me onto the newly improved place, so I treated him to a healthy meal. We started with mushroom croquettes ($9.50) because Ewa said that’s what she’d eat. Then we moved onto Hungarian-style potato pancakes ($14.99), the dish featured on The Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

All the while, Ewa had us sampling drinks she was going to introduce to the menu.

Hidden Gem 19: 60 wide-open acres where you can unplug and grab a beer with retired zoo animals

Venue: Willowdale Bend, 2080 Willowdale Road, Skaneateles, NY 13152, (315) 415-8925

Hours: Noon-7 p.m. Friday; 10 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

A farm? Yes, a farm. Think of it as an interactive ranch that’ll help you relax before returning to reality.

There’s no set menu, no program, no process. Just show up and walk around. It costs nothing to do that. Rick and Joyce Frost bought Willowdale created this respite with that in mind. It’s a place to get away.

If you’re hungry, head to the shed for one of Karen Southard’s juicy hamburgers. If you’re thirsty, go inside the farmhouse for a cold local beer or a bottle of New York State wine. And when you feel like walking around, go visit the animals. You’ll find roosters and geese wandering around. Past the fence you’ll see a family of bison that was recently retired from Syracuse’s Rosamond Gifford Zoo.

“People today don’t get to unplug enough,” Rick said last month. “If we can give them 30 minutes, an hour, or maybe more, of time to themselves with no distractions, then we’ve done what we set out to do.”

They are coming off their busiest few weekends ever. The weather cooperated, and Central New Yorkers had few options during the pandemic.

Charlie Miller finds the best in food, drink and fun across Central New York. Contact him at 315-382-1984, or by email at cmiller@syracuse.com.

———

©2020 Syracuse Media Group, N.Y.

Visit Syracuse Media Group, N.Y. at www.syracuse.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AdChoices

More From Syracuse.com

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon