Elegant tavern embraces its bawdy past
Once a brothel and a nudist colony, Richardson's Canal House now offers some of Rochester's best al fresco dining
It’s easy to imagine yourself dining among ghosts in Richardson’s Canal House, a Tolkien-esque nineteenth-century inn at Bushnell’s Basin. Here, a microcosm of Rochester’s richly layered history of expansion, decline, and rebirth is served with a side of creamed spinach and bordelaise.
As you sip a fine Finger Lakes wine and slice off dainty bites of steak or lamb, you can see shadows of burly Erie Canal builders slamming their tankards on the table for more ale as they boisterously recount their encounters with mosquitoes and stubborn mules. Avert your eyes, for upstairs are a few cramped prostitute cribs that today’s waitstaff still refer to as “sin bins.” Maybe instead, you catch a shimmering glimpse of a naked man walking past your window, a member of a nudist colony that took over the place in the 1930s. Or that plaintive sound you hear might be wind whistling along the slumping rafters during the two decades the tavern was left derelict. Glasses would be raised again in celebration in 1979, when Andrew Wolfe and Vivienne Tellier restored Richardson’s to its former glory and got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places a year later.
From busy Route 96, Richardson’s doesn’t look like much—just an old building garishly repainted the original marigold color that was best seen with the torches of passing canal boats. Drive around back, and the patio opens up into a resort-like garden with wrought-iron tables interspersed with flower beds. This outdoor seating area is nestled between the wide arms of the inn and the meanderings of the canal. Inside, the ceilings are low, the doorframes far from plumb, and the floors pitched at angles that will give you a case of the sea legs. Pastoral scenes of farm life are painted directly onto the walls in a folksy scrawl. There are several dining areas, each with its own distinct personality—including a pub with exposed wooden ceiling beams and fieldstone walls.
As owner and chef Matthew Hudson points out, the waitstaff take special pride working at Richardson’s, and turnover is low. Many servers double as tour guides, explaining the history of each room and telling stories about the property’s 200-year history. Hudson has been chef at Richardson’s for eight years, becoming co-owner with Johannes Mueller, the Austrian native who has created a tradition, in April and October, of serving wienerschnitzel, apfelstrudel, and other dishes from his homeland.
Richardson’s is one of dozens of restaurants in historic properties we’re lucky to have in and around Rochester. These places survive by indispensably preserving Rochester’s distinct fine dining culture of prime rib, osso bucco, chicken french, fra diavolo, Friday fish frys, and so on. Others, like Richardson’s, only enter the top echelon through experimentation and a high-minded craft that draws demanding food fans.
The appetizers list is a quick tour of the world: scallop crudo with Thai basil, Polish pierogies with spinach and brown butter, or lamb ravioli with Mediterranean saffron. Tonight’s starter will come from Canada’s Prince Edward Island, a sextet of raw Pink Moon oysters ($16). These salty-cucumber-y mollusks are served on a bed of crushed ice arranged around a condiment-prep cup of sweet rhubarb mignonette. A moscow mule ($10) is served in a copper mug, a scale model of a canal man’s stein. The ingredients—rum and ginger beer—could have been rolled by the keg off a mule-driven barge. Together, the oysters and the tart rum drink signal summer.
Chef Hudson describes his core menu as “semi-seasonal,” in that the items don’t rotate, but the preparation style does. For instance, the dry sea scallops ($28) were served with a salty bacon jelly in the spring, but the summer preparation is more subtle. Dry scallops are called such because they’re untreated with preservatives that lock in moisture. They sear with a light, crisp exterior while retaining a buttery texture that seems to fade away on the tongue. Beans, asparagus, and root vegetables served alongside provide color without upstaging the star of the plate.
Additionally, his regular Atlantic salmon ($25) is joined by its West Coast cousins when the Pacific wild fisheries begin to run from late May to July. He orders these superior, but more expensive, fillets in small quantities, so it’s best to look for them earlier in the week.
There’s much to choose from on the wine list from both northern and southern hemispheres, but our eyes turn to the Finger Lakes choices. A sweet Salmon Run Riesling with its distinct suggestions of apricot, cantaloupe, and other summer fruits, clears the tongue for another sliver of scallop and savory broth.
For dessert, a lemon white chocolate mousse ($9) with blackberry sauce and a graham cracker crust, as wispy as a cloud, keeps the meal light and bright. Richardson’s employs its own baker and pastry chef; its desserts and complimentary bread made from scratch each day.
Richardson’s Canal House performs the balancing act of being both one of Rochester’s oldest eateries and a casual dining leader. Few other outdoor dining spaces are as sprawling and secluded, an impressive feat considering the busy highway nearby. The menu respects the availability of seasonal ingredients while covering Rochester’s culinary bases—a formula for attracting the widest range of patrons. You’ll snicker at its checkered past, marvel at its ramshackle architecture, relax by its fire pits and shade trees, and remember the flavors of its exceptional meals.
Mark Gillespie is the communications manager for the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Science. He is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors.