On the banks of the scenic Erie Canal
Richardson's chef and owner on the historic Canal House
Springtime view of Richardson's Canal House
Richardson Canal House
1474 Marsh Rd.
On a warm summer day in July, there’s nothing quite like sitting by the canal in Bushnell’s Basin. Better yet, having lunch or dinner with a cocktail or glass of wine alongside the 200-year-old waterway on the patio of Richardson’s Canal House—a building that predates the canal itself—is prime location for anyone who relishes history and fine cuisine.
Matt Hudson has been running the kitchen at Richardson’s since 2007. In 2016 he purchased the restaurant from Johann Mueller and today, as owner and head chef, runs the front of house, too, with the help of two managers.
Hudson took a part-time job in college washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant and realized he enjoyed being in the kitchen.
Even though he was studying zoology at the time, he decided after a ten-year stint at Wegmans and as chef de cuisine at a restaurant in Maine that he was destined to be a chef.
“I love being in the kitchen. My dream was to be a restaurant owner someday, and here I am. When Johann was ready to retire, I jumped at the chance to assume ownership of Richardson’s,” says Hudson.
The oldest original Erie Canal inn directly on the canal, Bushnell Basin’s Hotel was built in the era of the American westward migration, just before 1818. Bushnell’s Basin was on the main stagecoach route connecting High Falls to what was then the village of Canandaigua. Travelers coming through Bushnell’s Basin would stop at the inn, today the site of Richardson’s Canal House.
Much of what guests see inside Richardson’s—a stone-walled barroom, posts and beams, colonial accents, and replica sconces—create an impression that not much has changed since the days when Elias and Gould Richardson opened Richardson’s Tavern, a haven for brawny canal builders.
While the walls and beams may be the same, the offerings of the once “public house” have changed and so has the ambience of the place.
Thanks to Andrew D. Wolfe and his wife, Vivienne Tellier, the building’s restoration was begun on Memorial Day in 1978 and completed on Valentine’s Day the next year. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of its reopening.
From June to September, a covered outdoor kitchen prepares menu selections for up to 150 guests at twenty-five tables on the canal-side patio. A large tent is available for seating seventy guests for special events.
Hudson, who develops the menu, offers specials every day. Though he’s not a fan of seasonal menus, he likes to shake things up by changing the flavor profiles of some popular item selections.
“Seasonal menus rely upon a vegetable or fruit staying at peak for the entire season but in reality, corn, for example, peaks for about two weeks and then starts to lose its flavor. A menu that features dishes with a seasonal vegetable for, say, July and August, can’t guarantee peak flavor.”
Hudson would rather choose an ingredient that inspires him on any given day to feature in a daily special. He gets ideas from books, magazines, and the produce and meats that come to market.
“There’s a corned beef Reuben sandwich on our lunch menu. One day, it will be served with a topping of house-made pickled cabbage, another day, our Reuben will be dressed with house-made aioli. Our French onion grilled cheese, a four-cheese blend on sourdough, comes with a side of shitake gravy, an unexpected pairing, yet a big hit with our guests,” says Hudson.
For dinner, a recent evening special was braised lamb shank. “We braise our lamb shank in white wine with tomato, rosemary, charred lemon, and garlic until the lamb begins to melt; it’s that tender. Then we press the reduction through a food mill to create a rich, flavorful sauce. With mashed potatoes, it’s the ultimate comfort.”
A summer favorite for dessert is Richardson’s signature strawberry shortcake prepared by pastry chef Anne-Marie Williams. Her husband, Kevin, is the chef de cuisine at Richardson’s.
Richardson’s also offers vegetarian dishes for lunch and dinner. A vegetable quiche with smoked gouda and roasted red peppers or salmon burger are very popular menu items for lunch.
For dinner, asparagus gnocchi with peas, mushroom, and a tarragon emulsion; or Korean barbequed tofu with cucumber kimchi, pickled shitakes, sesame seeds, and coconut rice offer vegetarian guests unique flavor pairings.
Bar manager Brandon Grassi prepares seasonal cocktails perfect to quench a summer thirst. He suggests a cucumber mint fizz to cool down on a hot summer day prepared with cucumber vodka, mint syrup, lime juice, and seltzer. If you prefer to heat things up, there’s the coconut sunrise, made with coconut rum, pineapple juice, grenadine, and prosecco. And if tradition with a twist is more your style, try the house Manhattan, mixed with premium rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Grand Marnier, and cherry bitters.
With a wine list meant to impress, there is no shortage of New York State, California, and European wines to choose from. Hudson says he partners with local breweries such as CB Craft Brewers in Honeoye Falls. The brewery created an IPA exclusively for Richardson’s in 2018, “BicentenniAle,” to commemorate the founding of the original tavern around 1818.
Hudson’s favorite menu selection? “A catch of the day, it’s the wild striped bass.”
What is it about dining along the banks of the canal? Hudson says that although he doesn’t get much chance to sit and relax, when he does, he enjoys the sensation that everything on the canal is floating by. “Sitting by the canal just slows me down. I start to unwind and finally begin to take a breath. I’m able to take in the natural beauty of this place.”
Donna De Palma is a freelance writer based in Rochester.