Elegant and salubrious
How the city of Geneva became an unlikely culinary vanguard
In January, USA Today announced the winner of its annual “Best New Restaurant in America” readers’ poll. Candidates included restaurants from large metropolitan areas like Portland, Oregon; San Diego; Philadelphia; and Minneapolis. The winner, however, hailed from Geneva, New York: FLX Table. While the location may be an unusual one at first glance, followers of the Finger Lakes food and wine scene weren’t quite so surprised. Once nicknamed “The Beleaguered City,” Geneva has transformed into an unlikely hub of culinary and nightlife innovation.
It’s been a decade in the making, starting when Rune Hilt and Giulietta Rancatti opened the Red Dove Tavern. Inspired by an excursion to the Finger Lakes and impressed by its wines, the pair decided to uproot themselves from South Philadelphia and take their chances. They already had plans to open their own restaurant (Hilt had left the world of finance to work as a cook a few years earlier), but Geneva put that dream within reach. At the time of their opening in May 2007, many people had doubts about the Red Dove succeeding: there were no televisions and no name-brand beers like Coors, and customers couldn’t tell the difference between calamari and octopus. “When we first opened, we’d go and check out other places,” says Rancatti, citing Parker’s and some establishments that have since closed. “They all had TVs; everything was fried. It was very cookie-cutter.”
But even the owner of Parker’s, Pete Mitchell, saw the potential in the kind of dining experience that the Red Dove Tavern offered. That July, he opened Halsey’s, which initially offered a “city-style” dining experience, but the recession forced him to reconsider his original concept. In July 2009 he closed Halsey’s, remodeled, added a wood-brick oven, and reopened the following October. In January 2011, Mike Colvin, who previously ran the Sun Garden Grille at Waterloo Premium Outlets, took over the former Red Brick Inn and opened the Beef and Brew, which serves local wines and recently expanded its draft lines from twenty-eight to seventy beers, mostly upstate-based. “So much of our business comes from tourism, we owe it to the region to represent the wineries and breweries,” says Colvin.
Halsey’s Restaurant is known for its wood-fired oven and signature meatballs.
Around the same time, young entrepreneurs who’d grown up in the Finger Lakes began returning to the area. In 2010, Chelsey Madia and Heather Tompkins bought a coffee shop that, while popular, had been abruptly closed by its original owners. Remodeling and rechristening the place Opus, it quickly absorbed its predecessor’s customer base. They began offering entrees such as a breakfast burrito drenched in Sriracha and garlic sauce and macaroni and cheese made with blue cheese and topped with caramelized walnuts, still unusual for a Geneva establishment at that point. Tompkins grew up in Waterloo, studied at the Culinary Institute of America, and lived on Cape Cod for thirteen years; Madia grew up in Geneva and graduated from Northern Arizona University with a degree in hotel and restaurant management. Madia’s father ran Madia’s Big M on Castle Street—where Tompkins and Madia met—for thirty years before closing in 2015.
Also in 2010, James Emery Elkin, a Geneva native who’d spent the past several years in Virginia and San Francisco, bought a building on Linden Street with the express intent of opening a wine bar. His original plan was to draw on his winemaking relatives’ suggestions for offerings, but he acted on a suggestion from his mother to recruit Stephanie Mira de Orduna, a native of France with a Wine & Spirit Education Trust certification. Microclimate opened in the spring of 2012. It offers popular Finger Lakes varietals (Riesling, Cabernet Franc) alongside the same from other regions. “When I graduated high school, everyone left—everyone had to get the heck out of here and do their thing,” Julie Adams, Geneva native and Halsey’s general manager reminisces. “Now they’re coming back. The energy is so great.”
Taking notice of that youthful energy and inspired by a similar program held in Ithaca, the Geneva Development Corporation launched a competition called “Race for the Space” in 2012. The grand prize winner would receive nearly $25,000 worth of services in advertising, marketing guidance, signage, and storefront architectural services. The following March, Lake Drum Brewing—owned by muralist and former assistant winemaker Victor Pultinas—was announced as the winner. After an additional IndieGoGo fundraiser that raised more than $12,000 and many license-related delays, Lake Drum Brewing opened in October 2014. In addition to its own beer and cider offerings, it carries beers and ciders from around the region. “Our goal was always to open a space that was inclusive to everyone. It’s always been important to us to make the general public feel welcome,” says Pultinas.
With its multiple strands of lights, Linden Street in Geneva is festive and welcoming at night.
A second competition was launched in early 2016. This time, the winner was the Urban Farm Winery Wicked Water, owned by Megan Hall, Alex Frederickson, and Camila Tahim, alumni of Cornell’s viticulture and enology graduate program. In addition to its own wines, it offers selections from Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley, and Long Island wineries. Closing at the relatively late hour of 8 p.m., “We’re usually people’s last stop.” says winemaker and owner Megan Hall.
Within a stone’s throw of Wicked Water is Linden Street. Only a short time ago, the street sat nearly vacant, save for Microclimate and a few longstanding businesses. In the past year and a half, however, Linden Street has transformed into a concentration of Geneva’s most heterogeneous undertakings. Cebo is a farm-to-table “New American” restaurant run by Geneva native Jennifer Yunits and Michigan’s Ben Dailey, who met working together at Thompson Hospital five years ago; Kashong Creek, owned by Daniel Bissell, former assistant winemaker at Bellangelo Winery, is a cidery that also has wine and cocktail offerings. In addition to cider, Bissell has a couple of wines in the works, among them Riesling and Cabernet Franc. Finger Lakes Sausage and Beer, a German-style beer garden, sells local, German-style craft beers, Syracuse-based Gianelli Sausage, and meat from Romulus’s Schrader Farms. The Linden Social Club, co-owned by Elkin and fellow Geneva native Joe Kennedy, extends the farm-to-table concept to craft cocktails. After the success of the FLX Winery in Lakemont, Christopher Bates and Isabel Bogadtke opened FLX Table, bringing the concept of the dinner party to the restaurant. Bates says that the concept was inspired by the space, which he believes lends itself naturally to a more intimate format. FLX Table offers prix-fixe menus with optional wine pairings.
The rise of Linden Street has led to some interesting collaborations. Often, at the end of meals, FLX Table gives patrons a marshmallow and directs them to a nearby establishment—either Microclimate, Kashong Creek, the Linden Social Club, or the Red Dove, where the marshmallow gets torched. At the end of January, Microclimate began teaming up with Cebo to do a Sunday brunch at Microclimate, seizing on a change in New York law that allowed Microclimate to begin serving alcohol at 10 a.m. Microclimate offers mimosas alongside Cebo’s brunch offerings. Linden Street also plays host to many beverage industry events open to the general public, including the annual Rosé Soiree, held in June.
The renaissance has not been restricted to downtown, however. On Route 14 with Seneca Lake in view is Ports Café, which offers an upscale dining experience. On Routes 5 and 20 near the busy intersection on Preemption Road is Kindred Fare, which opened at the end of 2015. Susie Atvell, former General Manager of Restaurant 2Vine in Rochester, teamed up with former Chopped contestant Samantha Buyskes to open Kindred Fare, a farm-to-table establishment with a warm, rustic ambiance that serves entrées that source meat from Ithaca’s the Piggery (where Buyskes previously worked as a butcher) as well as sustainable seafood. It also serves wines from the Finger Lakes and other cool climate regions selected by Bob Madill, former co-owner of Sheldrake Point. Atvell compares Geneva’s recent revival to that of Rochester’s South Wedge and Neighborhood of the Arts but notes that while business in Rochester is consistent, the Finger Lakes can fluctuate by the season. “You can really see the highs and lows of a seasonal market, which can be intimidating when trying to forecast sales, labor, and supply needs. From talking to other business owners in Geneva, this is a common reality.” Buyskes left Kindred Fare in April, but the restaurant shows no signs of slowing down.
At the Linden Social Club, take advantage of cozy seating and ultrahip cocktails.
Decades after Geneva native and Yale Historian Warren Hunting Smith bestowed the title “An Elegant But Salubrious Village” on Geneva in a history of the city, Geneva appears to finally be living up to that phrase. “Geneva has changed so much since we first got here. When we got here, all the storefronts were empty,” Giulietta Rancatti states. Mike Colvin and Daniel Bissell report seeing people traveling from nearby cities like Canandaigua, Rochester, and Ithaca specifically to check out Geneva. “A lot of people come from Rochester and other places. They’re in Geneva for an hour and a half before they feel like they’ve grown up here,” Bissell observes. And perhaps most importantly, even locals are no longer intimidated by the unusual offerings these establishments have to offer. Says Rune Hilt: “People are more trusting of us if there’s something weird on the menu that they haven’t seen before. They’re willing to try it here because they’ve tried things in the past that they weren’t sure about but ended up liking.”
Erin Scherer lives in Geneva and takes in all that Geneva’s hospitality scene has to offer. You can follow her on Twitter at @erinscherer.