Ghosts of restaurants past
Pittsford’s Spring House is back as hip, historic Monroe’s Restaurant
Monroe’s Restaurant and Bar
3001 Monroe Avenue, Pittsford
You and your grandmother share the same birthday, and as long as you can remember, your dad would take the two of you out for dinner. It was usually one of those chain places by the mall with endless breadsticks, virgin “mega”-ritas, and thematic kitsch evoking Italy, Chicago, Texas, mythical Main Street, and other safely exotic locations.
You have fond memories of waitstaff, pinned with flair, clapping their way to the table with pieces of cake and singing their own noncopyrighted version of “Happy Birthday.” But the ritual ran its course when you left for college and Boston and started your career. Now that you’re back in Rochester, Nana wants to celebrate with you again. “My treat,” she says.
Thing is, your taste in restaurants has evolved since the late ‘90s. You like a place that has its own character and can skillfully turn a cut of local meat. You offer to split the bill as long as we can try somewhere “a little less corporate.”
“I didn’t know you liked local restaurants, sweetie. If you don’t mind, I would like to go back to the old Spring Brook. It’s where we used to do this when you were really little.”
You have a vague recollection of celebrating at a big brick place on Monroe Avenue done up inside like a Mississippi plantation. It was fussy—the kind of place that prompted you to beg for chain Tex Mex in the first place. The brick building is still there, and you remember hearing that it’s changed hands and gotten an update. A little Googling tells you it’s now called Monroe’s Restaurant, and the classic Rochester cuisine on the menu would be a decent way to pass the evening. “Okay, Nana. I’ll pick you up.”
Parking around back, you walk past a beautiful, snow-covered brick patio into a high-ceilinged entrance facing a beautiful old bar. There are other senior citizens sipping wine and knifing into steaks, but the clientele runs the gamut of age and dress. You even see one of the partners from your architecture firm sipping a whiskey cocktail. After you settle in at your table, Nana surveys the cocktail menu, her eyes growing wide at one called the Shark Bite ($10), a gin botanical made from violets and fizzy champagne. “Go ahead and order a glass of wine or something,” she says. “You’re old enough now.”
“Nana, I’m 34.”
You can’t tell from her smile if she was joking, but you order a glass of William Hill cabernet sauvignon ($10), a nice fruity red that sets you up for red meat and cake. Grandma’s Italian, so the meatballs, antipasto, and artichokes French found on the appetizer are right in her wheelhouse. You opt for the Sicilian umami bomb of greens and beans ($4) and a big creamy ball of burrata ($12), the tomato jam standing in this season for farm fresh tomatoes. Both are callbacks to your grandma’s own kitchen every Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and weekends in between. You bond in silence over the escarole.
“Why don’t I order the gnocchi and you get something else, so we can share?” she asks, putting her age-worn hand on your forearm. Her housemade gnocchi ($24) arrives amply drizzled with vodka sauce with crumbled feta. You opt for a sizzling Delmonico steak ($30) with marshmallow-brown gorgonzola blistering the top. Each choice complements the other nicely as you move from perfectly medium-rare ribeye to Nana’s pillow-like potato pasta. Gnocchi is a test of skill in Italian kitchens, and this one passes with dumplings so light they seem made of air.
Both of you are beyond the flashy birthday song, and the perfect end to this miniature feast is a pair of cannoli ($4 each) stuffed with sweet ricotta cheese on the verge of being a little grainy from the sugar. Over coffee, your grandmother smiles and tells you how happy she is you’ve had this chance to spend some time. “They’ve really done a number on the old Spring Brook, haven’t they?”
As you look around the dining room, you see two others her age sharing a meal with their kids and grandkids. The fussiness of the old Spring Brook has been successfully exorcised without losing the flavors and atmosphere that make traditional Rochester dining so unique. Without trying too hard with the thematic touches, Monroe’s serves cuisine that binds together generations of Italians immigrants. The restaurant is no longer just a throwback to earlier canal boom years. It’s one of many successful renovations of a crumbling property that form a bridge to Rochester’s future.
Mark Gillespie is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors.