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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning

"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

At a track called Saratoga...part 3 of 3

At a track called Saratoga...part 3 of 3: [Note: This post is part three of a three part series on SmAlbany's most well-known tourist attraction, the Saratoga Race Course, which opens for its 36-day season on July 27th. Part 1 discusses the cultural relevance of Saratoga to SmAlbany; part 2 is about the track itself; part 3 is a guide to the bars and restaurants of downtown Saratoga in August]

The last race at the track will usually be in the 5-6pm range. If you're looking to head out of town, you might consider leaving after the second to last race ends, in order to beat the crowds out of the NYRA lots. However, I highly recommend against heading out of town. In fact, don't even go back to your car after you leave the track. Instead, head downtown by foot and come back to retrieve your car after dinner. That way, you can either leave town when there is no traffic by the track, or you can move your car downtown before parking becomes difficult due to nightlife.

To get downtown from the track, exit one of the Union Ave. entrances to the track and take a left heading down Union. It's a nice 3/4 mile stroll to downtown, past numerous fancy mansions, bed and breakfasts, and the National Horse Racing Hall of Fame. When you get to the end of Union, take a right and then the first left, and you will come into "downtown."

"Downtown" Saratoga is not a city - it's more like what college kids would describe as "downtown" if they went to school in a small town. There's a main street - Broadway - and a bunch of side streets with businesses on them. It's quite charming. All together, there are about 50 bars and restaurants in the tiny 3 square blocks bounded by Broadway, Spring, Circular, and Lake that comprise downtown. It's perfectly safe at night - the crowds are just too big - so you should feel comfortable walking around, even if you are alone. If you eat dinner and then retrieve your car, look for a spot in the neighborhoods just before downtown on the track side. There are usually spots with not too far a walk.

Dining in Saratoga can be somewhat problematic in August. The first thing to realize is that nobody takes reservations unless you have a group of 6 or more. They just don't need to. So you are going to wait if you don't head right to eat after the track. Although there are many excellent options for downtown dining, I tend to like the more casual places. If the weather is nice, shoot for a place with outdoor seating (which is the majority of places). If you like pub food, I highly recommend Peabody's sports bar, on Phila street. They have an outdoor area, the wings are phenomenal, and the beer is reasonably priced for Saratoga in August. Another good option of Phila street is Sushi Thai Garden, which has no outdoor seating, but does have some of the best Asian food around. A good bet for burgers, sandwiches, and other light fare is Professor Moriarity's on Broadway. Two better bets for slightly more upscale dining are Brendisi's on Broadway and Sperry's on Caroline street. Expect a healty wait at either of these places.

As I said before, your best bet is to head right downtown after going to the track, have an early dinner, and then lounge around at one of the outdoor bars. This gives you the option of leaving saratoga before the nightlife crowds really heat up. You'll probably want to stay, however. This is probably the best time to check out the most rediculously crowded bar in Saratoga, Gaffney's (on the corner of Putnam and Caroline). By 10:30pm, Gaffney's will be far too crowded to be enjoyable. Instead, go there right after dinner, and have a cocktail in the outdoor seating area. You can peoplewatch out on Putnam street or just listen to the live music that is undoubtedly playing there and at other places. This also isn't a bad time to check out the roofdeck at the City Tavern, which is right across Caroline street from Gaffney's. Although the City Tavern is a mostly forgettable 4 story bar - a lot like the Big House in Albany - the roofdeck has a nice view of downtown and can be great before it gets crowded. You might laugh, but the crowds really do pose a problem at many bars in Saratoga. By 10:30pm, Caroline street will be flooded with people and many of the bars will be absolutely packed. If you finish dinner early, you might also check out the racing memorabilia shop, which is on Broadway between Spring and Phila.

The dress code for Saratoga nightlife is a little different. The bars tend to cater to a wide variety of ages and social classes, so anything is acceptable. Since there are so many bars, you can fit in anywhere or feel out of place anywhere no matter what you are wearing. Some places tend toward the hook-up look: muscle shifts, tight black pants, etc. Others tend toward the subdued Natucket look that predominates so much of Saratoga in August: pastel preppty, flip-flops, pearls. And most of the places are somewhat in between, catering to that standard SmAlbany bar-wear: not dressed up, but not slovenly. On a related note, the underage drinking scene in Saratoga has been cracked down on somewhat over the last ten years. It wasn't difficult to get a drink up there when i was in high school. Now it's somewhat tougher, although still laughably mild compared to many local nightspots. There are just too many bars. Many, many teenagers can be spotted in the various establishments.

Here's a 10-point tip sheete to handling the nightlife in Saratoga once 10pm rolls around:

1) Don't bother with Gaffney's, City Tavern, or any place that wants to charge a cover: The cover thing is really silly in Saratoga. You might consider paying a cover at Luna if you want to bump and grind, but don't even think about it anywhere else - the old Metro and Newberry's come to mind first in this vein. Stick to the 40 or so bars that don't take cash up front. As previously discussed, Gaffney's and City Tavern are not worth the crowds once they get packed. Also, skip Ben and Jerry's. You can get that anywhere.

2) Make sure you check out one of the two great college bars: Both Desparate Anne's (Caroline Street) and the Tin and Lint (a few doors up from Desparate's) are classic college bars: scarred wood tables, excellent jukeboxes, darts, pool, foosball, and surprisingly ok drink prices. The crowds are college-ish, but pretty relaxed. Desparate's feels exactly like the bar you used to go to back in the day, and the Tin and Lint tries very hard to be Joe College, with its stolen roadsigns and college decals adorning the walls. Desparate Anne's is my favorite non-outdoor bar in Saratoga.

3) Find your way to one of the bars that is empty with no explanation: A strange phenomenon in Saratoga in August is that there are several bars that just can't seem to attract a crowd, no matter what they do. One in the Saratoga Brew Pub, which always seems to have exactly no one sitting outside (it's a bit more crowded inside). Get a table out back and order two pitchers - one of the house stout and one of the house pale ale. Back in college (ok, well even now...) my friends and I used to take a sample of the hottest hot sauce at the hot sauce store next door to the Brew Pub, and then race over to the Pub to down pitchers of water before returning to the local beers. If you want to try this, the hot sauce store closes around 9pm. The other bar that can't seem to attract business is the Bullpen Tavern on Caroline Street. Despite being in the absolute center of the action, the BT is rarely more than half full.

4) Go to one of the Irish Pubs that is really out of the way: One of these - the Parting Glass on Lake Ave. - is so well known that it draws an enormous crowd despite being quite far away (it's about 1/4 mile walk from Gaffney's, so it's only relatively far away from the scene.) In addition to having two large barrooms, the Parting Glass has live music, about 15 dart boards, and Italian shuffleboard for free. It's great. And it's very authentic Irish-y. The other out of the way Irish bar is O'Dwyer's on Spring Street. Although not far from the action, people tend to forget about OD's. Stop in for a pint, you'll like it.

5) Take a break and walk the Caroline-Broadway-Phila-Putnam loop: Try this. Start at Gaffney's, walk up Caroline street and stop at the cigar shop on the righthand side for a stogie. Light it up and continue your walk. Take a left on Broadway and head down to either Phila or Spring Street, on which you take a left. Then take a left on Putnam and head back to Gaffney's corner. I guarantee you'll see some great stuff. If you think you might not, stop on Broadway at one of the benches and just sit there for a while. It's a real peoplewatching treat.

6) Go to the Icehouse: A lot of people scoff at the Icehouse, but I love it. It's a former mechanics garage turned barroom. It's tiny, trashy, and loveable. And it has barstools that face open-air on Putnam street, making a great place to see the sights. Order a bucket of rocks, sit down, drink'em, and then leave.

7) Don't get a "Saratoga Slammer": For years, the track and the bars have tried to produce a "signature" drink in Saratoga, kinda like the Kentucky Derby has the mint julip, New Orleans has the Hurricane, and James Bond has the very dry, shaken maritini. Don't fall into this trap. Alternatively called a "Saratoga Sunrise," you'll see this thing advertised a bit around town. It's not worth it and you don't want to promote fake tradition. Saratoga has plenty of real tradition. In the same vein, be wary of any drink that Saratoga in the name, or some local relation to the town. Take Funny Cide Ale, for instance. Sounds cool, but by all acounts it tastes like the horse peed in the bottle.

8) Consider going up there the night of the Travers: Although I highly recommend staying away from the actual track on Travers Day, the downtown scence that night is a sight to behold. It's going to be crowded on every Friday and Saturady night in August - you might as well check it out on the night that it will be most packed, have the most bands playing, and have the most celebrities walking the streets. On Travers night, downtown really feels like another world - some low-level Mardi Gras sets in, and Caroline street has just an amazing energy.

9) Remember not to stay out too late: One sinister aspect of the Saratoga bar scene is that the bars don't really have a closing time - some close at 2:30am, some 3:30am, and some seem to never close. While people in Vegas, New Orleans, and NYC might be used to this, people in SmAlbany are not. We tend to set our betimes to coincide with closing time. 11 months out of the year, this gets you out of the bar by 2:00am, a late but reasonable time. If you don't watch yourself in Saratoga, you'll accidentally be out till well after 3am. Trust me, it's happened to me unintentionally on more than one occassion. And if you stay out real late, all sorts of things tend to go wrong. My college friend Ian once mistakenly stayed out till 5am or so in Saratoga, and woke up the next morning somewhere in Ballston Spa sleeping on the couch of some "friends" he made the night before, who also happened to run a homemade dog buscuits operation. Ouch.

10) Get yourself a Doughboy at the end of the night: After Pope's Pizza closed down around 1997, the late night drunk food scene in Saratoga never really recovered. That is, until Esperanto's, the little tiny shop on Caroline street, became famous for its "Doughboy." Don't even ask what is in it. You don't want to know. Just rest assured that you'll want to eat one whenever you're done carousing. If you really want pizza, there's D'Andreas, a wierd shop on Caroline street down past Putnam that serves gourmet slices, but it's not that good.

UPDATE (7/20/05): A reader suggests Brooklyn Pizza on Henry street, open till 4am.

Of course, there are tens of bars, dozens of restuarants, and a million adventures left off of this essay. The only way to discover them is to head up to the track this August. Hope to see you there!

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At 12:36 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

I believe the doughboys (at Esperanto's) are chicken, cheese and green onion -- that's what they taste like to me, anyway. I've heard that Brooklyn Pizza will be open every night until 4 a.m. during the season, too, and they have some of the best pizza in the city, so I'm sure that'll be good for the post-drinking crowd -- it's on Henry Street, down Caroline a block past D'Andreas on the left.    

At 1:47 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

I dunno who that Ian guy is, but man, I've been just dieing to find good, solid, red-blooded American dob biscuits in the SmAlabany area. Thanks for the tip!    

At 11:35 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

Have you ever heard of a pancake called a "flapspatz?" My friends and I used to get them up in Saratoga for breakfast after a long night out.    

At 1:53 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

On a related note, a big place of flapspatz really goes nicely with a sip from the Big Red Fountain, which I heard was fixed this year and doesn't taste as bad as last year. It might make your hair turn blue, however.    

At 9:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

I completely agree with the fact that you must hit the Icehouse at some point. In my opinion, the later the better. It's a nice final stop if you're "intentionally" staying out until 4 am. Great place to get rowdy and laugh with/about the kind of people inside. It's also a perfect place to yell out to drunk people walking in the street!(Only funnier because you have been drinking for hours!)    

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At 10:26 PM , Blogger Megan Coleman said:

Hello! Just came across your site while reading about Doughboys. I have to mention that Pope's Pizza is still alive and delicious at 230 Washington Street. Best pizza in town.    

At 10:02 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said:

Yes, also do not mix cosmos with beer. You will not only mislay your car, but will also wake up on a strangers couch disoriented and ashamed, especially if the Clubhouse is the last bar you visit.    

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