Three new eateries aim to bring more diners downtown
Although Syracuse University mascot Otto the Orange cheers from the sidelines these days, the rotund and fuzzy fruit is the latest in a long line of school mascots. Before Otto there was the Dome Ranger and Dome Eddie. They attempted to fill the void left from the dismissal of the nearly 40-year tradition of the Saltine Warrior, an Onondaga chief usually portrayed by a white college student.
When the Saltine Warrior was determined to be ethnically questionable and ultimately sidelined in 1978, one Syracuse restaurant owner, a loyal SU sports fan, remembers feeling crushed; he was all of 10 years old. Now 48, John Shahin remembers jumping in front of the Saltine Warrior as he led the marching band down the Quad toward Archbold Stadium. “It broke my heart when they got rid of him” says Shahin. “I thought he was the coolest guy around.”Shahin opened the Saltine Warrior Sports Pub, adjacent to Clinton Square, on Aug. 24. It occupies the space in the Amos Building that formerly housed C.L. Evers gourmet grocery and deli. While he has been in the bar business for 21 years—he also owns Harry’s on the SU Hill—the Saltine Warrior is his first restaurant. The establishment is a tribute to the long-lost mascot and SU traditions, needed especially lately with the ongoing Bernie Fine mess. “Hopefully it can stir a little memory in everybody who appreciates those days,” says Shahin.
Having grown up in Syracuse, Shahin was well aware that local denizens bleed orange and blue. While there are plenty of family restaurants in the area, sports bars are uncommon. “In my opinion, there are no other sports bars in Syracuse,” says Shahin. (Tully’s doesn’t count by that definition because it is more restaurant than bar.) The roomy pub features outdoor seating. The 12 large television screens broadcasting soccer, football, and basketball games and the SU-themed décor conjure up an ambiance that is a rare find in Syracuse.
An ellipse-shaped bar dominates the center of the space with double-sided televisions hovering overhead. The bar conveniently divides orange-and-blue booths from the grill area, allowing patrons a little more elbow room while waiting for their drinks. An expansive chalkboard mounted over the grill boasts the menu: pizza, sandwiches, homemade soups and more. One screen displays the bar’s classic rock Pandora station. There is even a popcorn machine close to the entrance.
Although the menu offers plenty of variety, Shahin considers the Saltine Warrior a bar with food, not a restaurant with a bar. His favorite menu item is the open steak sandwich on garlic toast served with fresh veggies ($11.50). Shahin came up with all the recipes himself, except for the Lebanese vegetarian platter with tabouli, hummus and baba ganoush ($7.50)—his mother’s recipe. It may be an odd menu item for a bar, but it’s also one of the most popular with customers.
“Gotta spread the wealth and share our culture,” says Shahin, who shows off his Lebanese heritage by offering Lebanese baklava, a new dessert item he is adding to the mix. Toward the rear of the restaurant, next to the dartboard and a hunting arcade game, are two Ellickson Draft Tables, self-serve beer tap tables, the first of their kind locally. The bartender wirelessly programs the dispenser for each group to authorize the two pints per person per hour limit.
There is no extra charge to use the booth-like tables, which often feature local brews like Empire Amber Ale and Middle Ages Wailing Wench. Customers can even call ahead to reserve the draft tables.
Shahin first saw the tables when he stopped for lunch at the McGuiness Pub in Penfield, a Rochester suburb. “I knew we had something a lot more special here than McGuiness with SU sports and that we would do very well with them,” Shahin notes. “And we have done very well with them.”
The draft tables are very popular with the Saltine Warrior’s age-25-to-45 crowd, a demographic typically more responsible than that found in other barroom hot spots around town. Shahin plans on limiting admission to those age 23 and older to encourage the strictly adult vibe. And with the Clinton Square festival hub nearby, Shahin is confident that the Saltine Warrior’s business will soar.
In anticipation of a bright future, Shahin is currently talking with SU about acquiring athletic paraphernalia. He plans to adorn the currently bare walls with mostly black and white photos from old sports events. The Saltine Warrior is open Mondays at 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays at 11 a.m., and Sundays at noon. The bar closes when Shahin feels the customers have had enough, generally midnight. For more information, call 314-7740.
Warren Street Welcome
“Don’t forget your cookie,” says Brunch & Grill owner Jim Smith to a customer cashing out at the end of the joint’s long and winding countertop. “You get a cookie with your lunch.” Smith, 48, opened the roomy restaurant at 413 S. Warren St. on Oct. 11. A jaunty Motown tune plays over the speakers as customers quietly and peacefully dine on vermillion tables while others order homemade hot specials, sandwiches and soups.
Tranquil is just how Smith wants it. The business is intended to be a homey alternative to Armory Square’s upscale, Generation X bar scene. Brunch & Grill is a place for people like him: for the moms and pops who don’t want to go into a boisterous bar to grab a bite to eat. “Everybody eats breakfast and lunch,” says Smith. “Our name shows that we have brunch options as well as grill items for people who are downtown during the day.”
He’s been cooking since age 14. He previously worked eight years at Pier 57, a casual family dining restaurant in Liverpool, as a cook and kitchen manager. “I’ve been in the business for 30 years and I felt the time was right and the place was available,” says Smith about opening his new restaurant. “I saw a couple of places downtown and I thought this space was more up my alley.”
The large dining area allows customers to sit down, relax and enjoy themselves. “We bring down good home cookin’,” says Smith.
Smith says that customers have already noticed the good food offered at Brunch & Grill. The menu contains a large variety of omelets, salads, sandwiches and the daily slow-roasted hot special served with mashed potato and veggies for $7.25. The long countertop makes for an efficient ordering experience as customers sidle down to customize wraps, pick up soups and fill up a beverage before paying at the cash register.
Smith has been tweaking the recipes for the food for years. He has memorized each one and pulls exact portions from his brain. “It’s not like baking when you’re looking at your card every day,” says Smith. “I’m confident with portions for my spices and bases. Consistency is always the key.”
Although Smith doesn’t bake, there is a cooler at the entrance of Brunch & Grill full of every kind of cheesecake imaginable. The mint chocolate chip, chocolate turtle, and fruit-infused cheesecakes are provided through a buy-and-sell deal with Big Mama’s Cheesecakes. Established in 2008, the well-known North Syracuse business is a premier supplier of cheesecakes to many local restaurants and has now added Brunch & Grill to the list.
Smith doesn’t plan on opening other locations, but he is hoping to expand the kitchen and the catering aspect of the business. “I love volume cooking,” he says, and will provide the service to any kind of event. Other future plans include working with his customers to adjust the menu for the summertime and possibly expanding the hours to accommodate a dinner crowd.
For now, Brunch & Grill is open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 218-6480.
Fare and Square
Construction workers bustle around a site enclosed by South Salina, East Adams and South Warren streets, the future location of Centro’s new bus transfer hub. The project is a result of an $8.5 million award from the federal government to move Centro’s current Common Center transfer point at Fayette and Salina. The skeleton of the canopied bus bays and enclosed waiting area are clearly visible. Across the street, at 500 S. Salina St., is Café 500, a new restaurant anticipating an increased volume of business emanating from the new bus hub.
“This is like the dead end of downtown,” says Patti Kingsley, who co-owns Café 500 with her husband Jeff. “I think the bus garage here is going to help this area because more businesses will move down this way. It’s going to improve the appearance of Syracuse.”
Café 500, easily identifiable by a multitude of signs scattered outside the threshold, is not the Kingsleys’ first restaurant. They once owned Adelphi Deli at 215 S. Salina St. and a diner in Manlius and were ready to try something new. The Kingsleys saw the perfect opportunity to get back into the business with the downtown location.
Although recently remodeled, the space had no equipment save for a couple coolers when the Kingsleys moved in. They added some tables and chairs to adorn the quiet dining area surrounded by large windows to transform the cozy space into the ideal café. The breakfast crowd can grab a bagel or a breakfast sandwich on a Kaiser roll or sit in with a cup of coffee (if you buy nine coffees you get the 10th free).
In addition to the bus hub’s completion, the Kingsleys are anticipating the opening of 30 apartments in the same building as Café 500. They hope the new tenants will boost breakfast sales as they leave for work. Until the influx of clientele occurs, the Kingsleys operate the restaurant on their own. “Right now something small is all we need,” says Patti Kingsley.
Business has been gradually increasing as people find out about the little corner café, which opened in early October. The soups, chili, salads and daily specials are derived from the duo’s homemade recipes. Café 500 offers two homemade soups—Patti’s favorite menu items—that alternate every day.
“We try to mix it up from day to day instead of the same old, same old,” notes Jeff, whose culinary roots go back to when he was a cook in the Army. He suggests customers try the pot roast sandwich for $5.50. Soup can be added for $1, and all prices include sales tax. “It’s easier for recordkeeping and for the customer,” adds Jeff.
The Kingsleys consider a wide selection to be an important aspect of their business. In addition to a variety of snack foods, Café 500 provides a variety of healthy and vegetarian alternatives. There is an entire cooler filled with yogurt, salads and fruit juices. There is generally one vegetarian soup every day and daily specials like the cheese lasagna caters to a vegetarian diet. Another option is the spanikopita for $4.
Café 500 is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., although the Kingsleys plan to adjust their hours when the new bus hub opens to accommodate increased business. Call 424-0029.