At the North Branch Inn, a modern commercial kitchen shares space with an antiquated two-lane bowling alley recently rescued from years of being boarded over. A few steps from where Chef Erik Hill crafts dishes from local ingredients for diners in the adjacent rooms, guests can set the pins by hand and watch the action from velvet-cushioned seats reclaimed from Radio City Music Hall’s early days.
“It’s fun. It’s what the spirit of the Catskills is all about,” says proprietor Kirsten Harlow Foster, who owns the inn with husband and partner Sims Foster.
Serving serious local cuisine in fun settings is a recipe that seems to be working for the Fosters, who launched The Arnold House inn and restaurant on Shandalee Road in Livingston Manor last year to rave reviews, including in the New York Times and Travel + Leisure.
The North Branch Inn is the couple’s second inn and restaurant venture. Housed in an 1868 building in a hamlet of Callicoon in Sullivan County, the inn’s five guest rooms opened in May. The downstairs restaurant and bar room are scheduled to debut next month over Columbus Day weekend.
Inspired by period details like the bowling alley and a carved-wood bar that was built for the 1939 World’s Fair, the Fosters incorporated an Americana vibe into their new property.
Helmed by Hill, who is also The Arnold House’s executive chef, the new 50-seat restaurant and bar will source its dishes primarily in the Catskills and entirely within New York State.
“We’re not going to call it ‘farm-to-table, blah, blah, blah,'” Sims Foster said. “It’s almost like a study, to us, a challenge to put together a menu where everything comes from local purveyors … The idea is that the menu is concise and clean, traditional, old-school format: chicken, fish, pork, beef. Easily accessible, almost low-brow.”
“Sims tasked me with creating ‘blue-plate specials,'” Hill chimes in.
That’s not to say that Hill will be cooking your grandmother’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Each dish will be a bit of a riff on traditions, based on what’s in season locally. For example, Hill’s still-in-development menu features one salad of raw brussels sprouts, apples, bacon and pickled mustard seeds. Another salad pairs wheatberry and baby fennel from Lucky Dog Organic with black walnuts harvested from a neighbor’s tree. Hill will tap a wealth of local and regional cheesemongers for a rotating cheese plate; he makes crackers from scratch using the spent grain cast off from Catskill Brewery‘s processing. Venison will appear in chili. Dairy products will be supplied by Tonjes Dairy and Cowbella. Grapeseed oil will come from a Finger Lakes purveyor. The bar will offer locally distilled spirits, as well as some from outside New York, but all of them will be American.
Because local sugar isn’t an option, Hill has been experimenting with dehydrating and crystallizing sweeteners from Catskill honey and maple syrup.
“That’s an example of the level we’re taking it down to,” said Hill, who joined The Arnold House team this spring after a career in New York City restaurants like ABC Kitchen, Empellon and Back Forty, one of Manhattan’s first farm-to-table restaurants. Hill’s last restaurant job prior to relocating to Sullivan County was as chef at Hudson Clearwater, where he converted a conventional menu to a locally sourced one, his first foray into the Catskill foodshed and its farms.
On a subsequent vacation, Hill and fiancée Megan Kinealy stayed in Phoenicia and ate at the Phoenicia Diner and Peekamoose Restaurant & Tap Room in Big Indian, two of the Catskills’ local-food stars. Not too long after that, Hill answered an ad for the chef job at The Arnold House. He and Kinealy relocated to North Branch; Kinealy recently became the general manager at The Arnold House.
“Here’s what I love about Erik. I knew we had found the right person because within a week on the job he had a list of all the farms and purveyors he had visited,” said Sims, who has also had a long career in the hospitality industry, in both NYC and the Catskills.
For now, both Fosters maintain careers downstate: Sims in the restaurant world and Kirsten as an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. But the couple’s long-range plan is to transition full-time to running their enterprises in and around Livingston Manor, where Sims grew up and has family roots dating back to the early 20th century. Their friends joke that The Arnold House and the North Branch Inn are the beginning of a Sullivan County empire, and they might not be too far off: the couple recently acquired a large historic house across the street from the North Branch, which they are converting to guest suites just in time for the holidays. Because both of the inns’ rooms are often fully booked, the couple is always on the hunt for more lodging, Kirsten said. Several other projects are in the works but not yet ready for air time.
Sims Foster brought hard-won experience to his work on The Arnold House and the North Branch Inn. In 2005, he and his brother opened a restaurant in Livingston Manor that proved short-lived. Being immersed in the city’s fledgling farm-to-fork movement at the time, Sims envisioned a restaurant that would serve farm-based food close to actual farms. It was a hit with urban tourists and second-home owners and booked up on weekends, but folded in less than two years on its failure to attract Catskill residents the other five nights a week.
“It was a tough sell to locals, even with being a local boy myself,” Sims said. “I heard a lot of ‘you’re too fancy,’ comments.”
In 2008, Sims and a group of partners opened a restaurant and bar on Pearl Street in Livingston Manor called The Lazy Beagle Pub & Grill, which was successful and beloved until disaster struck a little more than three years later. The Lazy Beagle was destroyed, along with three neighboring businesses, by a gas explosion and fire in November 2012.
At the time, Sims and Kirsten were planning their fall 2013 wedding, and having difficulty finding lodging for out-of-town guests. That led, in part, to their decision to purchase The Arnold House, where Sims had grown up dining with his parents and grandparents when it was known as Lanza’s Country Inn.
“If you draw a circle on a map showing a two-hour drive from the city, there aren’t a lot of places that are as affordable as the Catskills,” Kirsten said. “This is a place you can sit by the fire with a book and relax.”
Under the Fosters’ tenure, the 100-year-old building on Shandalee Road now sports nine guest rooms, a two-bedroom suite and a spa in an adjacent building and a large barn that hosts seven or eight weddings a year, as well as live music acts. The cozy, inviting tavern on the ground floor seats 45, while a more formal dining room one floor up has room for 80, and can accommodate large parties and special events.
A large garden supplies some of the produce for the restaurant, and a bonfire pit in the yard is a popular spot on summer nights. In the spirit of encouraging visitors to embrace Catskill-style fun, guests at The Arnold House find a kit of s’mores ingredients in their room upon check-in.
“The smile that puts on people’s faces, people who probably haven’t eaten a s’more in years and years, it’s great,” Kirsten said.
Curating a modern Catskill experience with bonfires, maps of self-directed farm tours and other guided recreation is one prong of the business plan. Operating restaurants that will please both visitors and locals — in both cuisine and cost — is another.
“We have to strike this balance. We’re very happy, and very proud of the bridge we’ve built,” Sims said. “That’s not to say that there aren’t people on either side of the equation who aren’t going to be happy with us. People who remember my grandparents and want to pay $9.99 for a huge plate of food; I can’t survive on that. And people who think we are Jean Georges, we’re sure to disappoint.”
The cross-pollination of cultures can sometimes create amusement. Kirsten tells of witnessing Brooklynites bragging about their down-home country experience while surreptitiously Instagramming photos of local regulars who rolled in without changing out of their farm clothes. The funny part though, she points out, is that the locals are just as amused by the visitors’ clothes, or beards, or tattoos — and sometimes, they Instagram, too.
Sharing all that the Catskills have to offer with a new crop of fans who weren’t dragged to the Borscht Belt as teenagers when the region was in decline is an ongoing effort.
“The story of the Catskills is being told, more and more, to this generation than ever before,” Kirsten said.
Figuring out how to cater to a growing but diverse audience is a challenge the Fosters enthusiastically embrace, having learned some hard lessons and dreamed some big dreams about the Catskills’ rebirth.
“It becomes more and more clear to me that the way forward, for the Catskills, at least our part of it, mirrors our past path. The Catskills became successful, originally, through hospitality. We can do that again, by inviting people to come here, mostly from the city but also from all over the world, to enjoy the Catskills,” Sims said. “If we can send away 20 people every Sunday who go back to wherever they came from and tell all their friends, ‘I just had a great weekend in the Catskills,’ then we’re doing our part.”