"I think food, culture, people, and landscape are all absolutely inseparable."
Food and drink have been central parts of my every day since I can remember. Beyond the simple element of nutrition and survival, I always found cooking, eating, and sharing beverages with others to be one of the most universal forms of love we have to offer, the unique flavors of various cultures and family recipes providing an intimate avenue for learning about one another’s roots. That feeling of community was overwhelmingly apparent upon stepping foot into every single establishment I interviewed for this blog.
I have visited Little Italy, Raquette River Brewing, Amado, P-2’s Irish Pub, and Well Dressed Foods during previous visits to Tupper Lake, but having learned the story behind each establishment, Tupper Lake suddenly feels entirely new while simultaneously as familiar as ever. I invite you to sit back, relax, and get to know some of your favorite places to eat and drink on a more personal level. I think you will become fast friends, if you haven’t done so already.
Owner: Ted Desmarais
Seating: Indoor and outdoor available
Before I could even knock, I was greeted at the door by the mouthwatering smells of fresh dough and the friendly smile of Ted Desmarais, owner of Little Italy in Tupper Lake.
Having been in business for almost fourteen years, Desmarais was trained by his good friend and mentor, Paolo Magro, owner of Little Italy in Saranac Lake. “I had the pleasure of meeting him about fifteen years ago,” Desmarais said. “My father was the mayor, and he was looking to build a place here in Tupper. My father brought him around a tour to try to choose a location. Then he mentioned to him, ‘I have a son that's coming out of college and moving back to the area who's working in restaurants, and he is interested in working in the restaurant business.’ He [Magro] said, ‘Have him come see me. I’m looking for a manager.’”
“Paolo's been a very strong mentor,” Desmarais said. “He's taught me a lot about not only business and food but about life in general.”
Signature dishes and local influences
The traditional standard pasta dishes have done quite well at Little Italy, especially during the summer months due to tourism. “As a tourist, you'll see ‘Little Italy’ and you think it’s an Italian restaurant.” However, Desmarais says the locals of Tupper Lake know there is more variety in the menu at Little Italy than one would expect.
“Because it’s a smaller town with maybe not as many restaurants, I started doing things like steak on a regular basis, started doing burgers, and doing things like a fish fry and baked haddock every Friday. I had a few experiments on my own,” he said. “We make a Crispy Chicken Wrap, and it’s very, very popular. We make it with the dough, stretch it really thin, and put in breaded chicken, lettuce, tomato. Then they can put in any kind of sauce—barbecue, buffalo, whatever—and the thing comes out like a monster. We sell a lot, that and our Dan Bowers Sliders.” That statement begged the obvious questions: who is Dan Bowers, and how did he get his own sliders?
“There's a local guy named Dan Bowers,” Desmarais explained. “He always ordered garlic knots and a side of meatballs. And one day, he says to me, ‘You know what I do with these when I get home? I cut the garlic knot in half, and I make these little sliders.’ I was like, ‘That's a good idea, Dan! I think I might have to take that.’ And I did, and they've been very popular. We have meatball sliders, chicken parm sliders, buffalo chicken sliders...I would say that’s the most popular item.”
An addition to a business, an homage to a friend
Upon entering Little Italy, your eyes are immediately drawn to the bar that stands in the center of the restaurant. Until 2017, that space had been filled by a waitress station and some tables, but Desmarais had a vision for something more. “I wanted to put up a bar. I thought it would be beneficial. So in three days, we had it all planned out, ripped everything out, installed everything...three days.” He then patted the tin siding of the bar with his hand and explained the story behind it and its tribute to Earl Fletcher.
“In my process of building this bar, I wanted it to be unique. So my wife and I took a ride one day down to Fletcher’s [Fletcher & Son’s Recycling and Energy]. We just go walk around, and I see all this stuff just crumpled up in a pile. I gave him a call and said, ‘Hey Earl, you have some metal roofing. I'm interested in it.’ He says, ‘Okay, well I'll meet you down there.’ So we come to meet him, and I said, “I'm really interested in this. I’d like to buy it off you for my bar.’ So he says, ‘Okay. One dollar.’ And I was like, ‘One dollar?! What do you mean one dollar? Earl, I gotta give you something!’ And he says, ‘No, no. One dollar.’ Well, by the time we finished, he had passed. It was just ironic, ya know? We just got this, and he never got to see it in completion. He probably thought I was crazy for wanting some junked up metal.”
Home is where the heart is
Desmarais was clear that his business is in Tupper Lake because Tupper Lake is home, plain and simple. “I like it here. I like the seasons, and I like the quietness of it. They say, ‘Home is where the heart is.’ I think anybody growing up should leave their home town for a time period in order to appreciate what you have. You don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone, and then you want it back. This is where I was born and raised, and it's where I plan to stay.”
Raquette River Brewing
Co-owners: Mark Jessie and Joe Hockey
Seating: Indoor and outdoor available
What do you get when you put together two friends, a garage, and some beer? Raquette River Brewing.
Since opening in 2013, Raquette River Brewing has found the perfect balance of friendship, flavor, and creative flair. Mark Jessie and Joe Hockey met towards the end of their careers as state employees. Jessie had been a home brewer on and off for twenty years. He invited Hockey to his home where they brewed a batch of beer in Jessie’s kitchen. The pair eventually built a small brewery in his garage where they would brew beers for their own enjoyment, something they continued for about eighteen months. “Throughout that year-and-a-half’s time, I was talking to Joe about what I knew about the industry,” Jessie said. “He didn't know a lot about it at the time, so we just kept talking about it. One night we just finally decided we’d go into business.”
Brewing up new ideas
When looking at the tap list of the seventeen available craft beverages, I found myself intrigued by the wide variety of flavors and styles. Jessie explained the process that goes into deciding which flavors to create.
“A new beer comes to fruition from drinking beer,” he said. “Joe and I and my brewers will sit around and say, ‘Alright, we need to change it up. What do you want to do next?’ Generally we all sit around the round table and talk about it. We'll throw ideas out there like crazy, and then we'll say, ‘Alright, let's do this. Go write a recipe, and that’s what we’re doing next.’ That’s the fun part of it—the creativity."
Behind every great beer is a great brewer, and it is clear that the brewers of Raquette River Brewing Company—Josh, Tanner, and Kevin—are a central component to the spirit and success establishment. “We sent them to Schenectady Community College for brewing class, and they came back with a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm,” Jessie said. “They were comfortable brewing, and they wanted to brew something new. They brew it, and we’ll all critique it. A lot of ideas came from them.”
Mango Wheat: the surprise star of Raquette River Brewing Company
Mango Wheat was never meant to be a repeat beer—let alone the beer—of Raquette River Brewing. “One day I just said, ‘Let’s brew a Mango Wheat for the summer. Just one-and-done,’” Jessie said. That first batch sold far quicker than expected. “We said, ‘Well, we'll brew it one more time, and then we're done with it.' So we brewed it twice, fall came, and it kicked. We said, ‘Alright we're done with the Mango Wheat. Maybe we'll brew it next year.”' But fans of the Mango Wheat near and far said otherwise.
“People started coming in asking, ‘Where's the Mango?’ We're like, ‘Oh we're done with that for the year.’ And there were hundreds of people all saying, ‘You can't cut us off! You need to brew it!’ And we did, and we have not stopped brewing it. Mango Wheat is our number one seller here. It dominates the brew schedule, and it's on tap all over the Adirondacks. It's crazy.”
From burnt to brewed
Every beer and seltzer on tap at Raquette River Brewing has its own unique origin story, but the story behind the Smoked Red Ale was a surprise, especially to Jessie. “When we first started brewing, I was brand new to brewing on a bigger system," he said. "We bought this professional brew system, and it was a learning curve. I brewed a blonde ale one day and burned it—scorched it, I should say. Just scorched it. That's a big deal, to ruin a batch of beer when you're brand new. Now we'd have to throw it away. That's revenue, so we didn’t want to throw it away. We were all trying it and hated it. But I thought, ‘Well, let's let some of our customers try it.’ People loved it! We can't burn our beer all the time, but we needed to find a way to recreate this. So that's where the Smoked Red Ale came from. We did some research, and we found that in Germany, they smoke barley—just like you would smoke meat, fish, or chicken. It gives it this wicked smokiness. So you brew beer with that, and you get that smokiness legitimately. So, that one was unusual.”
Home sweet home
When I asked Jessie how Raquette River Brewing came to Tupper Lake, his answer was immediate. This was home. “We both lived here through our entire lives. I grew up in a family business. My family had a business here, and then I went to work at different places. I went to work for the state, which meant I wasn't leaving the state, and then I had a family. I built a house when I was twenty-three years old up in the woods, so I just never had any desire to leave.”
Owners: Cory and Lilian Rohrbach
Seating: Outdoor available
As I drove towards Amado to park my car, the sound of chainsaws and the smell of fresh-cut pine filled the air as Cory and Lillian Rohrbach labored through another day of constructing their outdoor dining expansion at Amado. The word, amado, is a Portuguese term. “It means ‘loved ones are family.’ It's the way we want people to feel when they come in here,” Mr. Rohrbach said.
The Rohrbachs opted to build five outdoor dining pavilions in response to the overwhelming surge in outdoor dining needs the previous year. “This is all Covid-19. This was just our knee-jerk reaction to what was going on,” Mr. Rohrbach said. “We were slamming busy all summer long, turning fifty to sixty people away each night just because we didn't have the space. We're creating an outdoor restaurant, and I feel like this is what it needs to be, especially here in the Adirondacks.”
The pavilions are made from pine wood, and virtually every piece has been hand-stained by Mrs. Rohrbach. “We just stained every single piece of this. These are not kits,” Mr. Rohrbach said. “We got raw lumber in, and we have been working every day since Valentine’s Day, cutting and staining all this wood. My wife, with some help, has stained every single piece of wood, one by one with a brush and a rag.”
Flavors of the world in one menu
Corey Rorbach is no stranger to the kitchen. He has been in the industry for thirty-five years and has accumulated an extensive geographical resume since starting in Pennsylvania.
“I have worked throughout Europe, South America, and the US. My wife was a lawyer by education. We met, and we had a restaurant in Brazil,” he said. “I used to be the chef at the Sands Casino in Bethlehem, PA, and I was executive chef of large resorts down there [in Brazil]. We moved up here when I took a position at the High Peaks Resort in Lake Placid. We bought our home here [in Tupper Lake].” As for his training, Rohrbach was trained “at the School of Hard Knocks."
"I learned it by doing it, by working under great chefs,” he said. “I started when I was nineteen and worked in a Greek and Mediterranean restaurant, and then I just moved around. I learned a lot of different things from a lot of different people over the years, from people in Asia, from Central Africa, the Polynesian Islands, New York, Central Europe, Eastern and Western Europe, South America, Mexico...that's why we have a cuisine that’s very eclectic. It is an experience for your taste buds. We know psychologically that smells and flavors and colors reach us on the psychological level, and we are about that experience.”
If you build it, they will come
Through their travels around the world, the Rohrbachs understand the universal draw of good food, no matter the cuisine and no matter the place. “People everywhere in the world and in every little corner love good food,” Mr. Rohrbach said. “When people look at the restaurant business, they think that what they see is the palate of the people who live there. But people lose sight in realizing that what they see, that's the ability of the individual that's running the business. We had people who said, ‘You're gonna fail! You're crazy to open with that kind of food!’ And now they see the place packed and everything we're reinvesting into it. We have to ask, ‘So, who's the crazy one?’”
The Rohrbachs aim to provide their customers with a relaxing and enjoyable experience. “The idea here is not ‘turn and burn,’” Mr. Rohrbach said. “It's ‘come in for the evening and relax.’ I just want people to sit, relax, and listen to the birds.”
P-2’s Irish Pub
Owner: Michelle LeBlanc Blair
Seating: Indoor and outdoor
From the green padded walls to the orange on the bar to the building itself, P-2’s Irish Pub is filled with history. Michelle LeBlanc Blair is the current owner of P-2’s, a building that stands as an homage to her father, Joseph LeBlanc. The building first opened as Ivan’s back in 1946. Twenty years later, Blair’s father purchased the bar under the new name, Al’s Lounge. But after having to move into assisted living, Blair bought the bar in 2006 and renamed it P-2’s Irish Pub. “One of his dreams was always to convert it to an Irish pub, and I was able to do that when I took over,” Blair said. “It’s ironic because the place had this deep rich mahogany style bar, these green padded walls. The floors at the time were orange, white, and green tile, the ceilings were orange, white, and green, and the booths were orange. So the place just had this Irish flare to it already.” The floor tiles have been replaced with wood and the ceilings with tin, but the green padding on the walls and the orange along the bar date back to the opening of Ivan’s in the 1940s.
An Irish pub with a French twist
When asked where the name P-2’s Irish Pub came from, Blair was all too pleased to share the story. “P-2s was my dad’s nickname,” she explained. “He was the smallest of 9 children, and when my Aunt Rita met him, she said, ‘Oh, my little pitou!’--’the petite one’ in French. That nickname stuck with him through childhood, through college, through the army--it just became his nickname. It’s funny because it is an Irish pub, but it has this French twist to it.”
Do your thing, chicken wing!
While you can’t go wrong with the pub fare offered at P-2’s, they are especially known for their wings. “Our wings are the best-sellers,” Blair said. “I have a unique seasoning blend for the medium and hot wings that no one else has, so those are really, really good. That flavor is very unique to us, and it’s delicious. First we had only mild, medium, and hot, and a few years ago, we decided to add all the additional flavors. My personal favorite is the hot.” The list of wing flavors includes honey-garlic, BBQ, garlic parmesan, bourbon molasses (“Kicking Ass Molasses”), mango habañero, and, of course, the standard mild, medium, and hot.
Music scene + a dream = a recipe for philanthropy
P-2’s is currently working on adding an awning to their back patio to provide customers with an outdoor experience, regardless of weather. But Blair lit up as she explained her second expansion project: a band shell in which musicians can perform. That band shell will be central to a philanthropic undertaking Blair is calling the “Trinity Drawing,” a ticket drawing that donates the money to various causes. 33% will go to the winner of the drawing, 33% will stay with the music series to help continue to support live music, and 34% will go to the cause that the band member selected. “I wanted to establish a way to give back right out of the gate,” she said. “Now, I have the management time and the energy to run it, coordinate it, and implement it, and it is really exciting.”
Musicians are already lining up to contribute to their chosen causes. "Laura Thurston is playing June 10,” Blair said. “She wanted to do something for kids that had to do with nature and keeping the environment clean and cleaning the water. So I talked to her about the Wild Center and said we had this youth climate program and sent her a link. She said it looked perfect, so we are going to donate to the youth climate center from her show. And then Scott Sileo out of Lake Placid is playing on June 25, and he wanted to donate to the northeast Regional Food Bank. The guys that played Sunday, Tom Toms Duo out of Sussex, NJ, donated to Heart B. Acres Ranch. I have two separate musicians so far that want to give to Parkinson’s research, so there are times we will be able to combine different donations. It’s just really an awesome way to reach out and let the musicians be a contribution to the community as well." Blair plans to do a final event in September to summarize and celebrate all the contributions made through the Trinity Drawing.
Well Dressed Food Company
Owner: Russell Cronin
Seating: Indoor and outdoor
Whether it is the warm face of manager Mitch LaLonde inviting me in or the contagious laughter of Russell Cronin filling the air, I couldn’t help but feel at home as soon as I entered Well Dressed Food Company. I asked Cronin the same first question I always ask: “How did this place come to be?” Cronin’s response was a swift, “Oh, that’s easy.” He walked away, grabbed a picture frame off a table near the counter, and came back with a photo of the late owner and founder, David Tomberlin. “This right here. This is the heart of the place.”
What began as a Stonewall Kitchen wholesale model in 2006 by Tomberlin, a model centered entirely around gourmet provisions from the Adirondacks, became the Well Dressed Food known today by the community of Tupper Lake. Cronin introduced Tomberlin to Tupper Lake in 2000, the same year they met. “He fell in love with the Adirondacks, and specifically with Tupper Lake,” Cronin said. “Three years later, we bought our house over on Lake Simon, and in 2006, he moved back permanently.” Cronin and Tomberlin split their time between Tupper Lake and Cleveland, OH until Cronin eventually relocated to Tupper Lake permanently in 2014, the same year that Well Dressed Food opened its doors. There you can find gourmet sandwiches and salads, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and various coffee options after perusing the variety of sauces, seasonings, and other cooking provisions for sale. While all options are delicious, the turkey club is the most popular, having sold over 15,000 between January and September of 2020 alone.
Gaining a piece of David at every turn
Every part of Well Dressed Food, from the building to the food to the music, was personally selected by Tomberlin. “He was very meticulous about the decisions he made and what he did here,” Cronin said. Tomberlin had selected the building due to the Adirondack appeal it held. “David loved the tin ceilings and the charm of what an old Adirondack general store looked like. This was originally the LaRocque's Department Store. He just loved the charm of the space and had a vision for what it would look like as Well Dressed Food.”
As Cronin spoke with me, I noticed the consistent and soothing sounds of jazz playing over the speaker. “That's David,” Cronin said, pointing upwards with a smile. “He did not play an instrument at all. I think he just loved jazz in this atmosphere. He was very eclectic, both from a music perspective and a reading perspective. But in this space for some reason, he felt as though the jazz wasn't offensive to anybody. So you can't come in here and if you prefer hip-hop, you're not going to like the music because it’s not hip-hop. But you're also not going to offend an older crowd.”
As for the combination of a coffee shop with a gourmet deli and bar? “So, that was part of me agreeing in 2014 to move back to the Adirondacks permanently and drop out of corporate America,” Cronin said with a laugh. “Number one, I had to be able to have an espresso in the morning, and number two, occasionally, I had to be able to get sushi.”
Giving back and keeping a vision alive
While Tomberlin and Cronin’s work with Well Dressed Food naturally allowed them to engage in the Tupper Lake region, they enjoyed finding other ways to connect and give back to the community. “David was a huge train enthusiast,” Cronin said. “He actually got his train engineer license and drove the scenic railroad from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake. He was passionate about things like that that he felt would impact the whole economy up here. We were both part of ARISE, which is a local economic development group that ran Big Tupper Ski Slope on an all-volunteer basis for about six years in the early 2000s. He was just passionate about Tupper Lake and helping the economy, just kind of revitalizing it.”
After Tomberlin passed away in June 2020, Cronin found support for keeping Well Dressed Food aligned with Tomberlin’s vision from Mitch LaLonde. “Things started changing way too fast for me," Cronin said. "It was losing the brand that David built, and that was very concerning to me because when somebody comes in for a turkey club, it's generally repeat business and they know our turkey club. When they get a different turkey club, they're like, ‘What is this?’ So I felt as though the transition needed to happen a little bit more slowly than it was going. Mitch, who's been with us since day one, actually stepped up to manage the place for me. It's allowed me to keep running the credit union and doing the things I do, staying connected with the Adirondack Foundation and all the good work they do over there in the philanthropy world.”
If you stop in to Well Dressed Food for a bite or a drink and happen to see Cronin, do not worry—he still gets his espresso every morning in the (brave) form of a four-shot iced latte.
If you have previously been to any of the above spots in the past while exploring, shopping, or playing in Tupper Lake, I encourage you to revisit them again. Knowing the story behind the food and drinks we know and love allow the flavors to taste all the more vibrant. Bon appétit!