Gracie’s 21st Century Café & Catering (casually referred to Gracie’s) is located just over 3 miles out from the nearest town and easily accessible from local highways. Driving out into this country, one might suspect they are heading the wrong way, until suddenly the pink neon Gracie’s sign appears ahead, beckoning the curious. Situated amidst 2 metal-forging foundries, this white stucco building perched high on its hill with island-colored shutters and neon signage appears like a mirage. Approaching the large iron gate with openwork detail and calla lilies, you might get the feeling you’ve just entered a resort – as Gracie says, it’s a vacation in the country – the hand-laid brick patio spreads out against a high white concrete wall on the left, an outdoor white concrete grill with inlaid tile, and abundant gardens just beyond the brightly colored umbrella-topped tables and buffering the outside wall of the restaurant.
Two long steps down (or ramp down for wheeled access) and to the immediate right are more lush plantings surrounding 2 free-form ponds, the top cascading into a smaller pool, where Zeke likes to cool his Labradoodle jets in the heat of summer, chasing the frogs away. One year, a comet mysteriously appeared there, and it took weeks – and even Gracie’s offer of a free dinner to whoever could solve the mystery – before we knew how it got there. A Japanese maple stands full and tall to the left of this path, and mom created an outdoor living room across from the front door with cushioned black wicker couches and a glass top coffee table.
My mom, who designed the 18th century building’s interior herself when she purchased it in 1985, spared no expenses. This old building, built in two sections – the earliest in the 1700s – had served as the payroll office for the foundry across the street. The original 8 x 4 feet walk in iron safe, its original doors still intact, now serves as our coat closet, and also as a storage place for all manner of things (our dirty little secret), like rolled up area rugs, various “uniforms,” and a couple of high chairs for our smallest fine diners. Some 200 years later, the newer part of the building became the ski lodge for skiers who came down from the oversized hill above us for a warm beverage and maybe a bite to eat. When mom opened the restaurant in 1988, you could still see the tow lines up on the mountain from our front door.
The building would become a restaurant and (apparently) very popular bar in the 1970s, and eventually closed as The Foundry in the early 1980s. Anyone who might have seen the condition of our building in 1985 would have surely told her she was out of her mind. The location notwithstanding (far from what anyone might consider “civilization”), the structure itself was dark and dank, with rough wood flooring and dark walls, old brick fireplaces, and little more than candlelight to light the rooms. But my mom, a visionary and multitalented artist, saw her dream within the ghostly walls of this rustic, dusty “house” and, with a handful of multitalented friends, set to work like an archaeologist to uncover what is today her colorfully bright and warm home, where the people who pass through her door are not customers, but beloved guests.
The wooden, windowless front door was replaced by a large full glass door flanked by a long rectangular window box containing a dangling neon calla lily (her original logo) fabricated by a friend who bends neon. He would also make the two neon “squiggles” that topped the back bar, one which was a remarkably phallic-like green shape, and another blue “wave” above the entrance to the adjoining dining room.
The 8-seat bar was constructed of cement block over which she smoothed and sculpted concrete, topped with a Nevermar grey counter top cut and shaped by a carpenter friend. The barroom had 4 tables, and a baby Grand Steinway piano. For many years, she had live jazz performing there on weekends. The bygone years of abundance have given way to more a more frugal budget and so live jazz today is more of a planned evening of dining entertainment on occasional dates. The baby Grand retired several years ago, given away to a longtime guest who now lives in Manhattan, and a 5th table now stands were she once did. When we opened, the barroom was left as a closed room with only the skylights she’d added, and no windows. A few years in, mom decided to open up the wall with another full glass door flanked with full length windows, for more light and an entryway to the patio she’d hand-laid with brick and packed with lush gardens.
The front dining room, aptly named Gracie’s Room, was opened up to all natural light with long, rectangular windows on all sides, and the fireplace was redesigned with the same sculpting element as the bar, smooth with rock-like formations at the base and with enough “frontage” to allow a chilly guest, or server, to warm their cockles. It was called Gracie’s room because it was and is her favorite room – a place she used to sit with coffee and a newspaper in the days following the sale of my childhood home, before the renovation of her own home attached to the restaurant was completed. Mom loves light, as is plain to see in the sheer number of windows and skylights she installed in her private living space.
The largest dining room, known as The Gallery, is the original and oldest part of the building, with large original windows, and also houses the vault/coat closet. An additional room built off of it, through an original entryway, is where you will find Gracie (when she’s not bringing her recipes to life in the kitchen) in her office, feverishly typing up new menus and designing catered events. The Gallery is used largely for private parties and special events, and additional seating on especially busy nights. The original fireplace, also sculpted by Gracie, looks like a work of art among the many original art pieces and photographs. An original window, long since closed off as the remainder of the structure took root on its other side, houses a menagerie of books, photo albums documenting the restaurant’s transformation, unique glass serving pieces used for catering, and a portable backgammon board that was once my companion in Greece over 30 years ago. Few people know that beneath this room is a dirt floor room housing our oil tank and the remains of a portion believed to be part of the Underground Railroad.
The last dining room, 3 wide steps down from the bar, is known as our Native American Room. The décor is decidedly southwest, with burnt orange walls, a huge wood burning fireplace, Native style original art pieces, and an R.C. Gorman lithograph above the fireplace. Two large original wood columns, hand-carved by a transplanted Rastafarian friend, their faces painted white to match the décor, stand sentry between the barroom and Native American Room. The wall to the right features a large glass window overlooking a Pennsylvania hardwood charcoal grill, where guests can watch the grill chef preparing 8-12-or 14 oz filets, Hawaiian butterfish, shrimp wrapped in bacon, grilled vegetables and potatoes, and lollipop lamb chops. This room, our most requested room in the house, has the most requested table, a table for 4 in front of the fireplace where one can see and be seen. Another table rests in the left inside corner, considered the most romantic table for its side-by-side seating for 2; countless Romeos have found a home for their ring at this table – including my husband.
The restrooms themselves are a work of art, and it’s not unusual to have guests showing them off to friends they’ve brought for the first time. You will find them casually stationed between the bar and the front of the house; many of our new guests are led past their doors with nary a glance in their direction – their doors white as the walls around them – the oversized eclectic framed original artist’s manifestations of a man in a top hat and a woman in pink –unintentionally disguising this vestibule as more “gallery” than function. Where else have you gone where the men just had to see the ladies room, or the ladies just had to see the men’s room??
The men’s room is a tiled wonderland of masculine colors, a standard urinal on the right – where gentlemen take great pride in “melting some ice” – opposite a small gray corner sink nestled in a green and black cabinet, a small art deco mirror above, and a scented candle always burning. In the early days, a porcelain pink flamingo lamp kept vigil over the urinal, until one of our many guests thought it might be fun to take it home. The resulting damage to the wall and subsequently broken Flamingo cost my mom roughly $200 to fix, and eventually Flamingo was put to rest. On the left, the piece d’resistance - the stall. The white tiled floor runs under a glossy black hanging stall door, behind which is a tiled mural of a woman in a tasteful state of undress resting above a stone-colored toilet. She is the second most popular woman in the restaurant and, contrary to what inquiring minds want to believe, she is not Gracie.
The ladies’ room features rose-colored carpeting, pink, black, and gold tiled walls, and two large mirrors resting over double rose porcelain sinks dropped into a handmade black cabinet. The counter features a selection of hair products, scented hand soaps and lotions, and a glass basket contains emergency feminine products. An adjacent accent table with matching mirror, mints and tissues, a pair of old glass perfume bottles, and a small vanity stool with round plush cushion, completes the feel of a 1920s Hollywood boudoir. On the nearby wall are black and white photos of Albert Einstein, Elvis Presley, and Picasso. In the back of the room are two pink porcelain toilets with gold handles, enclosed by black stall doors, standing regally on black tile floors.
The artwork displayed throughout the restaurant has changed through the years – when we opened the doors, a rather extensive collection by friend Ray Leight made the all-white interior explode with color. The only remaining pieces are those that mark the restroom doors. We had many pieces by local artist Gene Spaar, whose unique and whimsical perceptions of creatures great and small drew interest and even sales from guests. Gracie herself has collected original art from many places she has vacationed, especially Jamaica – and also has hung some of her own photography from a trip to Cuba. Much of what adorns the walls today is a collection of beloved pieces acquired and received – including Todd’s painting in Gracie’s room, and a 2-dimensional rendering of Gracie as a futuristic waitress by close friend Rob Radikal hanging in the Bar.
In 25 years, the restaurant has evolved over and over again. Carpets have changed, cork flooring put in, walls have been painted, chairs have been changed, and her logo has changed twice. Most recently, the back bar was renovated from low blue-green shelves where once a paper mache electric eel swam through the wall above to a sophisticated cherry wood shelving unit from granite countertop to ceiling. Our old leaky Norlake beer cooler was finally retired last fall.
The menu evolved from the first solely vegetarian menu in the area to include many meat and fish selections... even adding the usual, such as ostrich and elk. There was once a rumor that we served rattlesnake, and the guest who believed it was most disappointed, though he – and anyone else today – would be hard pressed not to find something delectable from our extensive menu. The beer selections, too, have evolved from a voyage-round-the-world to include more domestic and craft choices as guests’ tastes have evolved, and the wine list continues to stay ahead of the game with ongoing new selections hand-picked by Gracie, in addition to some very fine bottles of Opus in the cellar.
Our staff has come and gone, and some came back again; we’ve watched kids grow from awkward teens to mature adults who left for college, some married and had children, others moved on to other cities and career paths. I was a moody 16-year-old when mom acquired the building, never really wanting to be there while they beat the dust and cobwebs out of this vision I just couldn’t see, and a sophomore in college when she filled that house to the seams with friends and family on opening night.
While many things have changed, there is one thing that remains constant. We’ve had many loyal guests and friends who have been with us from the start, and many more who have only just passed through our doors. Their enthusiasm for her food, her generous spirit, and her caring "family" of staff keep the stoves burning and inspire her to keep creating, at least for a little while longer.