© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Restaurants are family members too

The sign and parking lot of the now closed Kozel's restaurant.
Ralph Gardner Jr.

The recent closing of Kozel’s, a Columbia County restaurant that had been around since 1936, felt like a death in the family. Maybe not an immediate family member, but a family member nonetheless.

My grandparents took me there as a child and I’ve been nourished by its cuisine ever since. Part of Kozel’s charm was that walking through its front door felt like entering a time capsule and returning to a more comprehensible era, perhaps the Eisenhower Fifties.

The bar scene remained energetic to the very end. But I’m not a bar person. Hanging out with strangers talking sports has never been my idea of a good time, especially since my wafer thin knowledge of football, baseball and hockey would quickly expose me as a fraud and fill me with paranoia that I was rightly being judged a suspicious character.

No, better to sit at a table. Kozel’s had a large dining room and for decades it has been a favorite site for weddings, reunions and political party events. But I always preferred to sit by the windows overlooking Route 9H. Nouvelle cuisine it wasn’t. They served a dependable burger, their steaks were excellent, and were anyone to criticize their unimpeachable French fries, cole slaw or smothered onions they could rightly be called a complainer.

I don’t know whether it was true or not but I was told Kozel’s sold more meat that any restaurant in Columbia County. And did I mention their relish tray? And the pasta salad? If Governor Kathy Hochul or members of the legislature happen to be listening New York State ought to pass a law obligating all restaurants to offer a relish tray, free of charge, as soon as you take your seat. Raw carrot sticks, celery stalks and radishes are healthy. Besides, it provides a focus for your nervous energy until actual food and drink arrive.

Kozel’s was perhaps best known for its mastodon Kozel’s Cut prime rib. My brother James rarely visits upstate. He has nothing against us personally, at least I don’t think he does; he’s just a devoted city person. And when he does visit it’s a struggle, and a futile one, to get him to eat at home.

It was Kozel’s and the Kozel’s Cut alone that attracted him to the boondocks. Upon arrival he’d promptly call Kozel’s, make a dinner reservation for one, ignoring my pleas that Kozel’s wasn’t Chez Pannise or Le Bernardin, and reserve himself an order of the Kozel’s Cut. He was never disappointed.

Kozel’s even developed something like a retro chic reputation in recent years. Alison Roman, the chef and food writer, posted from Harry’s Bar in Venice one week in August 2022 and from Kozel’s a few weeks later.

When tables at fancy Hudson restaurants were impossible to score on a Saturday night you could be assured a window seat awaited you at Kozel’s. Friends we took there were invariably charmed by its wood paneling, Quick Draw video lotto games, and waitresses of a certain age who didn’t subscribe to the notion that the customer is always right.

The restaurant served its final Kozel’s cut last November and third generation owners Helen and Gus Kozel headed to a well-earned retirement. It will be a source of perennial disappointment to me that I was unaware that Kozel’s recently held an indoor sale. I would have loved to have gotten my hands on some Kozel’s branded merchandize, ideally something like a dinner plate large and sturdy enough to have supported one of those stupendous slabs of roast beef.

I managed to make it to their second indoor sale last weekend but almost anything bearing Kozel’s bold unfussy signature had been sold before I arrived. In retrospect I wished I’d bought my brother a vinyl-covered menu, even if the fifteen-dollar price tag seemed a bit steep. Then again that’s cheap if you consider that you were purchasing a slice of Hudson Valley history, an authentic piece of Americana.

I noticed that Gregg Berninger, the Ghent town historian, visited the Kozel’s Facebook page and requested a menu for the archives. I was happy to see that Gregg’s on the job. Anything less would have been a dereliction of duty.

I went home with a Kozel’s t-shirt.

As I said, favorite restaurants are like beloved family members. When they go a bit of you goes with them. Kozel’s passing triggered a spasm of nostalgia and renewed appreciation for all the other favored restaurants and diners that have come and gone across my lifetime. For some reason we, at least I, think of them as quasi-permanent fixtures on the landscape.

Their demise feels disorienting, throwing into question your own place in the universe.

But if brick and mortar and not flesh and bone those who stand behind its success certainly are. The best restaurants are personifications of their chefs and owners’ personalities. The national Restaurant Association estimates that sixty percent of restaurants fail within the first year and eighty percent within five years.

A multi-generational restaurant, if I can be allowed to get sappy, or sappier, is a love affair between staff and customers. It’s undoubtedly fulfilling a need for something beyond just food. It’s an undefined club. Kozel’s is for sale. Hopefully something good will replace it. Yet nothing can replace Kozel’s. Would we really want it to?

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Related Content
  • I owe David Becker, a Columbia County artist and a friend, a debt of gratitude. David gave me something far more important than a hot stock tip or the name of a physical therapist that works wonders. He introduced me to a dependable diner.
  • The village of Kinderhook, NY has undergone a remarkable renaissance over the last few years. The revival has been anchored by a complex of shops and restaurants, an art gallery and a yoga studio, together known as the Knitting Mill. The Old Dutch Inn, overlooking the storybook village square, has been transformed into a boutique hotel. And lest anybody think I’m exaggerating, Taylor Swift was spotted at one of the yoga classes and rumored to be house hunting.
  • Once you reach a certain age, whether retired or still gainfully employed, it seems to me that one responsibility dwarfs all others. That’s to stay healthy, to the extent that exalted state remains under our control.