Posted by: funnyteacherguy | July 30, 2008

You can never go hungry in Ithaca.

It’s true. With a very diverse population living here year-round and the addition of an almost equal number of college students from every corner of the US and beyond from September through May, there is a need for an equally diverse array of restaurants. And by no means does this need go unfulfilled!

Having spent a fair number of years outside of Ithaca before making it my home, I can honestly say that I have never experienced a village, town or city with as many different options for dining co-existing in peace and harmony. Most larger cities I have visited specialize in some type of regional cuisine which is easy to find all over the city, and though each restaurant may offer subtle variations on the theme, they are all relatively the same. The regional fare, along with the staples of chain restaurants (of both dine-in and take-out varieties), dominates the local landscape and at times helps define the culinary stand-point of the city (Chicago has the deep-dish pizza, Philly has the cheesesteak, New York has the thin-crust pizza, etc.). Ithaca, on the other hand, cannot be defined; there are far too many locally owned and operated restaurants that specialize in a multitude of styles of cuisine, and each does it so well that no single type of food dominates the culinary landscape.

Outdoor dining on the Commons.

Outdoor dining on the Commons.

I believe that the diversity of the restaurants in Ithaca reflects quite positively on the cultural diversity of the population as well as the general open-mindedness of both the residents and the student populations. For so many different restaurants to survive, let alone thrive, in such a (comparatively) small town is incredible and it is only fair that I do my part and patronize them as often as possible (much to the chagrin of my wife, who thoroughly enjoys cooking and eating at home). I also must thank some of the restaurants in town for helping broaden my gastronomical horizons and helping me to become more than the provincial eater I was as a child and even as teen. It was not until I came to Ithaca as a freshman at Ithaca College that I really began to eat outside my “comfort” zone of typical American fare and Americanized ethnic foods.

Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t good old-fashioned American food here, too! Nor is there a marked absence of chain restaurants – both do great business, to be sure, but as variety is the spice of life, I’d recommend taking advantage of the tasty opportunities that Ithaca presents. There are adventures awaiting you just behind the door of a local restaurant – most are extremely affordable and all are well worth it! Please allow me to share some of my personal adventures with you (they will sound more adventurous to some of you than others – bear in mind that I lived a very sheltered culinary life for quite some time…)

  • Just a Taste Wine and Tapas Bar – Located downtown on Aurora St., this one tops the list because from the moment I walked in for the first time it was my favorite. Tapas, if you’re unfamiliar, is a Spanish tradition of ordering small plates of a large variety of food and sharing them around with your friends (though oftentimes in Spain, the tapas come free with wine). This is a great place to start if you are a less-than-adventurous eater because you can order a variety of items without committing to a large plate of something completely unknown to you. This was the site of my very first experience with Brussels Sprouts (kryptonite to most children) and I was instantly hooked (so much so that I actually planted a large crop of them in my garden this year). I also find I experiment more and more with seafood here, as I’ve never been a huge fan of fish and/or shellfish, but it allows me to try things I wouldn’t want to approach in my own kitchen. They use many local products, from meats to veggies, beers and wines, which always makes you feel good about supporting the local economy and the freshness of the food.
  • Taste of Thai – Located on the Commons or on Meadow St., this was the site of my first real taste of thai (pardon…that was a horrible, cheap turn of phrase). Before my first experience there with my wife and a couple of our friends, I was mainly scared of the names of the dishes – I have a huge fear of mispronouncing something and either making a fool of myself, offending someone or worse yet, ordering something completely different out of ignorance! Thankfully, my fellow diners and the congenial waitstaff were more than happy to aid me in choosing a dish (and ordering it correctly). One feature that hooked me in was that with many dishes, there are different spice levels, from a comparatively mild one to the tongue-melting five (I exaggerate…it is only tongue-blistering). There are several great Thai restaurants in Ithaca, but Taste of Thai was my first experience and shall always hold a special spot in my heart (or stomach).
  • Viva Taqueria – On Aurora St., across from the eastern end of the Commons, you’ll find some of the freshest, tastiest Mexican food around. There are several different Mexican restaurants in Ithaca, each providing a different, yet still authentic, style of Mexican food, but Viva remains a local favorite. With huge, flavorful portions and equally fantastic margaritas, it’s hard to go wrong.
  • Sangham – Located in the Center Ithaca building on the Ithaca Commons, Sangham is a great choice if you enjoy tasty, affordable Indian food without a huge time commitment. I have been to Sangham with one of the pickiest eaters I know (also one of my best friends) and he said it was one of the best meals he’d ever eaten – he has since developed a slight Sangham addiction.
  • Benchwarmers – Also conveniently located on the Commons, I’m including this one on my short list to assuage anyone who may think I have a grudge against good ol’ American food…and because I do love to eat there! Benchwarmers is a sports bar, with over 25 televisions, pool tables and darts, and fantastic food, from appetizers through desserts. My personal pick would have to be the Full Court Press (an enormous chili burger) and onion rings…but be warned – you should be hungry if you’re going after this one!

If you are familiar with Ithaca and its restaurants, please comment on this post with any additions you’d like to make – I am only one man with one stomach! You may have noticed that all of the restaurants that I highlighted are located on and around the Commons (which, for any out-of-towners reading this or visiting, is at the center of the downtown and is a pedestrian shopping area) – the reason for this is that I am indecisive on a good day, and the Commons makes my lunch and/or dinner decisions easy. There are over 25 restaurants within a quarter mile of the Commons and a wide variety of styles are represented therein, so it’s always easy to just park downtown and wander around until something really jumps out and grabs me!

For a complete list of restaurants in Ithaca, searchable by type of food and/or general location, please click here.

Posted by: funnyteacherguy | July 16, 2008

Music soothes the savage cheapskate

Okay, so I admit to being frugal. Especially when it comes to entertainment – I will willingly give up a portion of a nice day on a weekend to attend a matinée showing of a movie simply because it is much cheaper than an evening show. Now that you know this, you can imagine how difficult it must be to fill my days and nights without emptying my wallet (pity me if you must). This is just one more reason that I love and appreciate being in Ithaca – there is always something going on, and rarely is it too “spendy” (even for me). My favorite example of good bang for your buck is the music scene in Ithaca, especially in the summer.

The El Caminos playing on the Commons (at Ithacafest).

The El Caminos playing on the Commons (at Ithacafest).

During the summer, there is a veritable explosion of music in the area, much of which is outdoors and FREE! I can think of very few things that can hold a candle to the idea of packing a picnic lunch (or grabbing one from your favorite eatery) and heading out to Taughannock Falls State Park or the Ithaca Commons to hear a live and often local band play. I know what some of you may be thinking, that a local music scene is just not your cup of tea and that you have a “local music scene” at home in which you rarely partake…but I beg of you, give it a chance! You will NOT be disappointed. The local musicians are exceptional (and not every concert around the town is by a local band or artist), the crowds are friendly and easy-going, the price is right, the locations are easy to find and you’re outside enjoying the beautiful, albeit brief, summer weather in our part of the world.

To give you an idea of what you can find (and enjoy), here is a list of live music events in and around Ithaca for this summer:

  • Ithaca Commons Summer Concert Series – Thursdays, 6:00pm (some start later, and all are free)
  • Taughannock Falls State Park Summer Concert Series – Saturdays, 7:00pm ($5.00 per car parking fee)
  • Summer Concerts on the Cornell Arts Quad – Fridays, 7:30pm (only run through the first week of August, but also free)
  • Myers Point Park (in Lansing, our neighbors to the north) – Thursdays, 6:30pm (free…isn’t a great word!?)
  • Concerts at the Ellis Hollow Community Center (just east of the downtown)- Tuesdays, 6:00pm (also free!!)
  • Watkins Glen Concerts at Clute Park (just about 40 minutes to the west) – Tuesdays, 7:00pm (you guessed it: free!)
  • Montgomery Park in Dryden (just 25 minutes to the northeast) – Wednesdays, 6:00pm (still free)
  • Wagner Vineyards Concert Series – Fridays, 8:00pm ($3.00 cover – still, not bad)

As you can see, there really is no reason not to go to a concert while you’re in Ithaca (visiting or permanently), as there is an abundance of free and inexpensive concerts that are just ripe for the picking (pardon the seasonal metaphor). If you already enjoy the music scene or you really love music and want as much of it as you can possibly find, I would also suggest the Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival that takes place in Trumansburg (a scant 20 minutes from Ithaca) every year. The festival is coming up this weekend (July 18-20) and promises to be one of the best ever, with performances going on almost around the clock, a huge variety of big-name and local bands as well as on-site camping (for those of you who need to be close to the music ’round the clock!). Grassroots is not a free concert, but it is well-worth the money for all the bands you can see in one place, on one of the four stages, the creative works of the crafters and artisans, as well as some fantastic foods from more than 20 multicultural food vendors.

So, in conclusion, I simply must encourage you to take advantage of the free, inexpensive, and even the reasonably-priced concerts in and around Ithaca during the summer. That’s not to say that the music scene hibernates during the cooler weather (there are just as many, if not more, events in fall and winter), but this is the only opportunity to enjoy great music and fantastic weather at the same time – so don’t miss it!

Posted by: funnyteacherguy | July 14, 2008

Ithaca Farmers Market – Much more than just produce…

When you say the words “farmers market” to many people, it still conjures up an image of men in jeans (possibly bib overalls), flannel work shirts, and straw hats standing behind various pint and quart bins of produce. It’s an old-fashioned picture postcard image whose origins are nebulous at best (and fairly inaccurate in most parts of the US nowadays). However, farmers markets have made a huge resurgence recently across the country, with more and more emphasis being placed on the idea of eating locally for ecological and economical reasons alike. Today’s farmers markets tend to prove to be incongruous with the holdover image of rows of cookie-cutter Rockwellian farmers, in that they offer much more than just farm-fresh produce. One of the pioneers in the bustling nouveau farmers market has been in continual operation here in Ithaca since 1973 from April through December.

As we enter the heart of summer, on any Saturday morning, you can find me at the Farmers Market – it’s a sort of Saturday morning ritual for my wife and I. We get up, get ready and head straight to the Farmers Market, without coffee, without breakfast, without anything of the normal routine. To the neophyte, parking may seem a daunting task (due to the extreme popularity of the market), but fear not – with so many spaces among multiple rows of parking, you are sure to find a spot (but don’t rule out walking – it’s not far from the downtown and Ithaca’s a pretty walker-friendly town). As ever, my first priority is to find coffee, which is easy enough to do, with many booths offering coffee, including a Gimme! Coffee booth (a local roaster and favorite). Immediately after sating my most dire needs, we begin the slow and difficult process of choosing a vendor for breakfast – there are so many talented bakers and delicious eateries that it makes the decision that much harder, so we generally buy a few things from a few places. We take our delicious bounty down by the Cayuga Lake Inlet and have a nice, quiet breakfast while watching the water (and sometimes our fellow patrons).

A lovely bunch of radishes.

A lovely bunch of radishes.

Now that breakfast is out of the way (for now), we begin our first loop around the market, perusing (ogling) the produce that is on display, that way we know what we want and in which booth did it look best. In all honesty, this decision is difficult as well, because the prices are reasonable and all the produce looks fantastic. My wife and I are avid gardeners, and we have some beautiful produce in our own back yard, but we still come to the market to supplement what we have the space to grow at home…and many of the plants that we have in the ground were purchased as wee seedlings from growers at the market: flowers, herbs and veggies. One thing that we do not have the ability to produce on our own is fresh meats – and there are several vendors that have great cuts of meat, farm-fresh (or frozen), available from a single chop to half a cow (or goat, or lamb, or chicken). Visiting the Farmer’s Market is akin to living on a farm, without nearly so much work!

But wait, there’s more! The Ithaca Farmers Market has much more than just fresh and prepared food – there’s crafters and artisans galore, too. Woodworkers, artists, wineries, candlemakers, soapmakers, jewelers, furniture and hammocks, musicians and special events – it’s all there for your (and my) enjoyment, every weekend (and Tuesdays, too). Even if you’re only in town for a short time, the Ithaca Farmers Market is well worth your time for the food, the fresh air, all the fantastic artisanal goods and the fun.

To visit the Ithaca Farmers Market website, click here.

Posted by: funnyteacherguy | July 9, 2008

U-Pick – Delicious Fun!

Beautiful berries

Beautiful berries

Ithaca is a very eco-friendly community, with many efforts to reduce waste and energy consumption as well as the overall effect that we have on the environment. One way that the community is able to have an environmental impact is to eat local and to that end there are a great deal of farm stands and local products in grocery stores, as well as an enormous (and fun!) Farmers Market. These are efforts of which most people (even short-term visitors) are keenly aware; but one exciting way of participating in the eat-local movement is to visit a U-Pick farm or orchard. In the Ithaca area, there are a large number of farms and orchards that give you, the consumer, the chance to go out in the fields and pick your own produce. At first, it may seem like a lot of back-breaking work, but it is actually a very enjoyable and rewarding experience.

My wife and I have lived in the area virtually all our lives, but have never taken advantage of this opportunity until very recently. I love fresh fruit but I really didn’t relish the idea of “working” for it until I actually got out to the orchards, where I found that it really was A LOT of fun to hunt for the best-looking, perfectly ripened cherries, raspberries, black raspberries and strawberries. The prices are extremely low (as you’ve effectively “cut out the middle man”) and when the weather is nice, I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to spend some time – you’re outdoors and surrounded by the freshest fruits you can find.

I have but one word of warning – for locals, clear a little room in your freezer; for visitors, just make sure your eyes aren’t bigger than your stomach! Once you’re out there and “in the groove”, it’s hard to stop!

For a list of U-Pick Farms in the Ithaca area, click here.

Posted by: funnyteacherguy | July 9, 2008

Robert Treman State Park

Part of the beauty of the upper part of Robert Treman State Park

Part of the beauty of the upper part of Robert Treman State Park

Robert Treman State Park is located just south of the town of Ithaca, on Route 327 (just off of Route 13) and is one of the most attractive natural areas in all of New York. The lower entrance offers trail access (there are over 4 miles of trails in the park), a life-guarded swimming area in the basin of one of the waterfalls (with a diving board), and the main camping area of the park. There is a second entrance, the upper entrance, just a bit further down Route 327 which offers access to an historic old mill and the same trails that are accessible from the lower entrance. If you don’t feel like making the 4.5 mile round-trip hike, there is a short, 1/2 mile loop at the upper entrance that will take you by Lucifer Falls, the tallest falls in the park with some truly breath-taking views of Enfield Glen (the historic name of the area the park now encompasses).

Hiking, swimming, history, geology, photo-opportunities aplenty – Robert Treman State Park is a must-see for all visitors!!