We squinted in the late afternoon sun like a pair of blinking cicadas emerging from a 17-year snooze as we emerged from the side door of BL’s Tavern.
“They say if you want good food, go to a tavern,” remarked NCC (Nearly Constant Companion). “For the last hour, we just gathered more data to support that assertion.”
“SORRY WE’RE OPEN” winks the neon sign in the window on Front Street in the Stockade. BL’s is the joint where everybody knows your name, where Heather behind the bar has your beer ready for you before you even take your place at the 15-stool wood bar, where somebody’s favorite tune is playing a few decibels too loud on the jukebox. BL’s is cool and dim and comfortable.
Conversation at the bar was occasionally a little salty, but hastily neutralized by a sincere apology to the few ladies at the bar. The dining room with seven tables and booths remained essentially unoccupied.
And while it’s not fancy, the food is pretty darn good. Former New York Times restaurant reviewer Pete Wells would award the establishment high grades, not because BL’s serves haute cuisine, but because it doesn’t pretend to. No fancy French words like “sautéed” or “flambéed” or “ala” anything on this menu. Just straightforward food, well-prepared but without frills or decorative parsley.
Not that there is anything wrong with elaborate preparations. They just don’t fit in with the desires of the clientele or the décor.
There are the ubiquitous TV sets, the aforementioned jukebox, a couple of dartboards, 8-by-10 glossies of past celebrations, the menu.
The categories of food on the menu are what you would expect: cheese nachos in two sizes, fried pickle spears, boneless wings, appetizers, chicken wings, sandwiches and wraps, from the grill, sides. But the quality of the items rises above expectancy.
For example: Both salads that accompanied our main dishes were house-made and excellent. The potato salad was studded with bits of celery and carrots like so many flecks of confetti, the chunks of potatoes were neither too large nor too small, and ingredients were bonded with pale yellow egg salad. Remarked John: “Both salads were flavorful and not salty so the customer could adjust the salt level to his/her own taste.” A hint of tuna perked up the macaroni salad of wagon-wheel shaped pasta and the ingredients were held together with an appropriate amount of mayonnaise rendering the result as neither too dry nor too runny.
The nachos we nibbled on before our meal ($4.50 for small with added chili) were as good as those at any high-end establishment, judged John. The chips were warm and crispy, and the balance of jalapeno slices, cheese, fresh tomatoes and crispy Romaine could be adjusted to one’s preference with peppy salsa and soothing sour cream.
I had ordered wings, medium heat, to compare with other wings I had eaten. They compared favorably. Heather asked if we wanted the wings regular or extra-crispy. Since no server had ever asked me that question before, I requested extra crispy.
Because the wings were on the small side, I might have preferred regular. They were slightly dry, but not enough to complain about. The accompanying dip added a slight tang to already well-seasoned wings and raw vegetables.
We were both impressed by the freshness of the rolls — a hamburger roll in John’s case and a hot dog roll in mine. I had recently experienced a disappointingly stale roll in an establishment in a nearby town. I chose to eat only the hot dog and the server never asked why the roll was left virtually untouched on the plate.
John’s burger with lettuce, tomato, onion and cheese was requested medium rare but arrived medium. No problem. The thickness of the burger and quality of the meat rendered it more than acceptable.
My knockwurst with sauerkraut accompanied by the aforementioned potato salad was more than adequate. Heather returned to the table several times to remove used table items, replace silverware, replenish water and make sure everything was satisfactory.
There was no mention of dessert on the menu, and neither of us thought to ask. As it was, we brought home a few wings, some potato salad, half a knockwurst and plans for our next visit.
The menu boasts that BL’s, built in 1897 (or 1902 as listed in a Gazette article from September 2012), is the oldest continually operating tavern in Schenectady. A break occurred from January 1917 to December 1933 when the establishment was run as a speakeasy. The name arose from the initials B.L. for Benny Lencewicz, who purchased the place in 1947. BL’s is currently owned by John and Joyce Yates, and has been renovated in the past several years.
WHERE: 208 Front St. (in the Stockade), Schenectady, NY 12305, (518) 374-2850
WHEN: No specific hours listed
HOW MUCH: $33.00 for two appetizers, two entrees and two soft drinks, but without tax and tip
MORE INFO: Not easily accessible (1-2 steps into building, no ramp but a raised toilet in restroom, no grab handles), street and lot parking, credit cards are not accepted.