“Over my dead body.”
That’s Judy Grunberg’s standard response to the many people who’ve offered large sums of money for her beloved Blue Plate, the Chatham, New York, restaurant she didn’t intend to buy in the first place. But in 1996, when the former owners put it up for sale, she, her friends, and fellow townspeople went into a funk. “We were all so disappointed and downtrodden,” Grunberg recounts. “I never wanted to have a restaurant. I just couldn’t stand the idea of losing the place.”
The Blue Plate Restaurant, on the pointed “ship’s prow” corner of Kinderhook Street, is one of those rarities that possess a definitive but indescribable essence—what’s known in Latin as genius loci, or “spirit of place.” The building was originally an old-fashioned meat market, then an upscale inn and restaurant that closed soon after it opened. “It wasn’t very friendly to the natives,” Grunberg recalls, noting that when John and Julia Gregory purchased the restaurant in the 1990s, they turned it into the casual, comfortable bistro it is today. “It was such an important meeting place,” says Grunberg. “It was the kind of place you could go to by yourself, on a date, or with a group, and feel at home. My intention wasn’t to change it; it was to preserve it and build upon it.”
The problem was that Grunberg, though an avid home chef, had no experience in the restaurant industry. A painter and textiles artist who moved from Manhattan to Chatham with her late husband and her three sons four decades ago, she found the learning curve a bit steep. First came a yearlong period of retooling, then a short-lived, mismatched partnership with a chef that the no-bull Grunberg characterizes as a “complete disaster.” She closed the Blue Plate briefly, then reopened as sole proprietor in 1997, with a new chef and much of the Gregorys’ original staff.
Although she always insisted on high-quality food, she quickly understood that it wasn’t the only consideration. “The food is important, but it’s only half of why a restaurant is successful,” she reports. “I pay a lot of attention to other things—the lighting, the feeling of the room, a welcoming atmosphere. The staff is wonderful at recognizing all the different customers. I remember my boys and me at home, sitting on my big bed together, watching ‘Cheers’ on TV. They got very tired of me telling them to listen to the lyrics to the theme song. That’s exactly where you want to go—where people know you and treat you like family—even if you have to sacrifice some other elements, like the perfect garnish on a dish.”
The original concept—eclectic “American bistro” food—has been retained, though the menu has expanded over the years, particularly under chef Leo Castellanos, who has been the bedrock of the Blue Plate for the past six years. “He’s great—really easygoing, and very creative and intuitive,” Grunberg says. She often has an idea for a dish, perhaps something remembered from her childhood or a meal she ate during her travels, and brings it to Castellanos for experimentation. Sometimes the dish makes it onto the menu; other times, Grunberg admits, it’s a recipe better left to memory.
Local and organic foods are hot topics these days, but the Blue Plate has ridden that bandwagon since its inception. Castellanos has crafted a menu focused on the rich bounty of Hudson Valley produce and meats, and has led the charge catering to the needs of vegetarians in the community. Along with the fried calamari, rack of lamb, and pappardelle Bolognese are substantial meatless choices like greens and cheese fresh ravioli with sage-infused brown butter sauce, soba noodles with stir-fried vegetables, imam bayildi (a classic Turkish dish of eggplant, bulgur, tomatoes, garlic, currants, and spices said to “make the sultan swoon”), and four different salads (the roast beet, orange, and fennel is superior). And of course, there’s the one dish that if removed would incite a riot: the Blue Plate meat loaf, a rich and spicy take on the classic, topped with bacon and served with garlic mashed potatoes and gravy.
The dessert menu, courtesy of multitasker Colleen Carpenter (who, depending on the time of day, can be found donning the hat of pastry chef, hostess, or server), is filled with sweet comfort foods: berry crisp, cheesecake, flourless chocolate torte, crème brûlée, hot fudge sundae, fruit sorbet, and biscotti, all for $5 or less.
The Blue Plate strives to offer fresh, local foods at reasonable prices. Grunberg initially resisted pricing entrees over $20, but with escalating fuel costs for food transportation (yet another reason to eat local, she can’t resist pointing out), this has become impossible. Still, only three of the seven main dishes cross that boundary, and Grunberg sometimes relegates the more expensive recipes to the specials menu to control costs while giving customers a taste of something unique.