The Adirondacks may have six million acres of wilderness, but for many people the brassy town of Lake George — with its taffy stands, plastic moose and loud arcades — is the first and only glimpse they’ll get of the region on the way to beaches, theme parks or I-87.
This inland equivalent of a seaside town has 160 places to eat and an unnatural density of fudge shops and pizzerias. It’s not exactly the first place you’d think of as a foodie destination. Yet, driving in from the south, one almost immediately spots an Indian-Pakistani-Bangladeshi restaurant, signaling that Lake George’s culinary scene goes deeper than hot dogs and taffy. When I visit the town on a recent afternoon to play Skee-Ball and gawk at the lake, I’m hoping to sift through the food noise and find a few gems.
As soon as I pump my parking meter with quarters, I begin to recognize the passersby: They’re tanned and furtive, sighing deeply and saying things such as “Would you look at this sweat?” Raised in Long Island, I know these as my fellow downstaters, and I know my tribe spends more of its disposable income on food than almost any other group in the United States — and on Italian food especially. No wonder, then, that Lake George’s main drag, Canada Street, is rich with red sauce — it holds over a dozen Italian spots, with names such as Giuseppe’s, Mario’s and Pizzeria Mangia. The doorway of Capri Pizzeria & Restaurant, whose busy exterior is festooned with Italian and American flags, appears to be the most jammed on this sultry summer Wednesday.
Inside, the tiny vestibule is crowded with people jockeying for slices. Capri won the Best Tasting Pizza in Lake George honor at the first annual Lake George Italian Festival this May. The pies fly quickly out of the oven, which heats the interior until it feels like a steam bath. You can fold up a plain slice ($2.34) and eat it on the street, or take it into a busy back dining room that’s adorned with posters of the Old Country. Though Capri’s slices aren’t as drippy and oily as those you might find down “south,” the cheese slides around satisfyingly on a floppy crust, and the marinara sauce is gently sweet.
After a few rounds of Ms. Pac-Man and a spin in the shooting gallery, it’s time to nosh again. A few hundred yards down Canada Street from Capri, I spot a sign that looks familiar: Saltwater Cowboy.
“Where are you from?” asks the gregarious owner as we climb the steps onto the patio. When he hears “Vermont,” Michael Sheridan breaks into a smile. “We live in Middletown Springs.” Sheridan and his wife, Jen, run Rutland’s Saltwater Cowboy seafood emporium; this is their new outpost.
The Sheridans honeymooned in Lake George and have spent many afternoons fishing on the lake. They bring fresh seafood daily from their Vermont market to the tiny Canada Street Saltwater Cowboy, which has been open for just a few weeks.
I ask if there’s a signature dish. “The lobster roll,” Sheridan says. Though we’re far from the ocean, I trust that statement: Michael grew up clamming off Long Island’s South Shore; Jen is from Cape Cod.
I try the roll. It’s light on mayonnaise but is stuffed with tender, fresh unadorned lobster flesh. Though I wish the bun were toasted and buttered, so much lobster is packed into this $14.95 roll that I give it a pass.
With two summer staples down, it’s time to explore the quirkier side of Lake George: its smattering of ethnic eateries. At Taste of India, an outside board advertises goat biryani, and another place, Deshi Masala, offers an inviting, vine-covered patio. We decide to seek out the Turkish restaurant, Ali Baba Express.
The interior of Ali Baba shares some of Lake George’s flamboyance, but with a more stylish twist: woven tapestries drape the wall, and a wood fire flickers in a back oven. From that fire emerges fresh, hot lavash ($4.95 for a small), causing eyes to widen each time it lands on a table. The inside of this hollow bread fills with air as it bakes, making it resemble a bread balloon; its edges crisp up with char marks. The bread collapses on itself as you break it apart to drag the buttery slices through an herb-spiked yogurt sauce. It’s one of the most delicious snacks I’ve had all year.
Ali Baba also serves up kebabs, gyros, grilled quail and other plates. An adana kabob ($13.95) is a long, fatty, phallic curl of ground pork and beef whose tomato-laced juices soak into the bed of cubed bread on which it is served. The dish is heavy, but the enormous glass of sour cherry juice I sip with it helps lighten the load.
Speaking of liquids, Lake George is awash in adult beverages. The Adirondack Pub & Brewery, near the southern end of Canada Street, was founded 14 years ago by John Carr. Now bottles of its beer, with names such as Bear Naked Ale and Bobcat Blonde Lager, are sold at convenience and grocery stores all over upstate New York.
In the bustling, woodsy pub out front, burgers and fries are in heavy supply, as are the dozen or so beers that are poured at any given time. We try a Black Rye Saison and a figgy Biere de Garde, spiced with grains of paradise and then aged for six months in the bottle. Both can put hair on your chest.
Those seeking an exotic experience of the manufactured variety — i.e., a tiki bar — will find one in Lake George at the Tiki Resort. This hotel, bar and restaurant hosts a nightly Polynesian dinner show for $41.99 per person. “What do you serve?” I ask a waitress. When she answers, “You can choose from chicken or beef,” we decide a simple tiki drink will do.
The tiki bar, called the Paradise, has a canoe hanging from the ceiling and enormous, backlit, diamond-shaped panels, as well as dozens of small tables covered in flowered tablecloths. The bar itself is tended by Sonya, a tiny spitfire of a waitress. She’ll tell you there is no menu and instead may suggest a Mai Tai — which, as she describes it, contains every conceivable alcohol. “I gave a lady three of them the other day, and her husband had to carry her out!” she boasts.
A Tiki Tango is a safer bet: two types of rum, orange curaçao and citrus juices poured into a plastic cup and topped with a Maraschino cherry impaled by a pink umbrella. With a scratchy version of the “Hawaii Five-O” theme playing over the speakers, the coral-colored drink is actually kind of transportative.
While kitsch may be fun, we can’t leave the area without visiting the restaurant that locals say actually serves the best food around. Bistro LeRoux is far from the lake, about seven minutes south of Lake George proper, but its simple, farm-to-table cuisine hits the spot. A green salad comes adorned with local radishes smeared with pesto; a tomato bisque is spicy and laced with cream; and crisped pork belly is delicious served over tabouli, then speckled with fresh feta.
After four hours in the town of Lake George, we decide we actually want to see the lake. So we drive 10 miles north, past countless motels, to the village of Bolton Landing and its magnificent old hotel, the Sagamore Resort Lake George. Like a tall drink of water after a trek through the taffy desert, the Sagamore has a lobby bar and restaurant that serves up a Basil Lime Ricky and an Agrodolce, along with boards of cured meats and antipasto.
All this pales in comparison to the view, though. The Sagamore’s gardens cascade down to the lake, and the vistas are arresting. So this is Lake George, I think. I get it.
The orignal print version of this article was headlined "Lakeside Vittles"