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Momentum Builds As Small Hamlet Serves Up Food Concepts Including A “Speakeasy”, Takoria, A New Market And More
By Tina Traster
If you didn’t have a GPS, you might feel as though you inadvertently stumbled into a charming but weathered European Village with a small-town square surrounded by a mélange of temping eateries housed in a jumble of historic buildings.
But this is Sparkill, Orangetown’s newest foodie draw with atmosphere to boot.
The hamlet of Sparkill, once thought of as a sleepy place – or not given much thought at all – is becoming a magnet for creative food and beverage concepts, building on pioneers who started the wave more than a decade ago. Now, there’s momentum with a growing number of restaurants to make the hamlet a destination.
Six23Social at 623 Main Street, a “speakeasy,” debuted on Saturday, making it the first of its kind in the county but joining a host of others that have been popping up in Manhattan and beyond. Last October, Chopped Champion Chef Chris Holland opened Kantina, an Asian inspired takoria and cocktail bar at 4 Depot Square. In May, Lanni’s Cucina Verace Italiana, a fine dining dinner-only restaurant, joined the scene at 645 Main Street. And Roost – which was originally located where Six23Social — bought the Union Arts Center and relocated its high-end sophisticated eatery there a couple of years ago.
“Sparkill is becoming a restaurant row,” said Dennis Whitton, chef/owner of Six23Social. “This is the right time and the right spot. I always said Piermont would overflow here. We’ve got great, quality restaurants coming here, and more are on the way.”
Veteran Chef/Owner Whitton resurrected the space he leases at 623 Main Street with Six23Social after an ambitious but unsuccessful run with Autumn. The restaurant, which served French food, did not survive pandemic constraints. Whitton believes the speakeasy – a craft beverage and tapas restaurant that plays with the Prohibition-era themes — is on target and in the right location.
Alcohol is not illegal but “speakeasys” are back with a modern interpretation. Waitresses and hosts will don suspender and bullet ties. Drink names are nods to gangsters like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly. There’s even a rotating secret door that leads to a space for private settings. Outdoor signage, in a nod to speakeasys, will be subtle and guests will be given a buzzword for entry when they make a reservation. For now, Six23Social is open to all; Whitton said he will see if there’s a demand for membership.
Whitton, who is looking to create an intimate environment that harkens back to the day when drinking involved camaraderie and conversation, calls the speakeasy “classy” but accessible, with tapas plates averaging around $13.
“We had to get away from the $35 dishes,” he said. “Everything has doubled with inflation. We’re looking to do things like mini chicken pot pie, lobster sliders, lollipop wings.” Along with whiskies, bourbons, ryes, and beer.
Sophisticated food is not entirely new in Sparkill. In 2004, Brooklyn transplants opened Relish at 4 Depot Square. Michael Gross and Stacey Cretekos, a husband-and-wife team of former chefs (he did Asian and natural foods, she did pastry), opened Relish in a former diner that had started life in the 1920’s as an A&P. David Corcoran for The New York Times, wrote “every dish was a revelation,” and the review was titled “A Big Fish in Any Pond.” Gross passed away in 2010. In 2013, Rockland native Joe Printz opened Grape D’vine Wine Shop on Depot Square, and later an eponymous restaurant. Now, the restaurant space has been turned over to Kantina, and the wine shop remains.
On a Facebook post, Printz recently wrote, “I’ve seen Sparkill grow from a sleepy, quiet little hamlet to a bustling little community of eateries, salons, and shops. I am grateful to have played a small part in the growth of this special place. My dad would take my brother Bill and I down past the actual train depot, which the square is named after, when we were children while the turkey was in the oven on Thanksgiving.”
Sparkill has always felt like a place time passed by. Two decades ago, downtown had a bank (which now serves as an office for a beer distributor), a post office, a Latino grocery, and a few small businesses. It was no rival for Piermont or Nyack, foodwise. A New York Times writer said its downtown was old fashioned and slightly down at the heels, with several empty storefronts.
To give the hamlet an added bit of cache, in 2020, renowned sculptor Henry Schiowitz’ “Time Fragment/Homage to the Masters,” was laid on the front corner of the former Chase Bank lot. The colossal bronze sculpture depicting the head of Michelangelo’s David lying on its side atop a raw 14-ton block of Carrara white marble adds a hint of humor to a post dinner constitutional.
What a difference two decades makes, with demand for real estate in and around Depot Square rife and more restaurants planned.
In 2016, Simon Basner bought and restored Sparkill’s vintage firehouse into the Union Arts Center, a healing and cultural space that offered yoga and tai chi, massage, acupuncture, an art gallery, and concerts. In 2020, Roost owners Kevin Reilly, the former chef at Nyack’s former Café Barcel and his partner Maria Santini, leased the space but eventually bought the building to relocate Roost from 623 Main Street.
“I had fallen in love with that space, with its high ceilings, its Manhattan vibe, its large garage doors” said Santini. “Simon created Union Arts, but it was not sustainable. It was costing money to run the building and the events were not profitable enough. It became obvious to him that he needed a full-time tenant.”
Roost anchors the foodie scene with Maine mussels, roasted lobster, a burger on a Balthazar Brioche Roll, as well as specialty cocktails and wines. Entrees range from $24 to $36. But it has continued the legacy of the Union Arts Center by showcasing artists and offering classical and jazz concerts.
Though Roost is serious cuisine, Santini says, “Kevin has made a point to make the restaurant approachable. He does not want this to fall into the trap of being an occasion restaurant.”
Right next door, Nabila (Gina) Sarwari opened a day-time café in Sparkill, a gathering spot for the stroller set and those who are lucky enough to work flexible schedules. Noble Café, which opened during the pandemic, is a pit stop for sandwiches, pastries, and coffee.
A New Jersey resident, Sarwari, who works at a district bank in Northvale and is a real estate investor, fell in love with Sparkill.
“I think the coffee shop has woken up the hamlet with a warm, community-oriented feeling,” said Sarwari, who rents the space. Now, Sarwari has purchased 646 Main Street, where she is opening Noble Essence Market later this year. The market will sell teas, coffees, honeys, mugs, tea pots and healthy spices.
Sarwari believes Sparkill is having a renaissance.
“It is the support of the customers,” she said. “We are here because of the love of the community. Every time a new business opens, it brings the town together. It makes it easier for businesses to survive.”
Noble opened during the pandemic but people were happy, she said. “Now were dealing with the doubling prices of inflation.”
It really does take a village to make a village – and food has become the lure for hamlets seeking reinvention, like Sparkill.
Photo by Betsy Franco-Feeney