Editor’s note: This piece was reported before the Covid pandemic, but we’re more excited than ever to support local restaurants. Osaka is now takeout only and Tivoli General is selling groceries online. Please wear a mask, tip generously, as stay safe.
Sleepy is a word I’ve often seen used to describe small pockets of upstate New York. However, if Tivoli were to fall prey to this mischaracterization, don’t believe your eyes. While this village with a population of just over 1,000 and spanning a mere 1.8 miles may seem small in stature, it packs in a high profile of creative venues. From dance halls to craft stores, to a string of fantastic restaurants downtown and beyond, stop in a store, strike up a conversation, and you’ll feel a sense of satisfaction from business owners and patrons alike; you’ll feel the connection between the people and the place.
Having perused the village of Tivoli on two separate occasions, once with a friend and the other solo, I know I’ve barely scratched the surface. So, don’t take my word for it. Try these places out for yourself on your first of many trips.
Rojo Wine & Tapas Bar
My meal at Rojo starts with a charcuterie as all decent meals should—a salty Manchego and Jamón Iberico, aged for 36 months. Marisi, co- owner, hand picks a lot of the wines here, so I’m curious where she’ll take me when my only direction is “dry red.” The glass of Torremilanos, a mix of mostly Tempranillo and a bit of Cab Sauv, couldn’t have been more accommodating. I still replay the memory of the small plates that followed; among them is a dish of tender pork medallions over perfectly cooked short grain Spanish rice.
It’s said when you find true love, you’ll know. I can attest to this after having quite a holy experience with Rojo’s gambas al ajillo, garlic shrimp in a brandy sauté. Plump shrimp covered in the most delectable sauce I may have ever tasted, without exaggeration. Bits of garlic float at the bottom of the dish as I spoon sauce into my mouth, wishing I had a tall glass full to drink.
The owners, wife and husband Marisi Pujol and Ricardo Fernandez Gonzalez, came with their family from Puerto Rico to Red Hook. She is a teacher and her husband a filmmaker, she tells me. Evening fell about the time I’m eating a piece of homemade chocolate pie and sipping the last of my wine. By now we’ve relocated to velvety armchairs on the other side of the restaurant because that’s what you do to be comfortable, and Marisi assured us this is her priority. You shouldn’t go to Rojo because you’re already in Tivoli; go to Tivoli because Rojo is there.
It was late in the evening and the only ones awake are the thirsty bar crawlers, ravenous me, and my friend with whom I am traveling, exercising his best patience as my hunger tightened its grip on my niceness. In New York City it’s as easy to wind up with really mundane Mexican food as it is to have some that’s very authentic. Don’t get me wrong, the ubiquitous globbiness of store-bought guacamole can be effective for mindless eating, so I was prepared for whatever type I’d get at Santa Fe that night. But the Hudson Valley wants us to eat well. We start with fried calamari, which was impeccably crispy in the way you want your calamari to be. We took turns sopping up the sauce with our squids as long as we could until, inevitably, I took a finger to swipe out the last of the tangy good stuff: chipotle caper aioli.
For meat eaters, the barbacoa short rib tacos are a regular item on the menu and are best eaten on an empty stomach. Though I left Santa Fe feeling uncomfortably full, it was but a mere two hours later that I circulated to my tin of leftovers, which I never have the patience to reheat, so I’ve learned to appreciate most things—with the exception of turkey gravy—cold. My tacos had grown spicier during our time apart, as tacos tend to do, and I had as much fun standing in the dark kitchen using my hand as a taco boat as I did sitting at a table in the dark and cozy Santa Fe, looking out at the street lights and enjoying a feisty ginger margarita.
Entering Osaka 20 minutes before they closed for the afternoon wasn’t my intention, but after explaining the situation they assured they could still serve us as long as my travel companion and I didn’t mind eating in 20 minutes. “We’ll be quick!” I said.
I kept it simple, a clear broth mushroom soup and a spicy tuna hand roll. The place is small but not too tight. There are plenty of tables, or if it suits you, hop up to a seat at the sushi bar. It didn’t matter we were short on time. With the friendliness of the staff and well-decorated dining area, Osaka is somewhere you strip yourself of your jacket, put away your phone, and make small talk with your company until you’re relieved of these duties to silently and vigorously enjoy a ton of well-made sushi.
There’s no room for ambiguity when it comes to sushi. It’s either very good or very much something you won’t eat again. Osaka’s is very good. My friend ordered a California roll, having not experimented with sushi too much. But even he, unversed in raw fish, cannot resist my spicy tuna roll. He asks for a bite but doesn’t stop there. He’s a few bites in as we exchange a look of mutual appreciation for the freshness of this meal—until, of course, my expression shifts to one that says, Okay, give me the roll back now.
Jaeger Haus stands alone on its piece of land at the corner of Route 9G. Drive too quickly and you’ll just miss the entrance before the left turn leading downtown. They describe themselves as the village destination for German comfort food and the location in a humble manor feels more like a home than a restaurant and bar. A waitress tends to me and one other party, a family sitting together across from me. It feels like Jaeger Haus is their regular spot for Sunday family dinner.
I’m given a warm basket of homemade pumpernickel and a ramekin of butter with flakes of kosher salt on top. I order a Chatham Brewery Farmer’s Daughter Rye IPA and the Jaeger Schnitzel. There is neither pomp nor circumstance to the place. Its many windows let in a strong winter sun and I imagine how warm the dining room must get when they light the fireplace framed by stones near the entrance.
My waitress places my plate of schnitzel in front of me and I’m smitten. A pounded-thin pork slice, golden brown by way of fat-frying, lounging on top of warm mashed potatoes, a killer mushroom gravy and some briny purple cabbage. She comes back to my table to see how I’m doing and smiles when I very enthusiastically say, “Great. Everything is great.” The portions are generous, which is how you’ll feel after saturating yourself with schnitzel.
I read about Tivoli General before going there and was intrigued — it seemed to be a hipster bodega of sorts, brought to town by two Bard graduates (one from Ulster County) with a passion for bringing locally sourced treats to the community.
Located so conveniently in the middle of Broadway, lights are strung on the walls inside near the sandwiches sign where my next food conquest is listed: prosciutto cotto with chevre, mint, honey, and arugula. The woman working the counter says she’ll let me know when it’s ready. On the shelves I see some colorful and pricy ceramic plates, and in the back, I learn why people were filtering in and out since I got there. There are specialty spices, coffees, local craft beers, cheeses, kitchen tools, and more. I sit at a table with the paper and a cold sweet tea I’d ordered on the side. I’d never had prosciutto this way before, more like tender slices of deli ham, and the mint-honey-arugula combo was a party of flavors, never rowdy enough to bully the delicate meat, of course.
Later that day I head into Winn’s, a clothing store nearby, where the owner tells me she’s friends with the founders of Tivoli General. “Have you tried their bialys?” she asks. “They’re amazing.”
“No,” I say, “but I was looking at those!” Take as many trips as there are square miles in Tivoli and it is simply not enough. I shall go for number three as soon as I can.
Laura Harold is a writer, artist, and editor for Verywell.com’s Family, Mind, and Fit sites. A wine and food enthusiast, she is enjoying opportunities to record her bar and restaurant experiences through travel writing, where narrative and critique form a perfect marriage. A graduate of Fordham University with a bachelor of arts in English language and literature and a focus on fiction, Laura currently resides in the capital of good food in NYC: Queens.