Dining: Two Boots, Many Pleasures
By Robert Burke Warren
Two Boots Hudson Valley, the newest addition to the Cajun-Italian restaurant franchise, is approximately one hundred miles from the original — and still thriving — Two Boots in New York’s East Village. Filmmaker-cum-restaurateur Phil Hartman posted that first shingle among run-down tenements and drug traffic in 1987, naming his eatery after the shapes of Italy and Louisiana, and daring to hang a “Kids Welcome!” sign in the window for punks and junkies to scoff at. Twenty-six years on, Two Boots Hudson Valley’s locale couldn’t be more different than the über-urban Avenue A, but it looks like it belongs exactly where it is, across from the main entrance to Bard College. Hartman, a one-time Bard guest student, likes it this way. His two daughters are Bard alums, and he says every Two Boots should “look like it grew out of the sidewalks of the neighborhood.” (In this case, it’s growing out of rich, Catskill soil.) Indeed, all Two Boots locations — Hudson Valley, Baltimore, Nashville, L.A., Echo Park, Bridgeport, Ct., Jersey City, plus eight in New York — are of a piece with their respective communities; utilizing local purveyors, and all successfully straddling “hipster” and “family friendly.” Two Boots Hudson Valley even shares space with Bard’s Alumni Center. The weeknight we go to hear live music on the little stage, beckoned by the cheery, yellow Two Boots sign (flying pizza slice, martini glass, and treble clef-shaped “S”), students kibitz, eat, and quaff beers in the glow of the muted flat screen at the bar while a family of four — mom, dad, toddler, infant — contentedly nosh at a corner table. Aside from the retro-cool foyer and a patio, the entire restaurant — bar, tables, and stage — occupies one comfy space where, apparently, everyone feels at home.
A gorgeous Bette Midler mosaic greets us at the door, and once inside, it’s all Italian flag colors: green, white, and red, red, red. Like other Two Boots outposts, the décor is edgy-yet-humorous folk art, the floor old-school tile. A quarter century in, the restaurant business has taught Hartman and Co. the importance of comfortable chairs and a warm atmosphere; the service is friendly and efficient, even when the place fills up.
The menu reflects Two Boots’ embrace of pop culture, with specialty pies (a medium is $16.95) like “The Dude” (Cajun bacon cheeseburger, tasso, cheddar, and mozzarella), “The Newman” (sweet Italian sausage and sopressata on a white pie, pictured at right), “The Mr. Pink” (marinated chicken, plum tomatoes, and garlic), and “The St. Tula” (named after the patron saint of film, and available only at the Bard location, featuring local Fleisher’s sausage-of-the-day, with roasted garlic and peppers, ricotta, and mozzarella). For all pies, Two Boots uses a distinctive, thin cornmeal crust, which has long set them apart from the traditional, chewy NYC white wheat flour crust. (Vegetarian and vegan options are available.) The bar features Beastie Boys-inspired cocktail “The Sure Shot” and wine by the glass, plus beers from run-of-the-mill Rolling Rock to multiple microbrews, all reasonably priced.
After we share a delicious Chicken and Portobello Salad ($8.95) wife/writing partner Holly, being a fan of all things New Orleans, opts for the Blackened Catfish Po’ Boy, which is surprisingly authentic-tasting, with a tangy rémoulade. She washes it down with a Boylan’s Black Cherry soda, while I sip a cool Abita (from Louisiana) ale and enjoy a small Cleopatra Jones pizza (sweet Italian sausage, roasted peppers, onions, garlic and mozzarella, $9.95) and a side of shrimp-heavy (that’s a good thing) jambalaya ($11.95). The straight-out-of-central-casting college dudes next to us wolf down the spicy Wings of Fire ($9.95 for twelve) with gusto.
For dessert Holly and I split a homemade brownie ($3.95), just as our pal takes the matchbook-sized stage. Other friends from nearby Tivoli and Rhinebeck amble in to enjoy the music, atmosphere, and cuisine. In another locale, the small audience might roll their eyes and groan at the family and the college kids, but in the expertly crafted alternate universe of Two Boots Hudson Valley — and, one assumes, every other Two Boots location — they just eat, drink, and smile.
Two Boots Hudson Valley
4604 Route 9G
Red Hook, NY