by Dave Warner
Canal Side Inn opened for Valentine’s Day with new owners, a new look, new menus, and a new chef.
The new owners are part of the Rock City Development LLC group and according to Neil Rosenbaum, one of the owners, it was the familiarity the place had for Dave Casullo, CEO of the group, that caused them to purchase it.
“Dave has been coming here for probably 50 years and all of the 37 years of James Aufmuth’s ownership. I’ve been coming here for the last five or six years and have absolutely loved it. It felt very comfortable here and we recognized that there’s magic in this place.”
As the group thought about what they wanted to do to help with the reinvigoration of the area, they felt that the Canal Side Inn would be a great centerpiece.
Finding Chef John Luciano was also a plus as well. “He brought the experience and food to a new level and really gives us the foundation to do a lot of different things,” said Rosenbaum.
“We’re planning on doing a lot of room and a dinner kind of packages. Movies, golf packages, weekend specials and the like to make it more of an experience,” he said.
They are also planning on cooking classes, language classes, Pilates & CrossFit weekends, “where people might come, stay in the rooms, eat here and experience some kind of learning or lesson of some kind,” Rosenbaum said.
Rosenbaum thinks that the most important thing is not what changed, but what hasn’t changed. “When we undertook the renovation, and from the first day we started envisioning it, we felt that we had to maintain the feel and the ambiance that has been here.”
All of the planning and pre-construction consulting was done by David Dardzinski and Little Falls Construction did the work on the building. “We modernized some things; oil rubbed bronze lighting, LED spotlights for the artwork, we sanded down and refinished the walls, painted and completely re-did both bathrooms,” said Rosenbaum.
They also created a coat room, did some upgrades in the kitchen, changed the carpet, and updated the bar. “The people that have been here so far have recognized the improvements. You can smell the difference…you can feel the improvements, yet they feel very much at home,” he said.
They spent a lot of money on lighting and it has made a difference. In particular, it highlights a lot of Bob Willman’s work that is hanging in the restaurant. “He was thrilled with the lighting,” said Rosenbaum.
Willman has already sold quite a few pieces of the original works that are being shown. The owners have also had conversations with the Mohawk Valley Center for the Arts about having other artists show on their walls.
Another exciting aspect for the new owners is the ability to book large groups of people for parties. Rosenbaum said, “We’ve already booked parties of 30-40 people.” They have the ability to book up to 60 in the facility.
The menu has changed as well. According to Chef John Luciano “The previous menu had a 100% French feel to it. There were some old American items on it with a French twist. So what I did, was I kept some of the most popular dishes and then I did some more modern American French twists.”
“I think people were starving for change and keeping it the same theme, but just giving it a more modern twist. I think that’s what I’ve accomplished here,” said Luciano.
Some items on the menu may have gone up 5-7%, while others have fallen in price. “As time goes by, tenderloin is going to go up, but as far as groceries on the shelf, I was able to lower the price a little bit.”
“If you are a James follower, you can still get some of those items,” he said.
If you’re wondering how the flamboyant Chef got to be in Little Falls “My wife and I moved here to be closer to her family about five years ago. They were getting older and she wanted to spend time with them.”
The couple grew apart while staying best friends and Luciano was within two weeks of moving back to Boston. “I was outta here, I was gone.”
“I was talking to Neil at first and he was saying all the right stuff, but everyone says all the right stuff. It’s not my first rodeo and I said ahhh…..yeah.”
However, he decided to check the opportunity out and Rosenbaum and Casullo kept selling him on the idea. “After a while, the opportunity just sold itself. Seeing the area and the vision that they had, it wasn’t just this, and I could be a part of it,” said Luciano.
He likes to stay busy and be in the middle of things, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity. “After a couple of months of working in Little Falls, I decided to move here. I’ve been here for a couple of weeks now and I love it. I made the right decision.”
Rosenbaum said, “We were very fortunate to find John and the fact that he was willing to make that commitment – pick up and move his home here, means a lot.”
“He’s like a walking billboard because he always dresses in his Chef’s outfit and walks around town. People just stop him and want to introduce themselves,” he said.
The owners allowed Luciano some discretion in the kitchen as well. “They didn’t just put the money out front, which I was pleasantly surprised by,” said Luciano. “They gave me a budget and I got some shiny new things.”
The vent hood was a problem for the 6’4″ chef, so they had to cut it all the way around so that he could navigate the kitchen.
“I told them one day it would have been a lot cheaper if they had gotten a shorter chef.”
“We told John that he could have what he needed to have to do fine dining and fine food,” said Rosenbaum.
As far as the changes to the bar area “I just think it’s a more inviting space,” said Luciano. “You’re going to sit there and feel like you want something to eat. The barstools are so comfortable. It’s just a different level bar when you come in here.”
The atmosphere in the bar area is incredible. “Barbara is an amazing bartender and she has a following. Now they can get an appetizer and they can see the food coming out of the kitchen. It’s not your typical bar where you go in and watch the game,” said Luciano. In fact, they have removed the TV that was there.
“It’s more conversational now. And, we put purse hooks under the bar. I’m amazed at how much attention this has gotten. We even put them under the bar tables,” said Rosenbaum.
When you talk about keeping the ambiance, there’s the phone booth. “That used to be in the corner in the other room, and we moved it to the dining area. That’s like a 1950’s phone booth and when the lights are down and the light is on in the booth, it looks very cool,” stated Rosenbaum.
Now, if guests want to make a personal cell call, they can step into the old phone booth and have some privacy.
The historical society also played a roll in the renovation of the bar area, providing over 2,000 images of Little Falls for them to go through that date back to the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s.
“We looked through almost 2,200 images, and broke it down to about 200 and then down to about 18. So now, ringing the bar, there are historical pictures of Little Falls. Businesses, Main Street, transportation, horse and buggies, locomotives. It creates that connection to the past that we were looking for,” said Rosenbaum.
They are set up with Yelp, as well as OpenTable for reservations. “I believe we’re going to be the only one on OpenTable from here to Utica, so if anyone is in the area and goes on there looking for restaurants, we’ll come up,” he said.
Rosenbaum said, “We’re really going to develop that online community and keep things up to date with specials, events, packages and the menu.”
You can look forward to having some St. Patricks Day, Mothers Day, and even some brunch specials.
The Canal Side Inn website is being redesigned, but you can find out more by visiting http://canalsideinn.com/ or by calling 315-823-1170. The new menus are below.CanalSide-Main-Menu