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The importance of the neighborhood restaurant

Working in and with restaurants has been at the center of my universe for five decades. I have been involved with every type from simple diner to fine-dining resorts, and from thematic restaurants to culinary schools training tomorrow’s cooks and chefs — I have a deep appreciation for the people who make these operations thrive and who bring the unique passion that sets the stage for their success.

The difference between a good and a great restaurant lies with those unique people called restaurateurs. These are not always the people who prepare and serve the food, but rather the ones who give the operation its soul. These are the individuals with the core vision, the ones who secretly wrestle with the demands of paying the bills, finding the right people to share the vision as employees, and make the connections with the community — the community that will either adopt the operation or ignore it. A great restaurant is not necessarily based on its price point, the type of food that it serves or even its location (although most experts would place much of a restaurants success on location). A great restaurant has everything to do with how it feels — its heart and soul.

Of course, the restaurant needs to serve a consistent, flavorful, value-focused product, and of course, the service needs to be efficient and sincere, but those factors are the price of admission and may not feed into a restaurant’s heart and soul. When a business just seems to “fit” into the fabric of a community, when it becomes a natural part of a neighborhood and serves as a destination for meeting and greeting friends, celebrating small and large successes, when it fits the role of a place to relax, break bread, clink glasses and laugh with reckless abandon — then it can safely be considered great.

When I returned last week from a business trip, I was stunned to see that Walter and Mary Beth McClure were taking a step into retirement (well deserved) and that Casa del Sol will once again face a turning point in its existence. This is, by all accounts, a great restaurant for the reasons stated in this article. Casa is part of the fabric of Saranac Lake and has been for 40 years — rarely losing a step. Ever since Harry Tucker decided to convert a tiny French restaurant into a thematic Mexican cantina (this is before Mexican food became America’s fastest-growing ethnic cuisine), Casa has been the go-to place to meet friends for a drink and consistently good food.

I had the pleasure of working with Walter McClure when he first took the reins of Casa, this important restaurant that had been closed for a few years, and bring it back to life. Walter was very clear throughout the process of breathing new oxygen into the operation — he wanted it to rise again with the same core beliefs, flavors and service delivery that Harry had brought to it for more than 25 years. I understood — this was a restaurant that was not only important to locals; Casa was a place that represented everything that visitors and short-term residents held close to their hearts about our community. I know of so many people who, when returning for a visit to the Adirondacks, looked forward to a meal at “The Casa” as much as clicking on a pair of skis, hiking the High Peaks or sliding their feet into a kayak. Casa was a place of good memories.

Walter and Mary Beth have operated this great restaurant as they had planned. Yes, they added a little space, polished the floors with a few coats of poly every spring, rewired and refreshed the kitchen, and added a few items to the menu, but for the most part this was still the restaurant that Harry and Diane designed and brought to the community.

I continue to look forward to a walk down Lake Flower Avenue for a monthly (sometimes twice a month) visit to Casa. I look forward to Walter or Mary Beth stopping by our table to touch base, a bottle of Modelo and a duck burrito, and a chance to say hi to friends in town. There is always laughter, always a healthy crowd, and always service with a smile. This is, after all, our neighborhood restaurant.

Whoever takes the reins of Casa del Soul next will have some sizable shoes to fill. I hope that the right person or couple steps into this Saranac Lake icon as not just restaurateur but as a torchbearer of a great neighborhood restaurant.

Walter and Mary Beth — thanks for keeping the heart and soul of a restaurant alive, for adding your signature and for respecting the core of what makes a restaurant important and great. Good luck with the next phase of your lives, and know that we are all deeply grateful.

Paul Sorgule lives in Saranac Lake.