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A boozy date with Mom

The Upstairs Bistro in Canandaigua is a perfect getaway for a picky parent

Mom’s a tough one to please. Her tastes are conventional. She likes red sauce on her pasta, not fish sauce, and she would never be caught dead sipping a cocktail made with smoked ice. Still, her palate is exacting. She remembers places where she’s had good meals and doesn’t have patience for anything else.

That’s why it’s exhausting when she asks you to choose a place for dinner. She’s buying—there’s that—but when you bring her a list of possibilities, she shoots them down one at a time. The steak there is too dry, she says. That one doesn’t make its own bread. Does it have curry in it? My stomach can’t handle that.

What about that place at the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua? The one upstairs? 

She knows the one, thank God. She remembers it’s the place where everything comes from local farms, and they’re supposed to have some pretty decent New York wines. They’d better with a name like that, she laughs.

You show up for brunch, her favorite meal. It’s the only time of the week that you get to have breakfast foods and booze at the same time in public. The  Upstairs Bistro is on the upper south side of a building styled after an Adirondack lodge. The bannisters are held together with wooden posts and beams, not  steel bolts. The light fixtures are made of solid black cast iron. Portraits of famous painters peer out of their frames on the wall. As a sign of credibility, a  chalkboard lists the day’s ingredients and the farms where each originates.


Mom looks at her watch, 11:30, and smiles devilishly as she orders her Apple Bellini ($8). You roll your eyes, but have to admit the charm of browsing cocktails as others are sitting in their pews at church. You go for an Apple Pie ($8), a thick, potent mix of Black Button Apple Pie Moonshine and that really good cider you always get at the Red Jacket Orchards store on the way through Geneva. The powdered cinnamon makes it taste almost like chocolate. It’s sweet and deceptively mild. 

Your mother thinks about the Liverwurst Sandwich ($9) because she’s mom. You’re sure it’s good since it’s made with Hartmann’s Old World Sausage and not the cheap stuff. But she gravitates toward the Chicken and Waffles ($12), that trend on its way to becoming a staple. You urge her to give it a go so you can try some, but you already know what you want—a full English Breakfast ($16) just like the one you had that time near Paddington Station. It was then you became convinced Americans don’t truly understand breakfast.

The chicken has that wonderfully dense, uniform, un-stringy texture you only get from small farms. This bird came from Bedient Farms in Potter, just south of Canandaigua. Mom tells you that whoever thought of combining crisp, salty fried chicken with waffles and sweet maple syrup should win a Pulitzer or a Nobel or something. It’s just so damn good. 

The English Breakfast ($16) isn’t quite the sprawling grease bomb you were expecting. In place of the broad back bacon—called “rashers” over there—you get slices of pork belly.  The “bangers” are Hartmann’s cranberry and apricot sausage performing the magic trick of crumbliness without being too dry. In place of the traditional Heinz beans and a wee brain-like stewed tomato is a ragout made of tomato and nicely firm white beans. Two fried eggs rest atop the sausage like a flat cap. It’s not the decadent, multiplated affair that covers the entire table and leaves barely enough room for a teapot. Still, it’s one of the few places in Rochester where you can get a decent fry up, and you savor every bite.


Mom’s smiling again and thinking about a Beermosa ($8). When she proclaims “hair of the dog!,” you realize she’s continuing the private party she was having the night before. It seems she managed to have a better Saturday night than you did. You pass on glass number two, opting for some of that nice Evening Star coffee ($2) roasted out of a little backyard building in Avon. 

Dessert for breakfast, also not usually done, but the Maple Walnut Sticky Bun ($4) atop something called “bacon brittle” is just too interesting to pass up. You and mom share it, and you remember being four again at the Dairy Queen splitting a hot fudge sundae. It’s right then that you see your mother not as the tipsy butterfly she has become but as the woman who shepherded you through childhood and shared her everything with you. Maybe it’s the moonshine, but you relax into your seat and look at her again with more youthful eyes.

The Upstairs Bistro was just the right place to bring the woman who taught you to care about food, to not throw away the chance to have an exceptional meal, and to value a traditional meal done well over grand constructions of culinary whimsy. Brunch here is relaxed and uncrowded unlike the hopping spots back in the city with the lines out the door. The view of the lake is one of the best in the region, the high hills in the distance seen across the rows of quirky boat houses along Canandaigua’s City Pier. 


Mark Gillespie is the communications manager for the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Science. He is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors.

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