Under new management, Bear Café reopens as Bear Cantina (2023)

Under new management, Bear Café reopens as Bear Cantina (1)

Woodstockers, rejoice: The Bearsville Theater complex, now called the Bearsville Center, has trumpeted its reopening, officially effective February 1. While no live concerts have yet been scheduled as of presstime, there’s good news on the culinary front: Closed since May 2019, the iconic Bear Café is back up and running – as the Bear Cantina, serving Tex/Mex cuisine. Hudson Valley One checked out the food, and can happily report that it’s excellent.

First, a history refresher: The cluster of buildings on a 15-acre parcel in the tiny Bearsville hamlet on the western outskirts of Woodstock once constituted part of the Petersen family farm. Legendary music promoter Albert Grossman acquired it in 1970, not long after moving to the area, followed by some of the performers he managed – most famously, Bob Dylan. Grossman’s dream was to create a “Utopia” for musicians, including housing, eateries, a concert hall and recording studio. He didn’t live to see the Bearsville Theater’s 1989 opening, but he did establish the Bear Café quite early on. It quickly became a hangout for the musical elite from Woodstock and beyond, many of whom came to record at Todd Rundgren’s Utopia Studios next door.

The restaurant closed in 1980 and reopened in 1988, under the management of Peter Cantine and Eric Mann, who had first met while working at the Bear as teenagers in 1973. French and New American cuisine were the specialties back then. The partners bought the entire complex from Grossman’s widow in 2004, but their efforts to engage investors in an expansion ultimately didn’t pan out. A new owner, Floridian attorney John Kirkpatrick, bought the complex in 2014, but soon ran out of money and was accused by locals of failing to maintain the buildings. The complex was put up for auction for nonpayment of taxes in 2019 – at which point both the Bearsville Theater and the Bear Café shut down, although the adjoining Chinese restaurant, the Little Bear, continued to operate.

Deals with a couple of potential buyers who wanted to put hotels on the site fell through. Then, in stepped Willow resident Lizzie Vann, who had amassed a fortune by establishing an organic baby food company in her native England. She purchased the complex outright in August 2019, renaming it the Bearsville Center. Vann negotiated a favorable new lease that allowed MarLee Wang to stay in operation as proprietor of the Little Bear, and then set to work doing massive renovations – just in time for the pandemic to strike.

Under new management, Bear Café reopens as Bear Cantina (2)

The Bear Café was in particularly bad shape due to water damage, with many of the floors needing to be ripped out and replaced. Plumbing, heating and cooling systems were modernized, decks and patios resurfaced and expanded, bathrooms renovated, woodwork refinished, new appliances installed. It looks great now, both inside and out. But who would bring fine dining back to the iconic building?

It was Vann’s husband, David McGough, who got the brainwave to recruit Luís Lemus to open a Mexican restaurant in the Bear Café building and rename it the Bear Cantina. “He liked Luís for his work ethic,” relates Luís’ partner, Valerie Blatter, who’ll be running the front of the house along with his brother, Milton Lemus. Luís has operated a well-regarded landscaping business for the past decade, and had been engaged to work on Vann and McGough’s house and grounds. But he also has a long and deep track record as a chef, including 14 years at Catskill Mountain Pizza, as well as stints at the Phoenicia Diner, Sunfrost Farms and other food hubs in the area.

The Lemus brothers and their sister, Sandra Lemus García, come from a family who have been running restaurants for generations. (Max Ruíz, who operates Los Jalapeños in New Paltz, is a cousin.) They grew up in Valeriano, a tiny town in the mountains of Guatemala that is literally on the border with El Salvador. The brothers liked to fish in the stream that divides the two countries and immediately cook up their catch, says Valerie, a Saugerties native who met Luís when they worked at a restaurant together.

That childhood appreciation for freshly prepared food has carried over into Luís’ philosophy in the kitchen today. If your notion of Mexican food is “too hot,” or a platter in which every item is sodden, drenched in some sauce, think again. Everything we tried on our visit tasted fresh and emphasized textural interest. The refried beans were creamy, true, but the roasted veggies served on the side – a nutritional balancing act often missing in stateside Mexican-style cuisine – had an al dente crunch and a light dusting of some intriguing spice blend.

Under new management, Bear Café reopens as Bear Cantina (3)

An entrée called Tres Amigos (Three Brothers) demonstrated Luís’ skill at the grill: thin slabs of tender steak and chicken breast and a plump trio of shrimp, all perfectly seared. The menu – still under development – describes this dish as “topped with a buttery jalapeño sauce,” but the protein items don’t seem saucy at all; “lightly brushed” is perhaps a better description. And the jalapeño flavor note is subtle. Nothing we tasted, not even the cheese-stuffed poppers, aimed for heat over savor. “We’re going more for Tex/Mex, not really heavy spices,” Valerie explains. “Luís is the best cook I know. He can take anything and make it amazing.”

The corn tortillas used in the enchiladas are house-made, and here again, the sauce is laid on with a light hand. We didn’t get to try Luis’ fajitas, which Valerie says are her favorites among his cooking, or the tamales, which are sister Sandra’s specialty. Valerie is also looking forward to the introduction of pupusas, a sort of stuffed cornmeal pancake that is the national dish of El Salvador.

As befits a restaurant known for its expansive windows and decks overlooking the sparkling Sawkill, run by a chef who grew up fishing in a local stream, several fish dishes are planned, including salmon prepared in the fruit-adorned Veracruzana style and a Mesoamerican spin on pan-seared brook trout. Lighter lunch offerings such as wings and burgers will be available as well. And according to Valerie, the ingredients will be “as much as possible, locally sourced. We only use no-hormone meat, no GMOs.” The menu already includes a pageful of gluten-free and vegan plates.

At present, the Bear Cantina is doing food for takeout only – which is a pity, because the sprawling space’s new décor is charming. Formerly white walls are painted in a cheerful Mexican folk-art palette of turquoise, periwinkle and melon, overlooked by colorful wooden animal masks from Guatemala affixed to the barnlike structure’s wooden beams. A niche that formerly housed an espresso machine has been transformed into a shrine to La Virgen de Guadalupe. In one cozy interior dining room, a patchwork banner handmade by Sandra adorns the warm wood paneling. The festive vibe will remind many locals of the atmosphere of the late lamented Gypsy Wolf Cantina, further down Route 212 towards town.

Under new management, Bear Café reopens as Bear Cantina (4)

With the rehabilitation of the patios and decks, there’s more room for outdoor tables once the weather warms up, and in the meantime, the gazebolike structure known as the Pavilion has had supplemental electric heaters installed, so it’ll finally be warm enough for four-season use. Luís, Valerie and Milton plan a March 8 opening date for socially distanced table seating, and are expecting their liquor license within about three months. Already the drinks menu offers an intriguing list of exotic “mocktails” that presage this venue’s large bar once again becoming a friendly gathering spot at Happy Hour and beyond.

The Bear Cantina is located at 295 Tinker Street. Current hours for pickup are 3 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 9 p.m. Friday through Sunday. To view the menu or place an online order, visit www.thebearcantina.com. To place a takeout order by phone (or make a reservation after March 1), call (845) 684-7223. For updates, visit www.facebook.com/the-bear-cantina-103265948169979.

Under new management, Bear Café reopens as Bear Cantina (5)

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