The Elf in the Oak
"I'd have to be a boa constrictor to wrap my chops around that," proclaimed Ed, my dining companion, as our waiter delivered his turkey bacon cheddar sandwich, a special for the day. The height of my Reuben didn't challenge my chops but the sandwich, grilled to perfection, did make my mouth water. Our other dining companion, Joan, a connoisseur of the hot dog, proclaimed her daily dog, a quarter-pound sizzling Zweigles topped with the same ruby red sauerkraut that graced my Reuben, a success.
The Elf in the Oak restaurant on Route 414 in Burdett, is, as the name suggests, a magical establishment. Its whimsical sign, featuring a deeply-rooted oak tree, beckons; look a little closer at the drawing and you'll notice an entrance to fairyland and an elfin figure perched on an underground root.
The owners, Debbie Griffin and her son and chef, Cody Evans, shared the family stories that inspired The Elf in the Oak. The foundation for this restaurant goes deep—back to World War I—when a Hector man, Clinton Neal, met Marion Phelps, a hospital nurse caring for wounded soldiers in New York City. She, too, was Hector born and bred; her family’s home was on the site of the present-day Catherine Valley Winery, the next-door neighbor to The Elf in the Oak. Following their wartime service, Marion and Clinton moved back to upstate New York, married, become parents to three daughters, and lived in a home that Clinton built on land his father-in-law gave to the newlyweds. They sold the house eventually and moved to Elmira Heights. Debbie, the granddaughter of Clinton and Marian, kept her eye on her grandparents’ home, and when the owners were ready to sell, she was ready to buy. She and Cody then transformed the house that Grandfather Clinton built for his bride into The Elf in the Oak. “When I was a kid,” Cody explained, “my grandmother, aunts, and mother constructed miniature fairy houses out of acorn caps, mosses, berries, sticks, and stones.”
Those structures captivated the younger set and convinced them of the magic of the woods. “I really believed in elves,” Cody admitted. It was the memory of these fanciful houses and the presence of the stately oak in front of the restaurant that inspired the name. Walk into the restaurant for breakfast or lunch and you’ll be captivated by the aromas and friendly conversational buzz. On an early spring day, the tables were filled with locals and visitors. Four well-dressed women enjoying their meals sat adjacent to a table with three men dressed in tossle caps and cold-weather outerwear. A dad and his nine-month-old shared a meal (and some Cheerios) at a table near the window. Although it was too cold to eat outside, it was easy to conjure the image of a summer breakfast on the deck, or lunch at a picnic table overlooking Seneca Lake. The breakfast menu includes homemade biscuits that you can fill with eggs, cheese, bacon, or sausage (or all of them!). Prefer bagels or croissants? They have them, too. Like a little heat for breakfast? Perhaps “The Spicy” with its roasted jalapeño, capicola, grilled red onion, egg, and local cheddar might be just the thing. Whatever you choose, you’ll be happy with the freshness of the ingredients and the commitment to serving well-prepared food. The lunch menu includes sandwiches, soups, savory pies, salads, desserts, and specials. Cody, who received his culinary training at Paul Smith College, features local and regional ingredients in his dishes, such as kielbasa from Oink & Gobble Farm and grass-fed beef from Grass Land Farm.
Summers the restaurant stays open ’til 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; stop by for a fish fry or to sample one of the wild and wonderful sundaes. The owners are planning an ice cream social celebrating the re-opening of the seasonal ice cream stand, with Debbie, Cody, and four generations of this deeply-rooted family on hand to enjoy the festivities and encourage others to bring multi-generational family members to this neighborhood cafe. Maybe someone will even be teaching the finer points of constructing a fairy house fit for an elf. For hints, call The Elf in the Oak at (607) 546-4641.