Coming to the RyeSep 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Maggie Barnes
“Approachable.” That word neatly sums up Charlie Hunter’s philosophy of life at Rye, his bar and restaurant in Elmira.
Rye is the former Horigan’s, which was a staple in this Davis Street residential neighborhood for generations. When Charlie bought the place in 2019, there was a lot he wanted to keep, like the feeling of a true neighborhood bar, and some things he wanted to change. Charlie acknowledges he didn’t know enough to be afraid when he launched this enterprise. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he laughs. “It was a dream then. Now that I’m in it, now it’s scary!” But, working with designer Todd Yoggy, Charlie broke the project into stages. The back bar was always handsome, but now an arched top seems to add a finish that was missing. New colors and flooring, art deco-type lighting, and several large, glass-mounted photographs—all Charlie’s camera work—meld into a look that satisfies the eye before you even enjoy a cocktail or eat anything.
“Stage one was the restaurant. We opened in November of 2019, six months before the pandemic,” Charlie recalls. “I still remember the day in March of ’20 when the corned beef was delivered for St. Patrick’s Day. That was in the morning. At noon, Governor Cuomo shut the state down.” Charlie smiles after saying this. With wavy gray hair, a matching beard, and the congenial manner of a natural host, he did not let a virus, or the fact that he had never run a restaurant before, slow him down. An Elmira native, Charlie had been a waiter for decades in big cities all over the country. He watched and learned from a variety of chefs. Then he came home and put that accumulated knowledge to work on Rye’s menu.
“Charlie came up with all the recipes,” says Mike Burke, Rye’s chef. “He invented some wonderful flavor combinations.” Spices are used to perfection, enhancing the food without assaulting the senses. The menu truly stands out among Chemung County eateries, both for the dishes themselves and for the prices.
“We are a little more expensive than a lot of the places around here,” Charlie acknowledges. “But everything is made fresh to order. We source as much as we can locally. And we ask diners to be patient. It should be a leisurely dining experience.”
The food does invite you to linger. Appetizers like smoked bluefish paté, mussels Provençal, and an eye-pleasing mezza platter of Greek goodness are meant to be savored and enjoyed with a glass of Finger Lakes wine or the drink of the day. When you are ready for dinner, you’ll have to decide between duck breast with wild rice, kurobuta (a specific grade of Berkshire hog) center cut pork chops, and shepherd’s pie—made the traditional way with lamb and dizzying heights of mashed potatoes. For more tradition, there are several burgers on the menu, and a recent Thursday visit found fried chicken the nightly special. Just be sure you are hungry. Everything seems to come out of the kitchen in what could be described as “mounds.” In a unique touch, each table has its own water bottle—staff have developed the habit of filling glasses from it as they pass.
Rye attracts all ages of customer, and many seem to know each other. There is a surprising amount of hugging going on. A guest at the bar is trying to do magic tricks. They aren’t very good, but his massive grin is enough to celebrate. Four bartenders keep the fun flowing for tables in the front and more sedate dining in an adjoining room. Thursday night means jazz, and a trio over by the windows is providing background music you can actually talk over. Fridays are the busiest night, thanks in large part to the fish fry.
“Some nights the vibe in here is so good. The music, the people, the energy…it all comes together,” Charlie says with pride.
Back to the phases and stages. Phase two is above Rye, where three Airbnb units are available. Todd handled the elegant decorations, right down to the slim designer refrigerators you’ve probably never seen before. The units share a small porch area and would be the ideal base camp for families doing a Finger Lakes vacation. The first floor doors are marked clearly “Cook,” “Eat,” and “Sleep” so you know where to go.
Charlie’s pending plans even extend to outside of the building. The current phase (three?) underway will result in an outdoor dining area—a more casual, food truck sort of experience. The building next door already has a brick pizza oven installed and space for tables.
“I’ve burned some pizzas in that already,” Charlie admits. “Still getting the hang of it.” You can easily imagine the atmosphere of a block party in the space. There’s also another stage that he won’t reveal, but the smart money says it’s about the building on the opposite corner from Rye.
While labor shortages rage on, Charlie seems to have found the secret sauce that results in abundant servers and bartenders, all of whom seem genuinely happy to be here.
Oh, and why Rye for a name? “I like rye whiskey,” Charlie says. “Especially in a Manhattan. It’s a little bolder, a little edgier, great taste.”
Just like his restaurant.
Rye has its own parking lot next to the building, and street parking abounds. Find it at 365 Davis Street in Elmira, and on Facebook, or call (607) 732-6625. Rye is open Wednesday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday from 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday brunch is 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.