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ITHACA, NY — The rook is a bird that gathers; the birds gather by nesting together communally in treetops, and their tendency for intelligent scavenging is so well-known that their Latin name actually means ‘food-gathering.’
“They’re rather clever, smart birds,” said Lila Donaruma, co-owner of The Rook in Ithaca’s West End, which first opened its doors in January 2016.
She, co-owner Autumn Greenberg, and Gentry Morris, co-owner and head chef collectively chose the rook as the mascot for their restaurant collaboration because it exemplified what they felt their new venue ought to be.
“We wanted the space to feel warm and inviting,” Donaruma said. “A casual place where people could gather and hang out, and not feel just like they are coming somewhere for a meal, but they are going to have an experience.”
When Donaruma moved to upstate New York from the Bay Area, she thought that the Ithaca dining scene was missing a few things she craved: mid-tier options, and quality late night eats and cocktails.
“There’s not a whole slew of (mid-tier) options in Ithaca,” she said. “I thought it was a cool idea to get to make your own option.”
“We try not to take ourselves too seriously.”
Morris describes The Rook concept as high brow/low brow. “We like to eat good food in a casual environment and not feel the need to put on a tie or a jacket,” he said. “As an owner, I don’t have any desire to do the white tablecloth thing.”
In fact, the tables are sans tablecloths entirely, and the dinner napkins are made of paper. Everything about the restaurant, from the decor to the cocktail list is thoughtfully constructed, but deliberately casual.
The wine comes in tumblers, and the coffee arrives in mismatched mugs. The kitchen turns out variations of American classics made with care, quality food without expectation.
“I think the common thread I see in his cooking is using a lot of technique, but not necessarily being serious about the food. So it might be a throwback, like a wedge salad or a Shrimp Louie, but it’s just really beautifully made, it’s well-seasoned and it’s carefully done,” Greenberg said.
Six months into its tenure on State Street, The Rook feels like it has found its niche and expertly filled it. While the restaurant earned a reputation early on for having long waits, the space now welcomes regulars and newcomers at a steady, uncrowded pace.
(During early happy hour on a Thursday Ithaca Voice Dining actually had the patio all to ourselves, but there’s 30 minute call-ahead seating if you’re still feeling concerned.)
“Every day there’s someone who comes in who says ‘I have never been here before’, but we have gained a lot of repeat customers,” said Donaruma. “This is the greatest percentage of hugging of customers I have ever done. I hug 30 percent of the people that walk in the restaurant.”
Delicious food, smart drinks, casual atmosphere, excellent company
The reason for all the repeat customers is partly due to Ithaca’s tight-knit community, and partly due to the addictive nature of the food, Donaruma said.
“We had people come in the other day, and they were like ‘Do you still have the whole trout on the menu?’ They came in, they didn’t want any appetizers, they didn’t want anything to drink, they each ordered the grilled trout and they left,” Greenberg said.
“If we didn’t have it, they were going to go! They were so excited about that trout, they were going to have it again.”
Morris and Donaruma both chimed in with stories of the cultish following surrounding the cheeseburger (with cheddar, iceberg lettuce, grilled pickled onion,
special sauce, and fries), the fried chicken (fried in duck fat, with collard greens, and smoked honey), and the bacon-wrapped dates (with marcona almonds, and goat cheese).
Both the fried chicken and dates are also on the late night menu, served from 10 p.m. until midnight. The late night food and drink availability was another important sticking point and mutual agreement between The Rook’s co-owners, who felt the need particularly keenly as part of the service industry.
“One third of the restaurant is a bar, and that’s not an accident.”
“There are not a lot of places where you can drink like an adult after 10 p.m.,” Donaruma said. Donaruma and Greenberg both came from Bar Argos up the hill on State St., and the shared aesthetic of using fresh juices, and house-made bitters, syrups and shrubs shows.
While the cocktail lists rotates frequently, the Negroni on tap has been a constant favorite. The current menu features summery house cocktails all $10 and under, including the Picante Svante, made with Lunazul reposado tequila, lemon, cherry, cranberry, and chile pepper served in a rocks class.
Mayor Svante Myrick has, in fact, tried the cocktail. “He said ‘I’ve never thought of anything that rhymed with Svante.’ Oh, well here you go!’” Donaruma said.
The draft list features local notables from Ithaca Beer Company and South Hill Cidery, but in the high/brow low brow vein, also offers $3 cans of Utica Club, Narangasett Lager, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. The wine list is global, with a few Finger Lakes representatives.
“One third of the restaurant is a bar, and that’s not an accident,” Donaruma said.
When Fine Line was in this location, the bar was only a six-seater in the back, and not conducive to dining at, said Greenberg.
“You couldn’t see your friends come in, you had your back to the door,” Morris agreed. “Now I feel like it’s a stop for people.”
While there aren’t often tourists wandering down from The Commons, The Rook is a now a solid stop in the growing West End line-up from Maxie’s, The Rhine House and The Westy for pre-dinner drinks, after-dinner cocktails, full meals, small plates, and cocktails without pretense.
“I sort of like that it’s off the beaten path and people have to find it, a little bit. It’s not just presented to you with a big, wacky inflatable arm man out front. We should get one of those by the way,” Donaruma joked.