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One road to a long restaurant life

Scattered around the country are a number of restaurants that have been going strong for over 50 or even 100 years. How do they stay in business through war, recession, changes in demographics and customer tastes and all the other variables that affect profitability?

I was pondering this question as I walked through the doors of the Lantern Inn in the tiny upstate New York town of Wassaic, population about 1,500. The bar/restaurant opened in 1890, when Wassaic was a bustling farm community, and thrived through the years, with Borden’s Milk and other dairy-industry-related businesses feeding the economy. In the 1970s, a new highway bypassed the town and Wassaic fell on hard times. The Lantern Inn did survive as a local watering hole catering to townies and the occasional carload of second-home owners from northwest Connecticut and the Hudson Valley. Beer and pool were the main attractions.

Eight years ago, two New York City developers purchased Wassaic’s landmark grain elevator and transformed it into the Wassaic Project, a year-round residency program for artists that gets especially lively in the summer with its annual arts festival. They also bought the Lantern Inn and restored the space with turn-of-the century details. With the renovation came an overhaul of the menu. It features what may be expected—pizza, burgers and wings—but these neighborhood bar standards are elevated several notches.

The owners installed a state-of-the-art wood-fired pizza oven and imported former staff members of Roberta’s in Brooklyn, N.Y.—a place known for its pizza and long wait times—to make the pies. They toss and bake personal pizzas such as the Luther Barn (fresh garlic, kale, romano, housemade mozzarella and lemon oil) and the
Rattlesnake Mountain (a margherita pie with local sausage, mushrooms, and red onion). Both were perfectly executed. Prices range from $8 to $10. The burgers ($8) feature local ground chuck on a toasted English muffin; a side of fries is only $2 and cheese is 50 cents extra. Bud Light is available for $4 but there are also craft brews on draught for $5.

It’s clear that the new owners are lavishing attention on the food and drink, but the prices are affordable and the vibe remains laid back. It’s a mix that attracts the blue-collar locals and struggling artists along with well-heeled weekenders looking for artisan pizza and burgers and small-batch brews. Judging from the crowd on a Sunday night this summer, it’s a mix that seems to be working for the Lantern Inn. The restaurant has reinvented itself in step with the times and today’s taste buds. And the pool tables have survived the reinvention intact and as popular as ever.

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