In case you weren’t aware, The Seneca, a handsome, spacious bar and restaurant just over the border in Ridgewood, recently reopened for indoor dining. While the three-year-old establishment hasn’t returned to its full pre-pandemic glory, it has added a small general store to its front area, and every Saturday a small farmer’s market is run at the opposite end, hawking lush produce from the North Fork of Long Island.
A refresher: In July 2018, The Seneca was conjured into being by Kaelin and Tom Ballinger, sons of a Manhattan club owner striking out on their own, far from the booze-slicked leather couches and tinnitus-inducing sonic assaults of a successful city club.
“All of my favorite places [in Manhattan] had become frozen yogurt shops or banks,” explained Tom Ballinger over the phone from his apartment. “I saw all the artists and cool people priced out. So we decided to find a place with a bit more culture. It felt like New York City again [in Ridgewood].”
The Seneca began life as a place where locals and interlopers alike could conceivably cater to their food, alcohol and caffeine needs from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. However, Ridgewood was still on the sleepier side, and breakfast was quickly sacrificed on the altar of pitiless fiscal streamlining, leaving intact lunch, dinner and late-night bar service.
During The Seneca’s conception and infancy, the brothers Ballinger fielded a lot of advice on how to trim excess fat off of the establishment’s fiscal organism. Most of it they threw right back at their would-be advisors, preferring to hew to their original notion of offering customers what they considered the highest quality products at reasonable prices. (Tom laughed and observed, “If I’d listened to everyone I’d be selling nothing but Bud Lite.”)
Indeed, The Seneca hummed along nicely on the Ballinger’s chosen business plan, when COVID-19 brought everything to a halt.
Like everyone else in the restaurant and/or bar business who survived COVID-19, ingenuity and flexibility were the requisite traits helping to keep the Darwinian wolf from the door.
“It was like some post-apocalyptic spring break,” said Ballinger. “I was handing drinks to people wearing gas masks. Very surreal.”
As if the virus wasn’t enough to derail the Ballinger’s dream, human malfeasance rode in last September on its sickly nag to add insult to injury, in the form of a well-oiled team of thieves who came in the night and absconded with The Seneca’s outdoor dining furniture, screws and all.
“If they had left their names and numbers I would have hired them immediately,” Ballinger commented ruefully. “They were incredibly efficient. I grew up around bar backs, man, and I never saw anything like this before.”
Following the theft, The Seneca shut their doors to lick wounds, until January arrived and they re-opened their doors with a brand new “general store” concept.
The store was the first instance of what is quickly becoming standard practice for The Seneca, born of pandemic-related necessity: treating the large venue as a sort of Swiss army knife; two Saturdays ago, for instance, saw the premiere of the aforementioned farmer’s market, run primarily by Bailey Anglin, who sources produce from Treiber Farms in Peconic, Long Island.
Vegetables are heavily represented on The Seneca’s new menu, previously dominated by their burger. The new head chef, JP Dawson, is whipping up stiff, plant-based competition in the form of an eggplant parm sandwich featuring charred broccoli, and a vegetarian Bahn Mi stealthily swaps shiitake mushrooms for the usual porcine protein.
Also, keep your eye out for an open-faced sandwich of fried butternut squash and chermoula, served on Dawson’s homemade focaccia. It may or may not be on the menu when you decide to drop in, but it’s worth inquiring about.
The farmer’s market isn’t the only use to which Ballinger plans to put the re-vamped Seneca. One Saturday a month, the owner of West Passage Oyster Co. in Rhode Island, a friend of the Ballingers, will drive down with a big, bursting sack of wet, jagged product and shuck furiously for Ridgewood’s bivalve-inclined. In addition, the kitchen will be hosting a variety of pop-ups, featuring specialty food items of chef friends and acquaintances.
The Seneca has yet to stretch out to its pre-plague wingspan. A 2 a.m. close is still a relatively distant prospect, but 11 p.m. is looking feasible, according to Tom Ballinger, and 12 a.m. is visible on the horizon. The spacious back room, which houses a pool table, is still being used for staging and storage.
“One good thing about the pandemic: it really freed up storage space,” laughed Ballinger. “But we’ll have our pool table back up and running soon. Now that we have that beast of a kitchen up and running, we have to bring back our drinking scene.”
Currently, The Seneca’s hours are 11 .a.m to 6 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, but that should change soon. Glue yourself to their Instagram for updates on the Saturday Farmer’s Market, the TBD “oyster fest” and sundry.
All images courtesy of The Seneca.
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