Dinosaurs vs. Moose in Upstate New York

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of speaking about travel writing to the students at the S.I. Newhouse School of Journalism at Syracuse University. I found them to be bright and inquisitive; they asked great questions and made me excited about the future of journalism. But being a travel writer meant that I couldn’t just fly to upstate New York without exploring, so I decided to walk the walk and make a weekend of it, seeing a bit of Syracuse and Ithaca as well.

To be honest, the bitter cold weather and the threat of a snowstorm limited the amount of on-the-street strolling I was willing to do in Syracuse, so when it came time for dinner we went straight to the source: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. I remember New York City having a small aneurysm when they opened their Harlem location a few years ago, so I wasn’t going to miss a chance to try their ribs at their original spot.

It was about 6 p.m. on a Friday, so we knew there would likely be a wait, but we were lucky enough to grab a few bar stools and the ear of Mike, a mustachioed regular who’d been coming to the joint for decades. He filled us in on the history of the restaurant, which actually began when its owners operated a half-gallon oil drum at motorcycle rallies across the Northeast, eventually expanding into a storefront, which tripled its size, adding a bar and live music, in 1990. There are now four locations in all (the others are in Rochester, Harlem, and a spot in Troy, New York, which just opened in November of this year). But while Dinosaur may have expanded, it stays true to its motorcycle roots, with tin signs and bumper stickers tacked up willy-nilly to the walls and a gruff-love deportment of its staff (we were so engaged with Mike that we missed our name being called for our table, and the hostess heckled us when we finally noticed).

When we did sit down to eat, the menu choices were daunting: pork, brisket, chicken, ribs, and over a dozen sides came in more combinations than I could count. We were told it was smartest to order a platter and were glad when the tin tray came to our table heaped with meat. The ribs were delicious, with the meat collapsing off the bone, and our sides of mac and cheese, beans, and mashed potatoes were more or less inhaled, as was the cornbread. We got a growler of beer and emptied it before we left. It was easy to see what may have inspired the name of the restaurant: I felt as carnivorous as a T. rex.
 

Thankfully, I atoned for my carnivorous ways in Ithaca, a more crunchy college town which is home to both Cornell and Ithaca University, among other schools in the area. Visiting with friends from college, we wandered through the gorges (Ithaca is Gorges after all), which had just been dusted with snow. Water cascaded down the falls, and in many places had frozen into thick icicles along the shale rock face. When we finished our hike we were famished, and, after stopping to fill our new growler with fresh beer at the Ithaca Brewing Company, we headed to the Ithaca Commons, the downtown pedestrian mall where a crop of independent businesses were bustling with holiday shoppers. More importantly, we headed to the Moosewood Restaurant, a food collective which has been serving innovative vegetarian dishes for 35 years, and whose cookbook is one of the top ten best-selling cookbooks of all time.

Carved into the basement next to an underground shopping mall, the restaurant is decidedly cozy. High windows splash light onto the butter yellow walls, which are draped with tapestries espousing Michael Pollan aphorisms and pictures of vegetables. If Dinosaur Bar-B-Que evokes the gnawing of teeth, then the Moosewood will encourage the chewing of cud among other herbivore habits. And the menu is more than happy to oblige, with hearty dishes that change daily, like vegetable strudel, bean burritos, and pumpkin bisque. Every item that’s taken from their cookbooks is noted on the menu, so after our meal (which I must admit we ate slightly more delicately than we had a Dinosaur), I bought the Moosewood Restaurant New Classics cookbook and decided to make my hosts dinner that evening. The result–a curried cod chowder and steamed scallops and vegetables–was an omnivore’s delight.

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Photos: Above, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, via their website; Below, the Moosewood Restaurant, via their website.

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