Seneca Falls and Beyond

My husband and I recently embarked on a road trip through the Finger Lakes. We didn’t go far  – Seneca Falls is only 40 miles from our home. But on this trip, I felt like I was transported to another time and place. Here are the highlights of our journey. Perhaps they will give you inspiration for your next adventure.

Hotel Clarence
108 Fall Street, Seneca Falls

In the Christmas movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George and Mary Bailey are about to drive away on their honeymoon just as the stock market crashes and a run on the bank begins. They use their cash to save the Bailey Building and Loan, but if they had gone away that night, I believe the place where they would have stayed would have been just like the Hotel Clarence.

This hotel pays homage to the movie and even is the namesake of George Bailey’s guardian angel, Clarence. One wall in the lobby acts as a movie screen with “It’s a Wonderful Life” running in a nonstop loop. (There’s no sound, just the picture; I assume that’s so the hotel staff doesn’t go bonkers.)

The hotel is styled in the sleek Hollywood glam of the 1920s, and is reminiscent of the era when the building was first constructed in 1919 as the Hotel Gould. Textured silver wallpaper, crystal chandeliers, furniture with clean and simple lines all point to the the art deco period, but modern conveniences like flat-screen TVs and walk-in showers remind guests that they are in the 21st century.

The rooms are sleek with dark hardwood floors, and fluffy robes hang ready in the closet. The free WiFi is something that the Baileys wouldn’t have had, but a necessity for modern guests. If you’re a light sleeper, ask for a room that does not face Fall Street (most do not). A free continental breakfast is provided for guests of the hotel.

Hotel Clarence just opened its doors last summer after sitting vacant for some time. It’s worth a trip to Seneca Falls just to stay here. It’s a wonderful hotel.

DIVINE Kitchen & Bar
in Hotel Clarence

On the ground floor of Hotel Clarence is the DIVINE Kitchen & Bar, which relies heavily on fresh local products from Seneca County’s wineries and farms. DIVINE’s signature drink is a flaming rum punch, the concoction ordered by Clarence when he visits a bar in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and almost gets punched by the bartender.

The ambiance of the restaurant is sleek and modern. The dark wood tables and floor contrast with the stark white walls and dishes, allowing the food to take center stage and provide the color and interest at each table.

The fresh-baked bread was outstanding – I swore it was the best bread basket I’d ever had. The steak Diane was flavorful and succulent and the assortment of homemade sorbets was a refreshing end to our meal.

Zuzu Cafe
107 Fall Street, Seneca Falls

The theme of “It’s a Wonderful Life” isn’t limited to just the Hotel Clarence. Across the street is Zuzu Cafe, named after George Bailey’s daughter Zuzu. She’s the one who declares at the end of the film, “Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” One wall of the cafe is devoted to paraphernalia from the movie, including autographed pictures from Karolyn Grimes, the actress who played Zuzu. Grimes returns to Seneca Falls each year for the “It’s a Wonderful Life weekend.” In case you’re unfamiliar with local legend, Seneca Falls is supposedly the “real” Bedford Falls. Frank Capra visited the Finger Lakes town shortly before making the movie and the similarities between the real and fictional towns are striking.

But the movie shtick isn’t really what makes people visit Zuzu’s; it’s the food and the coffee and the Italian sodas and the fresh-baked pastries. This cafe was purchased by Bonnie Spencer and her daughter Casey Galloway in March 2009. Since then they’ve transformed the menu, with an emphasis on all things fresh.

Casey, the executive chef, roasts her own meats for the sandwiches, refusing to use any deli meats. The sandwiches, by the way, are spectacular. We tried the ham and brie with caramelized onions and whole grain honey mustard on rye, and the roast beef and horseradish on a ciabatta roll. Both were bursting with flavor.

When Bonnie took our drink order, she suggested we try their Italian sodas, which she could make for us in practically any flavor we could think of. They were light, crisp and flavorful.

If you come back for the It’s a Wonderful Life weekend in December, be sure to stop in at Zuzu’s for their annual giant-cinnamon-bun-eating contest.

Seneca Falls Visitors Center
115 Fall Street, Lower Level

Here you’ll find recommendations for lots of things to do in the area as well as exhibits for you to linger over right there. In the center of the room is a huge three-dimensional representation of the city that shows where the original falls were. It also shows how the city changed when it was flooded and the falls were covered with water. (They remain that way today. Ironically, Seneca Falls has no waterfalls.)

Volunteers at the museum will share their own stories and give you a glimpse of the city’s history.


2146 River Road, Seneca Falls

If you travel west out of Seneca Falls on Country Road 117, you’ll pass a large shed-like building surrounded by gazebos and outbuildings for sale. This is Sauders. Inside, there is something to interest just about everyone. Yes, it’s a grocery store, but when you look at the products on the shelves, you’ll realize it is like nothing you’ve ever seen.

Run by Mennonites, this store features a dizzying assortment of bulk baking goods. Don’t look for boxed baking soda or prepackaged bags of sugar, almost everything is contained in plastic bags with the weight, price and name of the item contained on a sticker. In addition to every kind of ingredient and spice you can think of, you’ll also find elusive items like flax (there are four kinds), carob powder, and buckwheat groats.

Another aisle features every canned item imaginable and the stranger the better. Try a jar of jalapeno eggs or lime pickles. Many jar labels say “family made,” and offer just about every type of canned fruit or vegetable you can imagine.

There is a deli counter that has meats, cheeses and unusual items like fresh ground peanut butter, chocolate peanut butter and almond butter.

At the far end of the store is a gift shop of sorts, with toys, puzzles, maps and Christian books. Just inside the front doors you’ll find birdseed, birdhouses and brooms.

For all foodies out there, this is a must-see.

Niles Gourmet
4588 Grange Hall Road, Moravia

Speaking of foodies, if you are one, then it is worth a jaunt outside of Seneca Falls to visit Niles Gourmet in Moravia (27 miles southeast). Located in the middle of “nowhere,” this is definitely a destination location. Still, owner Sandie Becker has drawn visitors from around the world, including famous actors and area college presidents.

Why do they come? Because Sandie is a one-woman band who produces amazing gourmet organic food on her wood stove. She is hostess, waitress, cook and dishwasher. Her menu is vast but changes constantly. She figures she makes 10 servings of something and when it’s gone, it’s off the menu. She doesn’t use recipes. Instead she imagines what certain flavors will taste like together and creates a new dish based on her inspiration.

This isn’t a formal, stuffy restaurant. People who come to Niles Gourmet chat with Sandie as she cooks and get to know her.  Or they can peruse the vast collection of packaged organic and specialty foods she has for sale.

In the cooler are nearly 50 different kinds of beer from around the world. There are also organic soft drinks (she eschews beverages with high fructose corn syrup), and a plentiful assortment of wines.

Her menu includes delicacies such as elk, bison and duck. It is also conducive to vegetarians. Some of her meat-eating customers come to eat her vegetarian meals, while some vegetarians will choose to eat meat only when they come to her for a meal. (Sandie only purchases local organic meat.)

This summer her weekend customers will get to try her organic gourmet pizza made in her newly built brick oven. The oven, which took her husband all last summer to create, is visible just outside her kitchen window.

This slow-cooked, handmade, rustic Italian cuisine is what Sandie is famous for, and the unique experience and delicious taste is worth the trip.

by Kari Anderson Pink

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