BY Molly Congdon
Crossing the threshold and stepping into the freshly renovated and recently reopened Carney’s Tavern, one feels more acquainted with the past while, at the same time, embracing a new future. Yes, this time there is air conditioning.
When the doors opened May 20, it was clear that it was back to being the Irish bar of yore that so many love and remember, with some additional modern flair. “We were slammed,” owner Matt Finnigan said.
Conversations commence during live music, the beer is flowing, dim lighting sets the mood and — in the side room — one can hear the clack of pool balls colliding then plunking into a pocket as well as the thump of darts being thrown at the board.
“We just see the potential that’s here and the town has given us a lot of support for the correct pub; it had gone a little bit astray since the Carneys closed it. It went to fine dining in March of 2013, which wasn’t well received by the locals,” Finnigan said. “It’s all us now, and when people come in, they can feel the difference.”
Finnigan and his wife, Stephanie, took on a huge project when they decided to revamp the 17 Main St. landmark. They closed the place down, brought the pool table and dartboard back, completely changed the menu to friendly tavern fare, gave the interior a deep cleaning (after all those years, it needed some exfoliating treatment) and 80 percent of the appliances in the kitchen are new.
Despite all the changes, the bar remains the same, including the trolley rail footrest put in by Bob Carney.
Most importantly though, delicious food is devoured, down to the last french fry.
“There are some sandwiches that came off of the original Carney’s menu that are back by popular demand,” Finnigan said. “We do a version of the French dip, we have a great steak sandwich, our hand battered fish and chips, which is a fresh Yuengling beer batter that we make ourselves, and of course we have Carney’s famous Reuben.”
A couple other staples brought back were Carney’s baked beans and Jenny’s Bread Pudding — complete with an Irish whiskey glaze.
These plates are crafted by chef Michael Triode and sous chef Alex Carney, who has been here since he was a kid — for about 30 years.
When the place fills with customers, Matt and Stephanie seem like they are everywhere; they visit with those seated at tables, tend to the needs of the many situated around the bar and bob their heads along with the musicians who are performing.
Like most restaurant owners, there is a story to how Finnigan snagged the reins. “I grew up in bowling allies, in the snack bars and then my real start was at the Orchard Tavern in Albany, a mom-and-pop place that’s been around since the ’40s — and I was there for six years,” he said.
Finnigan popped into the corporate world for a window of time, but then reimmersed himself in the restaurant world by becoming a full-time solo musician; he sang and strummed his guitar. “I was back around the bars again,” he said. “I started playing at Carney’s and one thing led to another.”
Playing his music is very similar to how he runs his pub. “I think it’s the same thing, to tell you the truth. It’s the people, it’s the service industry,” he said. “Even music is the service industry; putting smiles on people’s faces and interacting with them.”
The edifice of Carney’s Tavern has proudly stood for over 175 years in Ballston Lake. “The building goes back to the 1830s to ’40s; at different times in its history it’s been a saloon, a barber shop, a grocery store, there was a horse stable,” Ballston town historian Rick Reynolds said. “The first documented use of it as a hotel, inn or a bar was in the 1880s. It was called the Shenandahora Hotel, and that was when it first became a gathering place for locals and visitors who came to this area.”
It was 15 years later, in 1902, when Forest Park — an amusement park at the southern end of Ballston Lake — opened its gates. “What we call Carney’s today, was located right on the rail line and people would stop on their way from Schenectady to Forest Park,” Reynolds said.
Around the 1950s the establishment was known as McDonough’s. “It was famous because the owners — Katherine and Tom — had a swear box on the bar and every time you swore, you had to put a quarter in the box,” Reynolds said. “Of course, the quarter back then was worth a little more than it is today; some people joked recently that we should reinstitute that, but make it a $5 swear box.”
Then in 1982, the property was purchased by Bob and Rosemary Carney. “It was Bob’s dream to own an Irish pub,” Reynolds said. “They made it the Carney’s that we all remember.” Rosemary closed it in October 2012, several months after Bob died, and she still owns the building.
“It’s a historic building, one that’s in reasonably good shape,” Reynolds said. “In the early 1900s it was owned by the Eagan family, they had little rooms upstairs for people to stay.
“If you look around at a lot of communities they’ve torn down a lot of their buildings and now put up new buildings, but we in Ballston have managed to maintain a lot of our buildings and this is one of them,” Reynolds said. “Plus, it’s being retrofitted into a modern-day restaurant and that is — from my perspective as a historian — the ideal.”
The living aren’t the only ones who frequent the tavern. There are people who say they see a white ghost floating around every once in a while. “I was standing in the kitchen late at night — it was 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning — and I was chopping up home fries for breakfast,” Grillin’ and Chillin’ food truck chef Christopher Toogood said. “I looked up and there was a face watching me through the window of the door, it was a middle-aged, heavy-set man with facial hair, but you could tell that it wasn’t a person. It was pretty freaky and I took off like a shot out of the building. It took me twenty minutes in the parking lot to calm down and finish what I had to do.”
A week and a half later — fully recovered from the previous incident, he was closing up the place after some prep and as he flicked the switch — turning off the dining room lights — he heard a voice from behind whisper, “Bye!”
“I think it’s a former owner,” he said. “It’s nothing malicious, but it’s still freaky.”
Even during the daylight, footsteps can be heard upstairs, when no one else is in the building.
“We had the place cleansed of negative energy,” Finnigan said. “They went around with sage and hit every corner and even outside.”
As the Southern rock music streams through the radio sound system, Finnigan leans on the bar and looks around the place and a smile begins to creep across his face.
“I run this tavern, but it’s Ballston Lake’s tavern,” Finnigan said. “There is nowhere else around like this. Every night is like history in the making.”