Readers of this column know I like to begin restaurant reviews with a bit of history of the establishment, and Joe’s past is one of the most interesting in Ithaca. When I graduated from Cornell in the mid-20th century there were already many restaurants in downtown Ithaca. In the intervening years, only one has remained with the same name at the same location, and that’s Joe’s at the corner of Buffalo and Meadow streets. Years ago, that intersection was one of the busiest in Tompkins County, and was the reason many diners found Joe’s and enjoyed it. In the 1920s, the site was a grocery store, and the area that now serves as the bar was a grocery display case. In 1933, when prohibition ended, the display case was converted to a more profitable bar and the store itself was renovated into a restaurant, with the owners living above it. In 1947, after World War II ended, troops returned to the U.S., and many wanted to enjoy the pizzas that were so popular in Europe. This prompted the owner of Joe’s to travel to NYC to buy, and bring back, the first pizza oven to Ithaca. Pizzas became so popular that other local restaurant owners soon were serving them.
In the almost 100 years between 1923 and 2019, Joe’s has changed hands several times and, in fact, closed completely three times. With each change in ownership came changes to the character and quality of the establishment, even though the name, Joe’s, became an icon in the area and each new owner retained it. With the heavy traffic at the intersection, it’s convenient that Joe’s still has free, off-street parking behind the building.
The main dining room, on Buffalo Street, where many of us used to eat, no longer serves meals. The tables and chairs are gone and the space is now used for “special events.” Dining is limited to the bar area, with seven chairs, three booths and a TV and its extension to a modest space with booths and tables on the Meadow Street side of the restaurant. The closing of the main dining room is an obvious reflection of a significant reduction in Joe’s popularity.
And now, to the food.
I’ve tried two appetizers. The chicken wings were fine, except I ordered the parmesan/garlic dressing, and the four wings, cut into eight pieces, had no discernable parmesan/garlic flavor. There was a mysterious glob on the plate, under the wings, which the server couldn’t identify but reported, after checking in the kitchen, was the cheese. I couldn’t cut into it, so I ate the wings without flavoring and enjoyed them, as they were cooked well and were accompanied by a bit of blue cheese dressing for dipping and flavoring. The Tuscan soup was loaded with generous portions of sausage, potatoes, kale and bacon; however, it was so salty I didn’t eat it. My companion ordered a house salad as an appetizer, and was pleased that the “mixed greens” turned out to be romaine lettuce and there were copious amounts of tomatoes, peppers, olives, and red onions. In fact, one of the best aspects of Joe’s is that the portions are generous.
The menu does not have any veal selections (which should make some Ithacans happy, some not) or lasagna. The evenings I was there, lasagna was one of the three specials on a small specials menu, which is often utilized for several weeks. All I want to say about the lasagna is that others served in town are better. I also ordered white clam sauce, which featured small, Little Neck-type clams both in the shell and out. The clams were not tender, the linguine was obviously not homemade, and the sauce was on the bland side.
Desserts are rather ordinary and none are homemade.
The wine menu, though small, covers all the bases. All the basic grape varieties most wine drinkers would choose are represented in the nine reds and five whites. Vintages are not listed, which gives the owner and his distributer more flexibility but shouldn’t bother most customers.
Various websites are confusing and list different hours of operation and menus. To be sure, it’s best to call.
Half-price appetizers are offered in the bar area from 4 to 6 p.m.; however, it should be noted that Joe’s is closed Monday and doesn’t open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday until 4:30 p.m.
Prices for wine and food, though not inexpensive, are reasonable.