Gracie’s Kitchen to open on the site of old diner

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

The boss: Gracie’s Kitchen is owner Grace Thompson’s first restaurant venture. She began in the industry when she was 14 years old, serving the priests of the Saint Thomas Rectory in Delmar.

VOORHEESVILLE — This Thanksgiving, be sure to leave room for brisket.

On Tuesday, Nov. 27, competitive-barbecue champions, Grace Thompson and her husband, Eric Johnson, will open Gracie’s Kitchen, at 39 Voorheesville Ave., the former home of the Voorheesville Diner.

Although they are champion barbecuers, Thompson said that won’t be the focus of the restaurant.

Barbecue is one type of cooking, she said, but there are lots of other fun things that can be done in the kitchen. “We want to be able to feed everybody; people will eat barbecue occasionally but not on an everyday basis, and we’d love to have folks who come in every day for breakfast,” she said.

That’s not to say Thompson and Johnson’s championship chow won’t be available; it’s just better to think of it as a delicious embarrassment of riches —  an exquisite companion to an already appetizing menu.

Macaroni and cheese, for example, Thompson said, will be made to order and diners can add their choice of pulled pork, brisket, or bacon.

For breakfast and lunch, she said, there is “classic” diner food, and, then, there is “classic” diner food with an added championship touch.

There will be corned-beef hash, and, there will be barbecue-brisket hash. Sausage biscuits and gravy are on the menu, but the sausage will be smoked sausage that is made in-house.

With Gracie’s, Thompson said, the goal is to blend the classic diner with more contemporary fare.

Lunch, she said, will feature a grilled chicken sandwich with basil, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, and Swiss cheese, on a brioche bun. However, turkey on rye is still available upon request.

Burgers are ground fresh.

And just in time for winter, there will be a variety of soups. In their first-ever competition, even before they had competed in barbecue, Thompson and Johnson’s chili recipe won a Massachusetts state championship.

Then, there is the bologna sandwich.

“We take a great, big — what they call a ‘chub’ of bologna … slather it in mustard and rub, and smoke it for a few hours,” Thompson said. Next, they add shredded romaine lettuce and cheddar cheese, and it’s a “fabulous” twist on classic diner food, she said.

For now, Gracie’s will be open for breakfast and lunch: Tuesday through Saturday, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Sunday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and closed on Monday.

The hours and menu are set until the end of the year, Thompson said, at which point she and her staff will undertake a re-evaluation.

This is not the first time Thompson’s worked in a restaurant, but, she said, “It’s the first time it’s been mine.”

Starting out

Thompson’s restaurant career began when she was 14 years old and started serving the priests at Saint Thomas Rectory in Delmar, she said.

She grew up in the Bronx and Delmar; her husband grew up in Voorheesville. They currently live in Slingerlands.

After working in the rectory, Thompson said, she worked in a number of restaurants around the Capital Region.

She then spent over 20 years working in child welfare, as a contractor for the  New York State Office of Children and Family Services, she said.

“But my passion has been in the restaurant industry, and feeding people, and having fun,” she added.

Before she met her husband, Thompson said, he had been throwing parties and cooking whole hogs.

But it was a trip to Memphis, where the couple were judges for a national barbecue championship, when they decided that their own grub was up to snuff.

At their first competition, Thompson said, she and her husband took home a trophy. Soon, the couple was competing every weekend between April and October.

They primarily compete on the East Coast, she said, but have won championships in California, Kansas City, and Alabama.

Thompson and Johnson rose quickly through the ranks of the competitive barbeque circuit; their brisket won place first in the Jack Daniel’s World Championship, an invitation-only competition that features challengers from all 50 states as well as 18 international countries. The couple placed seventh overall in the competition, where, in addition to brisket, they also had to cook ribs, chicken, and pulled pork.

Gracie’s Kitchen

At the restaurant, Thompson said, her husband will be providing his barbecue expertise; however, she said, they have hired a wonderful chef that she is very excited about.

Chef Bobby Missinelli spent the past summer cooking in Saratoga, Thompson said, and, before that, he had been on Nantucket, where he had won awards.

Last week, in Saratoga, Thompson said, Missinelli had cooked a dinner of quail and shaved truffles. At Gracie’s, she hopes to bridge the spectrum between classic diner fare and upscale cuisine.

The menu is primarily of her own creation, she said, with feedback from her husband and Missinelli. Her favorite item is the corned-beef hash.

Her recipes have been developed over years of cooking for friends and family, Thompson said, adding that Missinelli has contributed some of his own recipes as well.

How did she decide on the menu?

“In part, just hearing the demand of the community,” Thompson said; people kept telling her that they needed a diner; a place to go for breakfast.

“Demand,” Thompson said, is also why she wanted to open her own restaurant.

The Voorheesville Diner, where Gracie’s now sits, closed in December 2017.

In May, the old diner had to be torn down when engineers discovered that it had not been built on a concrete footing, and was rotting into the ground.

Voorheesville had also recently lost a popular tavern so there was no community meeting place.

With her restaurant, Thompson asked, “How can I make it a place [customers] really want to go and feel comfortable, well fed, and tell their friends they should come here?”

To start, she looked to the past.

For the design of the building, Thompson said, she brought to the architect a photograph of the original Voorheesville train station for inspiration.

Then, the restaurant needed a name.

She had toyed with the idea of incorporating more of the area’s history into the diner’s name, Trackside or something to do with the Helderbergs, but “Everyone I talked through the process with was saying, ‘No, you have to call it Gracie’s; it’s such a classic, homey, inviting name.’ I’m blessed to get that name from my grandmother, and it just works.”

And, she had already done her own market research.

“Anytime we cook for friends, family, parties — and then the Class of  ’77 Voorheesville High School reunion [ask] ‘Why don’t you have a restaurant?’” Thompson said.

She and her husband had hosted a party in their Slingerlands home for the Class of ’77, a Friday-night event that used to take place in the former Smith’s Tavern. With no Smitty’s Tavern, she said, their home and cooking were volunteered for 110 guests.

Former classmates were a little “perturbed,” Thompson said, when they found out the next night, at another event, that they couldn’t have the same food.

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