Before the advent of the New York State Thruway, New Yorkers headed to the Catskills had to spend several hours on New York Route 17 to reach their resort, summer camp or stand-up gig.
The Red Apple Rest, located midway between New York City and those destinations, filled many hungry bellies and provided many fond memories. Elaine Freed Lindenblatt chronicles its history in her new book, “Stop at the Red Apple: The Restaurant on Route 17.” In a telephone interview, Lindenblatt – daughter of Reuben Freed, who created the restaurant and ran it for half a century – reflects on her father’s life and on the roadside landmark she calls her “strange fraternal twin.” Following are excerpts from the interview, edited for length and clarity.
Q: When did your father open the Red Apple Rest?
A: It opened in May 1931. My father went through many worlds before this. He emigrated from Russia to New York in the early part of the 20th century. He went from sweeping floors to owning a garment company. By 1929, the garment company failed. He was out of work with a lot of debts. He came upon the restaurant on a day trip to the country. It wasn’t a restaurant then – the owner of the property was looking for someone to open a restaurant to compete with other people who had a restaurant. My father never had restaurant experience other than eating in them, but he jumped in.
The restaurant’s name was suggested by its first manager’s nickname – “Red” Appel. Dad liked the idea of an apple: It was homey and American and fresh.
Q: Was the Red Apple immediately successful?
A: The restaurant didn’t do too well at first. They struggled. [During the Depression] it was a hardship to travel any distance, it cost a lot and it took hours to go from New York City to the Catskills. So my father tried different things. What saved the operation initially was a leap of courage on Dad’s part, which was to borrow $15,000 from family in order to build extensive restrooms. This was a precursor to getting the Greyhound bus contract. He realized that he could not serve a huge operation like Greyhound with just basic restrooms. He foresaw what would happen if busloads of people descended on the place for a fast rest stop. So he got the contract and then the place went to a 24/7 operation. We had charter buses, large limos and a lot of trucks stop in. The extensive property and parking areas gave them easy in/out access. Also, we built up a local clientele of people who just came to eat. This was their destination.
Q: What kind of food did you serve?
A: The food was down-home American. Sal Cortese, our chef, set up a menu of standards – hot foods every day of the week, maybe a couple of soups, in addition to 20 or so items that were always available, such as veal cutlet. Because of the standard menu, people knew, for example, that on a Wednesday they could get Yankee pot roast. Because our clientele that went up to the mountains was largely Jewish, we had things that were Jewish-style foods – not kosher, but we had chopped liver, hot corned beef and pastrami, hot dogs, bagels and lox. Our hot dogs were kosher in all aspects except not actually certified kosher. You could get one inside from the grill or outside at the stand, along with hamburgers. And if you wanted an ice cream cone, they would just call through the stand window and you’d get it.
People often tell me about their memories of the food. Half of the things people mention to me as having eaten in the restaurant we didn’t actually serve. I guess they have superimposed their favorite dish on their favorite place.
Q: How did the business change over the years?
A: The Catskills declined in popularity – air travel became more accessible and people wanted to go somewhere else other than where their parents went. Still, the ski center in Sterling Forest kept us busy. Also, other groups were loyal to us, like the Boy Scouts, who stopped on their way to camp. In 1955, the New York Thruway opened a stretch of road that bypassed the restaurant. Initially, sales fell, perhaps by half. Some of that came back because people weren’t happy with the Thruway. A lot of people did come back because they were loyal to their memories. It wasn’t just a matter of eating in a place. The place was part of a package that included their youth, their parents, their camps and their hotels – all good memories.
That next generation of parents with the memories wanted to share that with the kids. A lot of those kids came back with their own little children in hand, juxtaposing that with their early memories and happy at how little had physically changed with the restaurant.
Q: Why did the Red Apple eventually close?
A: The restaurant needed work and money put into it, and it really needed a higher level of daily vigilance. When my father passed away in 1980, there was no one to replace him. (My brother) Herbie, as manager, was great, born into the business, and he was excellent at a lot of things. However, he did not have my father’s vigilance, and that’s what was needed. We simply did not have the financial ability to do what needed to be done.
It closed totally in the winter of 1984 after we had a buyer. The buyer bought the name, ran it for awhile, had reduced hours. Then one day, there was a sign on the door: “Closed for Graduation.” And it never re-opened. Currently, the building would need a gut-level renovation. Hard for us to see, but that’s the way it is.