For a while, Jason Traycoff sold restaurants silverware. He’d much rather see his own customers using those forks to enjoy his cooking.
Traycoff and his wife, Emily, opened Westmain Tavern in Syracuse on May 1, 2014. There was buzz. There was talk of how hard it was to get a table. That’s because the Traycoffs were doing something new — and old — in this lake town.
The couple reclaimed an old building at 201 W Main St. that had been in foreclosure. Traycoff had built and restored homes, but spending two years renovating a building to open an upscale restaurant in a small town is different. “I was a little scared,” he said.
It didn’t help that as they prepared to open, he fell off a ladder and dislocated his shoulder. But the support and love from friends, from the community, was overwhelming and they had cheerleaders before they ever served a dish, they said.
Two years later, West Main has settled in, serving the mix of summer and yearround lake residents. This winter, some of the locals will go south but business doesn’t slow down much, Emily said.
West Main has a place in Syracuse and a following, mostly among those who live there.
Jason works in the kitchen, Emily in the front of the house. They both know their regulars and relish in hearing the stories of a building, of a community, they had no idea they’d uncover. The building at 201 W. Main was many things, including the Bureau of Motor Vehicles office and where the first Syracuse postmaster was commissioned. But decades ago it was a restaurant. From the late 1930s to the early 1960s, it served food, including high school students who could go there at lunch. The grandmother of one of the servers worked there. One customer tells of living upstairs. During the remodeling that filled four trash dumpsters, they found a framed photo lovingly wrapped in cloth showing the restaurant in 1944. Customers now point out relatives shown in the picture.
The Traycoffs are getting and preparing fresh ocean fish. They’ll soon have Great Lakes whitefish. They curate a small wine list and taps with local beers. “Our mission in this restaurant with everything is to get the best ingredients and not mess it up,” he said.
Traycoff learned to cook while studying at Indiana University in the 1990s after he was spotted reading Bon Appetit at a laundromat and offered a job at Bloomington Country Club. For 2½ years, he worked with a Culinary Institute of America graduate and considered culinary school after graduating with an IU business degree. For a few years, he and family owned a restaurant in Columbia City before selling out. He got into sales to restaurants and ended up representing silverware and tableware companies.
Jason and Emily married seven years ago and when his company wanted them to move, they didn’t want to leave Syracuse. She left teaching history and now they operate this place with eight tables and a bar — only 36 seats total.
The kitchen is open and the staff is like a small family. The Traycoffs don’t have children of their own, so their young staff members are like their children. Their customers are treated like relatives coming over for dinner. It’s a nod to grandparents who were in the tavern business, he said. “We try to love on people,” he said.
This is a tavern, so it’s 21 and over, but they want people to slow down and enjoy their dinner together. “People are too fast. They work too hard,” he said.
Traycoff’s food isn’t overly fancy, but it is good. Four or five options in each of the appetizer, salad and entree categories are joined by nightly specials. The menu includes Pasta Emilia ($18), a dish with sausage, spinach and gorgonzola that he wooed his wife with on their second date. Chicken thighs ($16) are roasted with herbs and butter. Westmain Pork ($18) is served with a cheese and breadcrumb crust.
Fried Brussels sprouts ($8) come out crisp and tasting of fresh lemon. Fish specials vary, but a baked cod he served was flaky, buttery and a well-executed version of a grandmother’s cooking. The brownie cooked in small cast iron skillets and served warm with ice cream, or gelato, was delicate and comforting.
“We run this place kind of like momma’s kitchen,” he said. On Tuesdays, he plans to play with a “momma’s dish” that has the homey, Mediterranean flavors of his heritage. As the leaves start to fall, Traycoff’s comfort food is something for which I’d drive to Syracuse.
• Address: 201 W. Main St., Syracuse
• Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday
• Contact: 574-487-2828
Westmain is small and homey. It doesn’t take reservations, and waiting for a table is a real possibility. Warm service and simple, good food may well be worth the wait.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.