Growing up in Ithaca, I have always been proud to be a townie. The stunning summer days on the lake, the beautiful fall and the diverse network of friends and families; Ithaca has much to offer to a kid growing up in a small town. Unfortunately, good dining has never been one of those things.
I have seen restaurants come and go. Some that leave too soon, others that stay too long. Growing up, my friends and I would deliberate about what the best restaurant in town was. I always struggled to formulate an answer. There are very few that I would qualify as great, and even fewer that are great without charging absurd prices.
Now, as a person with resentment for the dinner scene in Ithaca, I wasn’t asking myself what the best restaurant to go to for dinner was — but instead what was the worst. Although I had ideas of what I thought could be considered the worst in town, I turned to the internet to find my answer. After weeding out the extensive list of fast food and chain restaurants located, I narrowed in on one of the lowest rated restaurants in town — Kelly’s Dockside, a quaint little diner off the Cayuga inlet.
TripAdvisor has Kelly’s ranked #130 out of 138 restaurants listed in Ithaca, ranking #64 out of 65 for American restaurants. Immediately, I thought this was a hot take. I have made the occasional visit to Kelly’s for brunch and have always enjoyed it. What was I missing? I realized that the disconnect may not lie in the restaurant, but in the meal itself — I have only ever experienced Kelly’s brunch. I never got a chance to see what else they had to offer. So, on a warm, sunny evening in March, two friends and I set out Kelly’s Dockside to review their dinner.
After taking one look at the place, you can’t help but feel as if you’re back at your favorite beachside restaurant you visit every summer. Upon entering, I was greeted by a welcoming waitress. Although she would not seat us, she handed us our menus and informed us that anything listed under the “Dinner” section of the menu was not available. We slouched, demoralized and feeling as if our journey had already been cut short, we walked through the sea side-esque dining area and bar and made our way to the outdoor seating area.
We stepped outside and couldn’t help but take in the fantastic view of the inlet flowing beside the deck. As we went to sit down we realized that this seating area must have not been in season, since most of the chairs had no seat, only containing the back support and the legs. Fortunately, we were able to corral enough chairs together and grabbed a table on the side of the balcony overlooking the inlet. An interesting start to the night, for sure.
As I glanced over the menu, I was saddened by my limited options. Before I could make a decision, our waitress came by and informed us that she had called in the second chef and that all dinner meals were now available. Class act by the Kelly’s staff, but it was a moment of realization that the restaurant was severely understaffed.
As the waitress left us to make our decisions, I realized I was yearning for a burger, but I knew I had to put Kelly’s to the test. Being right on the water and having a killer whale statue displayed on top of the building, I just had to try some of their seafood. The swordfish was enticing, but my eyes were caught on one of my go-to dishes — linguine and clams. Sure, not the most intense seafood dish out there, but I never pass up on some clams when I’m at a restaurant.
Before long, our waitress returned and took our orders. Unbeknownst to me, my order came with a side salad, in which I asked for a caesar. A nice plus to the meal. They were also very accommodating to my friend’s gluten-free needs. He ordered a burger with gluten-free buns and fries, although the fries were removed after the waitress called her manager to check if they contained gluten.
As we waited for our food, my friends and I enjoyed the beautiful ambiance of the balcony. As we sipped on our waters, a train chugged by on the other side of the inlet, blaring its horn for minutes. It made conversation difficult, but it’s the price you have to pay for a good location. After a chorus of obnoxious laughs and chatter from our table, the only other guests on the balcony, a young couple, asked to be moved. I guess one person’s good time is another person’s misery.
The waitress returned with my cesar salad. At first glance, I was not completely impressed. The dressing was clearly store bought and looked a little watery. However, food can often taste better than it looks, so I held out hope for my first bite. To my delight, this case was no exception. I thoroughly enjoyed the dressing and the tomatoes were fresh. A simple salad, but that’s all really one can ask for in an appetizer.
It was a bit of a wait until our entrees were presented. Of course, my friends and I were very understanding since it seemed like a one-(wo)man team was running the whole show. She was killing it, but I was eager to see what the called-in-chef had to offer.
Once our meals finally arrived, regret set in. I must have misread exactly what I ordered, because the sauce that was slathered over the clams and linguine was much creamier and, well, “clammier,” than I anticipated. I typically enjoy a nice white wine sauce with my clams, but I would have to make the best with whatever I was served. I dug in, and was satisfied with the clams. They weren’t anything special, but they were on par with my expectations. That is the extent of my gratitude for the dish.
I have had linguine and clams many times in my nineteen years of life and at many different establishments, but this has to be an all time low. For some reason, possibly a very odd styling choice by the emergency chef, my linguine was cut up into short pieces. The sauce tasted about as good as it looked — not great; it lacked flavor and was too creamy. I finished the clams, but the linguine got the better of me.
I looked over at my friends’ meals and didn’t gain any further respect for Kelly’s. The burger that my friend ordered looked similar to those served at a Cornell hockey game — prepared hours before but available to heat up whenever convenient. My other friend was devouring his reuben, which actually looked tolerable. Maybe the sandwich route was the right alley to take.
I couldn’t help but feel frustrated with the meal. It was a gorgeous night at a beautiful location with a pleasant atmosphere; I felt as if my food ruined that for me. The waitress returned to clear our plates and hand us our check. She asked us how everything was. I forced a smile and told her everything was great. Deep down, everything was not great, nothing close to great, but I knew the constricted circumstances the staff were under. They were playing with the cards they were dealt, and unfortunately for everyone, they had a bad hand.
My friends and I paid our bills and made our way out. I couldn’t help but feel let down. I wanted that meal to prove all of those negative ratings wrong. I have always loved Kelly’s, and I will gladly return, but one thing is for sure that I will never be going for dinner again. The scenery and the character of the establishment just can’t make up for its poor quality meal. Kelly’s brunch is where it thrives, and hopefully I can return soon to enjoy a nice platter of steak and eggs during a warm spring morning out on that very balcony.
Everything in life has a time and a place. Kelly’s Dockside may be the place, but dinner is never its time.
Quintin Cerione is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]