Inspiration for this review called for Jimmy Buffett and a bold Hawaiian shirt. Unseasonably hot pre-summer 90-degree temperatures set the tone for the outdoor bar at the Old Dock House Restaurant and Marina, lakeside in Essex. As we picked our way along the walkway from the parking lot, the sight of a small boat, built into the structure, had us humming the theme from Gilligan’s Island as we approached the cheerful barn red building.
The main bar area, housed in an add-on shed, is so enclosed it was hard to tell we were outside, but for the light breeze that traveled through. The explosion of nautical themed debris strewn throughout the barroom invoked a Florida Keys flashback for Kim, who opted for a Shock Top from the list of nine draft beers. Though she started with the standby vodka and grapefruit, the atmosphere provided Pam with a craving for rum or coconut or anything tropical. Satellite radio pushed her over the edge with the song, Escape (the Pina Colada song).
This is another we will have to categorize as one of our museum finds. The décor appears to be a salvage operation in progress; odd posts and lintels serve aesthetic, if not structural, purpose. Randomly scattered fishing buoys and markers bob from walls and ceiling in a conglomeration of color. Moored on shelves, model sailing vessels pick up breezes in their sails, using their most effective lines. White enameled fluted barn lights dangle over the bar of distressed hardwood, seemingly recovered from a bowling alley on a sunken ship. Another side bar of the same construction runs the entire length of the room, with an unhindered view through wide screened openings. In a far corner, a red rooster roosts quietly; too lazy to crow for day.
We took our time drinking in the surroundings while the bartender, Debbie, told us more about the Old Dock. Originally built as a wharf in 1810 for Lake Champlain boat traffic delivering goods from Albany and New York City, the Old Dock House served as a tea room in the 1930’s. The restaurant has been in business for 30 years, run by Black Bart Bailey from the 1960s to 1984. It was restored in the mid 1980s by Joanne and Jack Halpin, who added the boat slips. It’s still owned by Jack Halpin, but has been operated by Steve McKenna for the last five years. The bar, restaurant and marina are open from May through October, seven days a week, serving lunch at 11:30 a.m. and dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. The bar remains open until midnight. Happy Hour is daily, from 4 to 6 p.m., with draft beer and mixed drink specials. The bartenders seemed willing and able to mix up just about any drink you might not even know you want.
Three dining areas accommodate 150 to 175 people outside and another 85 inside. The exterior bar can handle another 50 patrons. This prompted us to inquire about parking, given the small parking area we had utilized. Landlubbers we be, we overlooked the surrounding dock space, readily able to hold 30 boats and potentially more. Additional car parking can be found across the street from the Old Dock House in a public lot or on the nearby streets.
Each dining area is unique in form, seating, and table design. The open and spacious interior dining room with soaring beam ceiling contains the other half of the exterior bar, with stool seating for eight. Large top-hinged awning windows gaped wide on this day as the lake breeze passed lazily through, affording a view of the ferry landing. Panoramas of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack and Green Mountains are visible through a wall of glass doors, or on the wraparound patio. In a profusion of red, tables of an assortment of materials – wrought iron mesh, one of granite, and some of wood – are scattered inside and out, with chairs of wood, plastic, and more wrought iron. Large canopies cover many of the tables. Between patio and bar, under the shade of maples and away from the sun’s burning gaze, several booths afford seating for 10, with benches at least eight feet in length.
A bar shift change put Debbie on our side of the bar for a quick drink. She introduced us to her replacement, Jack, and then off she sped across the lake on her jet ski, leaving us longing to commute that way. Pam and Jack got right to work on a suitable beverage. After establishing inventory availability, Pam chose a blend of mango vodka, coconut rum and a generous splash of pineapple juice, topped off with club soda. The drink we dubbed the Essex Escape – refreshing and fruity but not too sweet – and easily mispronounced the Essex Excape.
Accommodations can be found close by, either at the Essex Inn or Cabins by the Lake. WiFi is available and phone service abounds. Don’t forget to check in on Facebook when you visit, or “like” the Old Dock on their Facebook page.
Located right next to the Charlotte-Essex ferry landing, the Old Dock House is a perfect escape, whether arriving by car, boat or ferry. If for no other reason, go for the view. The season is short, however. By November, the Old Dock is probably hanging in the Caribbean, relaxing and rejuvenating.