I've always felt something special about walking into a restaurant whose windows allow a stellar view – no matter where one is seated. And when those windows look out over McGregor Links Country Club, one of the Capital Region's premier golf clubs, well, it's a bonus.
McGregor Links celebrated their 100th anniversary last July. Senator Edgar T. Brackett, a founder of the Adirondack Trust Company, built the golf course in 1921, attracting the growing number of tourists traveling to Saratoga Springs from the city.
The bar is long, inviting, and filling up fast, with golfers finishing up on the green. It's our first time here, so one of the husband-and-wife team owners, Wendy Lawrence, encourages us to walk around before leading us to our corner table. I recognize many familiar faces and stop to say hello before moving on. I can tell from the smiles that it's been a good day.
Around a corner, another enormous room looks down over the well-kept golf course and a patio with tables for outdoor dining, although no one will be out there tonight as it's begun to sprinkle. I bet it's beautiful on a sunny afternoon or warm, star-lit night.
We comment on the tasteful decorations, wall hangings, the restaurant's wide-open spaces, and the plush carpet beneath our feet as we make our way back to the main dining area. It truly is a beautiful space.
At the end of the bar, we see a receipt of sorts in a glass frame. It looks interesting. "What's that?" my friend asks. "A bar tab?"
"Shortly after Chip and I opened the restaurant in 2021, Scott and Giovanna Peterson shared this gem. They'd found it in the walls while renovating their place on Lake Avenue." Wendy holds the frame, then passes it around so we can get a closer look while she finishes her story. "It was the checkbook ledger for membership to McGregor from 1921 – for $55.00!" Talk about a fantastic find!
It sounds like naming the restaurant proved to be a fun exercise. Wendy explains the process: "We were all spit balling, as is the case when developing concepts." We nod in agreement – it makes perfect sense, and we love the name. "Although, Chef gets full credit for the chosen name," she says, grinning. "Being that we joined McGregor on their centennial year, established in 1921, we re-established Circa (20)21."
We ask about what made the couple decide to settle in and set down roots at McGregor. Wendy doesn't even need to think about her answer. "McGregor Links was a special place back when we were kids. Chip's stepdad Bill Moll was a fixture here, being great friends with former owner Mike Dennis and pro Dave Lewis. And, unlike a stand-alone restaurant, we genuinely enjoy the members and the neighbors, who feel like family to us."
We've decided to split several items on the menu to try as many as possible this go-round. We laugh and say we'll need to come back a few more times – the offerings are that extensive.
The Sand Wedge salad is an excellent starter. The freshest iceberg lettuce is covered with plump cherry tomatoes, bacon, smashed-up croutons, and creamy gorgonzola dressing finished with a balsamic glaze. There's more than enough for the three of us.
Chef Brian comes out during our meal to ask how everything is. "What are these little red things?" I ask, pointing to the mini chicken and avocado tacos. He explains that they are Peruvian peppers. "They're not hot but add a lot of zest and color to the dish." It pops and fills my mouth with a sweet burst of flavor when I try one. We learn that another name for them is 'sweety drops.'
Chef Brian tells us we can find them in neighborhood shops if we want to buy and use them in our favorite recipes at home.
"Have you always been in the restaurant business?" we ask him. His grin says everything. "For as long as I can remember. I've loved my journey as a chef, and I can't picture doing anything else in life." His words are refreshing – so many people are unhappy in their jobs. We can tell this is more of a calling for him.
Wendy laughs. "Between Chip, Chef Brian, and I, we have about 100 years of experience in the industry. We complement each other well with the various aspects of the business." She explains how Chef Brian is a master in the kitchen. "He has a keen sense of what works, what people want at certain times of the year. Chip and I chime in now and again, but ultimately the menu is his baby." We nod in agreement; he sure does a great job.
Wendy apologizes for Chip's absence. He was planning on meeting us but must still be out playing. Ahhh, a man and his love of golf.
She shares that this has not been the couple's first attempt at the restaurant business. "My great aunt on my dad's side operated The Cloverleaf Tavern in Mechanicville back in the 60s & 70s. We bought the building from the city in 2003 after a fire condemned it, renovating the apartments and restaurant. Chip and I operated it for a few years before selling, as we were starting to plan a family. In 2018, when we moved down to the Schuyler Yacht Basin in Schuylerville, we bought an interest in Clark's Steakhouse. During COVID, we became the managing partners and changed the name to The Basin Grill." (By the way… Totally worth the drive to Schuylerville!) Wendy moves on to talk with other people enjoying dinner, and we turn our attention back to the food.
Next, we split the steak salad, and it has to be the best I've ever tasted. Chef Brian made a bed of baby greens, topped with caramelized onions, pickled onions, a creamy onion cheddar cheese, roasted red peppers, and thinly sliced NY strip steak cooked to perfection. He's finished it with a balsamic glaze, pine nuts – which give the salad an earthy note, and a house dressing to die for. My taste buds don't know what to concentrate on as another forkful of flavor makes its way to my mouth.
The Bourbon Chicken sandwich is new on the menu, and we can tell it's bound to be a hit with customers. The chicken breast is tender and juicy. It's drenched in a savory bourbon glaze, with pickles, Applewood smoked bacon, American cheese, and crispy onion straws on a toasted brioche bun.
The Murphy is mile-high, thinly sliced pastrami with caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, and a stoneground mustard mayo served on toasted marble rye bread. I've always loved this sandwich, but Chris shares that she'd only just tried it a year ago with her mom. "I didn't know what I was missing!" she states after her first bite.
The atmosphere at Circa 21 is homey and inviting. Everyone seems comfortable here, and it sure seems like a place you might walk into as a stranger but walk out of as a friend. That's how the three of us feel. We sit together for a few hours, catching up on life and taking our time over dinner and drinks, never rushed along by the waitstaff.
Wendy visits our table one more time, explaining that the menu is mostly pub fare. Susan laughs. "Pub fare? I beg to differ." Wendy chimes in, "Gastropub fare, then." "Elevated Gastropub fare. We can settle on that." Susan adds, making us all chuckle.
Great news for everyone! As the golf season gears up, the restaurant is open Thursday-Sunday, 4 p.m. - close. By May 1st, Circa 21 will be adding hours, including Tuesday-Saturday, Noon-9 p.m. They're also planning to host weekly Sunday brunches.
Simply Saratoga Magazine is published by Saratoga Publishing, LLC, who brings you such award-winning niche magazines as Saratoga Bride, Saratoga Family, Welcome Home and the weekly newspaper, Saratoga TODAY!
We love Saratoga Springs! The people, the shops, the history, and of course racing season. Our Mission is to bring you everything Saratoga.