As White Plains morphs into a vertical urban center, it’s hard to imagine that Westchester was a very important piece of forested territory during the Revolutionary War. Yet despite all the building and rebuilding across the county, 18th-century structures can still be found, a few looking much as they did during the Battle of White Plains.
A number of venerable buildings have been preserved as historic sites; a few now operate as restaurants. And when the cold weather blows in, these dining rooms flourish, especially when they offer crackling hot fires and low-ceilinged coziness.
At two northern Westchester restaurants, Purdys Homestead and Peter Pratt’s Inn, guests eat in rooms where dinner conversations have been heard for centuries. But neither restaurant offers period-authentic fare or lighting that is strictly tallow. Instead, their forward-thinking proprietors treat history in quite different ways.
At Peter Pratt’s Inn, owned by Jonathan Pratt and Craig Purdy (who shares an old family name but is not affiliated with Purdys Homestead), little in the pub breaks the spell of the past. An entrance bar anchors the long, narrow cellar dining room at one end and a yawning fireplace punctuates the far end. Built in 1780, this stone cellar was originally the foundation of a barn. Now thick beams support the ceiling and serve as the foundation for the Colonial-style house above, built 40 years later.
The place has been an inn for only the past 100 years or so, but there’s no denying the age of the rustic cellar dining room, where earlier travelers might very well have sought nourishment and warmth. This is the kind of hospitality that Mr. Pratt delivers, while adding his own creative mark, which gives dishes a contemporary spin.
The reliable, hearty and delicious preparation here is soup. Any soup. Each reflects the season, appropriately textured and based on a complex stock. Recently, a fresh corn and tomato chowder sparked by a shot of chipotle cream was spectacular. In the not too far past, equally memorable and restorative were smooth squash soup with buttery pecans; pumpkin and chestnut soup with shreds of prosciutto; and spicy Thai lemon-grass-and-coconut soup.
As the season advances, other old dishes made new again might include smoked fish; savory renditions of duck, rabbit, venison and quail; stews like braised lamb shank; fruity sauces; and sides sparked with one of the many chilies this kitchen favors, the spiciness as popular today as it was way back when.
Less than 15 miles northeast of Peter Pratt’s Inn, close to the Titicus Reservoir in North Salem, is the historic Purdys Homestead. We may never know whether an old oak — now a sizable stump and part of the Homestead’s sign — functioned in fact as the hanging tree for Tories who were caught stealing food from the Purdy Farm. But seeing the exact spot to which the culprits were supposedly dragged adds a chilling historical note as one approaches the house.
What’s amazing about this beautifully preserved home, built in 1775 by Joseph Purdy and presently occupied by Purdys Homestead restaurant, is that except for basic repairs, little has been done to alter it. Major renovations have been held in check by a trust set up by the Purdy family to guarantee that the building remains historically authentic. No acoustic tiles will ever conceal the heavy oaken ceiling beams here.
Until relatively recently, the house and working farm had been occupied by the Purdy Family. But in 1973, after a brief appearance by an antique shop, the Box Tree restaurant occupied the building. Charles and Maureen Steppe took over as the current proprietors in 2000. Their mark has been minimal and charming, yet they have done much to brighten and enliven the small dim dining spaces with the addition of candles, strings of pin lights and mellow sconces. Walls glow with handsome hues, from muted mustard to red-orange.
Today, a great pleasure at the restaurant is to sit near one of the three huge fireplaces and enjoy their warm golden glow while sipping a glass of wine. One can examine at leisure the bones of the place and imagine the generations of Purdys who scrambled over the wide plank floors through what must have been a small living space in the heat-conserving architecture of the time.
The summery decorations of New Orleans-style glitter seemed to run at cross-purposes with the simple structure; but a more appropriate autumn harvest theme, with pumpkins, gourds and brilliant leaves, is promised soon.
The conventional menu — ravioli, crab cake, shrimp scampi — does not reflect the restaurant’s age or history. But desserts feature seasonal fruit, and roasted oysters, sweet-sour duck, and cheese-laden onion soup hark back a bit to the flavor of Colonial days.
The Pub at Peter Pratt’s Inn
673 Croton Heights Road (off Route 118), Yorktown Heights; (914) 962-4090; prattsinn.com. Entrees, $18 to $32. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Purdys Homestead Restaurant
100 Titicus Road (east of I-684), North Salem; (914) 277-2301; purdyshomestead.net. Entrees, $23 to $35. Open Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday, 5:30 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday a la carte brunch, noon to 3 p.m.