Preservation Heroes: Ithaca is Foodies Draws Attention to Ithaca’s Culinary and Architectural Heritage
At The Watershed on West State Street in downtown Ithaca, rows of old bricks arch above an oversized floor-to-ceiling window. Up the street at Bar Argos, mellow red bricks line two beefy fireplaces and thick wood moldings set off windows and the lofty ceiling.
These features tell stories about the history of these buildings, stories that Ithaca is Foodies Culinary Tours founders Sarah Barden and Seth Wraight reveal to guests who take their guided food tours of downtown Ithaca. At both The Watershed and Bar Argos, the guides have given tourgoers a chance to drink in a bit of Ithaca history as they enjoy custom cocktails. What visitors may not have appreciated before their curated tour is that The Watershed was originally the home of the Bell Telephone Company. The Neoclassical Revival building was designed by architect Clinton Vivian and opened in 1902. Or that the funky-elegant Argos Inn was once the Cowdrey family mansion built in 1831.
Tompkins County natives, Sarah and Seth returned to the area a few years ago after attending college and working elsewhere. In 2017, the entrepreneurial duo combined their foodie passion with an appreciation for local history and opened their tour business.
In the peak season from May to November, Ithaca is Foodies leads walking tours that offer a sampling of the food and libation specialties of downtown Ithaca restaurants and bars. Last year they added a tour of local bars that showcases the best of local craft breweries. Their popular winter Science of Taste Food Tour returns this month. Guests experience the five basic tastes—salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami—through tastings at five local restaurants. Each course highlights a different taste.
“Because we grew up in Tompkins County, Ithaca means a lot to us, and we feel a strong connection to the city,” notes Sarah of their desire to showcase the local food and beverage scene. “Our goal with the tours is to help connect people to downtown Ithaca in a new way,” she continues. She approaches the design of each tour as “an immersive culinary adventure” that includes unexpected offerings meant to expand the palette from a uniquely Ithaca perspective—a scene that Sarah characterizes as enthusiastic, varied, values-driven, and fun. It’s “a low-pressure way to try new things,” she concludes, “and also a nice way to socialize with other people.”
Both long-time residents and visitors, she notes, are pleasantly surprised by how much history there is to explore here and how active the community has been in keeping it alive. Residents may have visited a spot many times and known that it’s a historic building but not known its history, and Sara and Seth are happy to share those details. After researching a site and talking to the owners about a building’s history, “we try to pull out the best of the stories and share it with guests,” explains Sarah. After a tour, guests end up feeling “like an expert on their own town with insider info to share with others,” reveals Sarah.
Visiting a restaurant or bar in an old building on one of their tours, Sarah has noticed, promotes “more of a personal investment in the life of those historic buildings.” The guided food tours elicit positive responses as guests learn the creative ways that owners have cared for and adapted a space to a new use and how the building has changed over time. “Any time that people get access to a historic space, it feels more unique and exclusive, and I think that guests enjoy that overall,” Sarah suggests of the appeal of such adaptively reused buildings.
For the last three years Sarah and Seth have also partnered with Historic Ithaca and The History Center in Tompkins County to organize the Ithaca Heritage historic pub crawl. Sarah brings her in-depth knowledge of the local food scene to help identify likely historic bars and restaurants to include on the tour. Both gracious and informed hosts, Sarah and Seth make sure pub crawlers enjoy the offerings and gain an appreciation for historic preservation as they tour.
Historic Ithaca is proud to partner with these forward-thinking entrepreneurs who are invested in showcasing traditions that make Ithaca unique and culturally vibrant. They’re our Preservation Heroes for dishing up local history in a fun, relaxing, and tasty way.