‘Better than Disneyland:’ The last days of an upstate supper club
Kozel’s Restaurant, in Ghent, closed its doors this month after 87 years. But its stories will live on in the community it fostered.
Written and photographed for Times Union Hudson Valley, November 12, 2023.
On Sunday, Nov. 12, Kozel’s Restaurant — a beloved family-owned steakhouse on Route 9H in Ghent — celebrated its last day after 87 years in business. Hundreds of longtime and new customers came through the doors to honor the legacy of a restaurant built for and around the community.
Kozel’s had an authentic Midwest diner vibe common to supper clubs, with a wooden interior, vintage decor and friendly hospitality designed to make customers feel like family. Its motto — “There are no strangers here. Only friends we haven’t met!” — was stamped on the back of the waitstaff’s shirts. Like most supper clubs, its menu was focused on meat and fish (though it also served Italian food). It was most well-known for its prime rib, believed to be uniquely flavored because of the well-seasoned pans and ovens.
But to hear its adoring customers recount their memories, food was only part of what was on offer at Kozel’s.
“When you come here, every person that walks through those doors, you know,” said Donna Keeler, a lifetime customer. “It takes you forever to leave this place at night. Could be three to four hours after you eat, just mingling with people because everybody is friends. It’s the happiest place. It’s better than Disneyland.”
The origin and evolution of Kozel’s
Frank and Eva Kozel moved to Ghent in 1930 from Hebron, Conn., to live closer to Eva’s sister, according to a 2007 oral history of Kozel’s published by the Columbia County Historical Society. In 1933, Route 9H was constructed to replace the winding Old Post Road, where the Kozels lived. They had to move their home back to make way for the road.
With the new bustling wave of traffic, Frank and Eva opened the Old Post Road Tavern in 1936 with a gas pump as part of the enterprise. Eva set up a stand out front and sold fresh eggs and vegetables from her garden. These invitations for an enjoyable rest stop paid off. The Kozels began to expand in the 1940s, adding a glass block bar and introducing fast foods to the area such as hamburgers, fries and pies.
The Kozels raised their sons, Frank Jr. and Eddie, putting them to work in the restaurant at a young age. In 1955, Frank Jr. and Eddie, along with their wives Elsie and Barbara, took over operations and changed the name to Kozel’s Restaurant Inc. A few decades later, Frank Jr. and Elsie’s second-eldest child, Gus, became the owner along with his wife, Helen, whom he met at Hudson High School. The exact date of the shift in ownership is a little fuzzy. As Helen put it, Gus “kicked his father out of the kitchen one day and said, ‘You gotta move, you’re too slow.’ ”
This was roughly 1988. Gus and Helen would be the third and final generation of Kozels to run the restaurant.
If these walls could talk
Kozel’s Restaurant has morphed many times over the years: the backroom was extended in 1960, the bar was remodeled in 1980, and the backroom was expanded again in 1984. The building can now hold 550 people and has hosted a wide range of celebrations: weddings (including all the Kozels’ weddings), funerals, bar mitzvahs, Mardi Gras, Thanksgivings, St. Patrick’s Days, line dancing, Oktoberfests, the Hospice Gala, reunions, graduations, political events, and many more.
“Often a typical day would include a breakfast party in the morning, a wedding party in the afternoon, and a bowling banquet at night,” Elsie Kozel told the Columbia County Historical Society.
One customer, Dick Leavitt, had not one, but two, wedding receptions at Kozel’s and performed with his classic rock band, Jarrod, numerous times. Leavitt came in every day for 50 years, except Tuesdays, the one day Kozel’s was closed.
Keeler, another longtime customer, visited Kozel’s three to four times a week since childhood and passed on the tradition to her children, who brought their friends. She even volunteered for the final week.
“I’ve been here for the past five days bussing tables and doing whatever they need, making salads in the kitchen, helping the waitresses and Helen because it’s been so busy,” she said. “They’re the greatest people and I know they needed the help. That’s what friends and family do.”
In recent years, Kozel’s has become popular among a newer crowd of transplants and millennials. Klein Zage, a U.K.-based musician who lived in Hudson from 2020 to 2022, was a regular and made a well-received music video at Kozel’s titled “Bored With You.” Zage paid tribute to Kozel’s on Instagram earlier this month, writing that it “came to feel like my second home, at a time in my life when I very much needed one.” She also shared that she once sat next to an elderly couple who had met at a high school dance at Kozel’s in the 1960s, were married in the banquet room, and came in for Friday dinners for the better part of the next half-century.
Melissa Auf der Maur, a 15-year resident and the co-founder and director of Basilica Hudson — on top of being a bassist in the legendary 1990s rock bands Hole and Smashing Pumpkins — has visited Kozel’s most years on her St. Patrick’s Day birthday. “There are not many institutions like Kozel’s still standing, ones where the staff stick around for decades just because they love the place and the customers,” she said. “Losing this remarkable Columbia County time capsule is a great loss to the region. Consider all the stories of American people and history that are encapsulated in these social establishments that will be lost by simply closing these doors.”
Debbie Welch, a waitress, has worked at Kozel’s since 1975. Her husband didn’t want her to get a job but when he was laid off, she began to look on the sly and applied to Kozel’s. She received a call from Barbara Kozel and the rest is history.
“I’ll be in the grocery store and somebody will say, ‘Hi, Debbie. How are you? Don’t you remember me? ’ And I say, ‘What do you drink? ’ ” Welch said. When she saw a customer through the windows outside, she had their drink ready on the counter. “It’s just habit.”
Gus and Helen’s son, Nik, 39, carried on the tradition of helping in the restaurant once he turned 13, working on weekends. He saw his friends most often whenever they would come into the restaurant, he said. Many would eventually work in the kitchen or as servers.
“Usually right after school, I would push the chairs together and I would actually sleep underneath the tablecloth in this room as a kid,” he said, speaking in the middle-back dining room. “My life was very different than most other kids.”
Nik, who lives in Philadelphia and works at Drexel University as the assistant vice president of development, said in an Instagram post reflecting on Kozel’s closing that he and the family decided 20 years ago that he would not take over the business. But he proudly served every time he returned home, including on the closing weekend, and remained grateful for the experience of working there. “It taught me to be the person I am and allowed me to have the life I now have,” he wrote. “All I can say is THANK YOU!”
Gus’ youngest sister, Suzanne Rajczi, said that growing up, they were taught that “serving people is not a job, it’s a privilege.” She added that “serving the community, being gracious, mannered people and knowing that if you work hard, you will succeed are good values to bestow on people.”
Many rumors about why Kozel’s closed have spread online and around town. But the answer is simple.
“It’s my 70th birthday present,” Gus said. “Time to retire.”
“I don’t really think the closing of the business has hit us yet,” Helen said on a recent Tuesday, while processing payroll. “We’re still down here doing what we would normally do.… Once we’re not coming in the building, we will probably reflect more on how we feel.”
In their retirement, Helen and Gus are looking forward to doing things they have never been able to do: invite friends over for dinner, go out to eat, visit their son in Philadelphia. Gus — who doesn’t have a cellphone — wants to go hunting; Helen wants to go to the Hudson Winter Walk.
Helen Kozel likes to say “it takes a village” to keep the restaurant running, but employees and customers also cite the Kozels’ dedicated, loyal and warm-hearted leadership.
“It’s been very humbling the amount of people that have come into the restaurant and wished us well and said how they’re gonna miss the place,” Helen said. Gus added: “They can understand why we want to retire and are just grateful we have stayed open for as long as we have.”
While this is the end for Kozel’s as it has been run for nearly nine decades, it might not be the end for good. Neither the business nor the building have been sold. Gus and Helen said they hope someone who understands the soul of the place will buy Kozel’s and carry on its legacy.