TJ’s Cafe turns 25, McGreivey’s turns 15


In December 1996, a bartender approaching his 30s who had never trained as a chef bought a restaurant with his parents. Todd Leach runs from TJ’s Cafe in Colonie.

A decade later, a month later, a chef in his thirties trained at the Culinary Institute of America has transformed a building his parents owned into the only real restaurant in their hometown. Since then, Art Riley has run McGreivey’s in Waterford.

Now, months after their respective 25th and 15th anniversaries, the casual eateries have survived the pandemic and are feeding hundreds of customers a day, many of them neighbors living a few miles away.

“I was about 28, I was talking to my mom on the beach in Florida, and she was like, ‘What are you going to do with your life?'” said Leach, who will be 55. years this spring.

As a teenager who looked older than his age, at the age of 18, Leach began working occasional odd jobs, then full shifts at an Albany bar that didn’t have him. not asked if he was old enough to legally consume the drinks he was. being served. He told them he had to leave at 11:30 p.m. to go work the night at UPS, but in fact he had a midnight curfew imposed by his parents, who owned the old Terminal Hardware in Colonie.

Working as a bartender turned into bartending jobs, which continued through college and a post-graduation move to New York City, where he intended to go to law school. But 60-hour weeks behind a restaurant bar in Manhattan’s Financial District and the lure of paychecks instead of student loans derailed a legal career. Leach continued to offer drinks after returning to his native Capital Region.

After that fateful conversation with his mother, he decided he wanted his own restaurant, and his father, who had sold his store and was speculating in real estate, agreed that buying a building was better than renting it. After visiting a run-down spot on Central Avenue, they adjourned to a restaurant in the distinctive A-shaped building across the street to discuss what they had just seen. By chance, the A-frame was for sale.

On December 26, 1996, TJ’s Cafe opened.

“I wanted a place where you could walk in dressed the way I like to dress – casual blue collar, everyday – and have a sandwich, or a steak dinner if you wanted, and not feel underdressed,” Leach said. “I’m proud that it’s still like that today.”

He had no intention of cooking.

“I was a front guy, talking to people and pouring drinks,” he said. But, having helped in the kitchens over the years, he could make sandwiches and burgers, handle orders for wings and fries, put everything on plates in a timely manner. So when his head chef had a domestic implosion, Leach took over the kitchen, teaching himself new dishes over the years to the point that his menu grew to include what became signatures, including the top sirloin, French chicken – and lots and lots of chicken Parmesan.

As in 315 orders in one night. It was the peak, during the pandemic, for the long-running Tuesday night special at TJ’s Cafe. It usually sells 200, 60% of which is for takeout, although the other week, on what Leach called “a slow night for Chicken Parm”, it sold “only” 120. The special includes soup or salad, chicken Parm with pasta or potatoes, and Prinzo’s bread. For years it cost $9.99. Now it’s up to $12.99.

Leach, his father and stepfather were each diagnosed the same week last year with prostate cancer. He underwent surgery over the summer and is aware that his remaining decades are likely less than what he has already experienced. His children, with a woman he met while working at the restaurant, are now 16 and 13. The family enjoys downhill skiing in the winter and summer on Lake George.

If a youngster sat with a parent at a TJ’s table and talked about getting into the restaurant business, Leach might sell.

“The beach is beckoning me,” he said, “but I’m really good at what I do, and I still love it.”

Leach paused, then said, “I can definitely do this for another five years. Ask me in five years if I still have five in me.

What Chicken Parm is to TJ’s, scalloped potatoes are to McGreivey’s.

Art Riley, 51, has been making them for nearly 30 years, since his summers feeding the crowds of track season in Saratoga Springs. They’ve been a fixture at McGreivey’s since it opened in December 2006, and on holidays like Easter and Mother’s Day, the restaurant sells hundreds of ham dinners with potatoes au gratin.

Riley has always run the restaurant. His father does the books; his mother makes the desserts. Neither of them ever took a salary. They bought the property in 1967 and operated it for years as a bowling alley with food. The name comes from McGreivey’s Northern Hotel, which occupied the building from 1876. A picture on the restaurant’s wall shows the hotel sign in the background as a goat passes by, towing a boy on a sled.

Because the building’s been paid for a long time, the bookkeeper and pastry chef are free, and Riley pays herself as a chef but not as a general manager, McGreivey’s offers surprisingly affordable prices on an expansive menu that always includes four homemade soups. A baby spinach salad with diced apples, sweet and spicy pecans, sun-dried cranberries and gorgonzola is $9; pulled pork quesadilla with guacamole, $10. You can get an 8-ounce steak with a whiskey-and-pepper sauce for $22, a 14-ounce rack of lamb for $32, and a coffee-rubbed, Guinness-glazed pork chop for $24, or $15. $ less than a similar cut at a fancy steakhouse chain in Saratoga Springs.

“It makes me really proud that we’re such a community place,” Riley said. “People doubted that a restaurant like this would be supported or that it could last long. Well, we’ve been here 15 years.”

Riley’s son, now 24, works one evening a week as a bartender at the McGreivey, but has a freelance career in conservation. Most of the time, with Riley’s longtime girlfriend, they hunt and ice fish. (Photos online show whoppers regularly pulled out of Lake George, where Riley’s phone drowned to a freezing death the other week after falling through the hole in the ice. He was then texting with a dishwasher, who wanted an upcoming Saturday night. )

“I know I’m in an unusual position,” Riley said. “Few chefs have the opportunity to open the restaurant of their choice in their family building and succeed there for 15 years.”

: 91 Broad Street, Waterford
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday
information: 518-238-2020 and

T.J. Cafe
Address: 1133 Center Avenue, Colony
Hours: 11.30 a.m. to 10 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday
information: 518-438-7457 and

He said: “When the teachers I upset as a kid come in and say how much they love the restaurant, I feel a kind of redemption.”


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