PENN YAN — Top of the Lake has been open for a little more than five years, but longtime residents of this Yates County community know the restaurant’s history dates back much longer than that.
One of those people is Susan Huber, who was a server at the old Hilltop restaurant and now owns Top of the Lake with her husband, Cecil.
“It was very busy all the time. It was a gathering place for everybody,” Huber said of the Hilltop. “You would see the same people every Friday and Saturday night, at the same tables, having the same food. I have good memories of the Hilltop.”
It’s an atmosphere the Hubers have worked hard to replicate since re-opening the restaurant in December 2013, two months after they bought it. While the business has a rich history, it fell on hard times and was closed for about two years prior to the Hubers’ purchase.
“We had to start from scratch, fixing everything in here,” Cecil said. “There was no heat in the dining room. The coolers and freezers did not work. The emergency system did not work. We spent almost three months working top to bottom, fixing everything.”
It was a far cry from the glory days of the Hilltop, an iconic restaurant at the top of East Main Street founded by Silvio and Julia D’Abbracci in 1946. Their sons, Patrick and Louis, took over the business in the 1950s. Patrick’s son, “PJ,” started working at the restaurant in 1969 and ran it with Louis until Louis retired in 1985. The building has been home to Penn Yan’s American Legion post since the late 1980s, when PJ D’Abbracci built the new Hilltop at the northern tip of Keuka Lake, near Red Jacket Park.
Wayne Wagner, then president of The Birkett Mills, bought the restaurant from D’Abbracci several years later and renamed it Sarrasin’s On the Lake; sarrasin is French for buckwheat. There were several owners after that, and the last owner before the Hubers was Bob Pfuntner, who was well known as the owner of the Keuka Maid dinner boat.
The Hubers, who also own the popular Liberty Restaurant in Penn Yan, decided to take a chance on the former Hilltop and renamed it Top of the Lake. Local residents flocked to the Dec. 26, 2013 opening.
“We opened the day after Christmas,” Cecil Huber said. “It was supposed to be a soft opening, and we did 150 (dinners) that night. We weren’t ready for it ... but things have smoothed out since then.”
Top of the Lake is known for its classic American cuisine featuring entrées that were synonymous with the Hilltop and Sarrasin’s: steaks, seafood and pasta.
“They are all good sellers,” Cecil said. “One thing that the tourists really appreciate here is we have 99 percent local wines.”
“It’s classic American cuisine done right — big, bold flavors,” said Jay Gordner, one of the chefs. “We work with fresh ingredients and cook from scratch.
“I like to put my food up against anybody. We have a lot of good chefs here. All four of us have all run our own restaurants, so we have four executive local chefs. If you put care into your food, it’s going to taste great and look great, and people are going to want to come back and have it again.”
Cecil Huber, who grew up in Napa, Calif., was a civilian contractor who worked on submarines for the Department of the Navy for nearly 25 years. He met Susan, a 1972 Penn Yan Academy graduate, in Hawaii, where she was working at an officer’s club in Pearl Harbor after moving from Penn Yan.
The Hubers moved to Penn Yan in 1996. They bought the Liberty Restaurant on Elm Street, which features lunch and bar fare, in 2010.
“In a short time, we were packed over there,” Cecil said of the Liberty. “When (Top of the Lake) became available, it was a good time for us.”
Top of the Lake is busy during the summer months and slower in the winter. The Hubers recently added a downstairs tiki bar to go along with their upstairs main dining room, bar area and deck that offers a nice view of Keuka Lake.
“The Liberty is pretty good on its own. This is the one that takes more work,” Susan said. “I believe this is the biggest restaurant in Penn Yan.”