Adieu to the Tower Club

Ending an era, the restaurant with the best view in Ithaca falls victim to the economic downturn.   by Erin McKigney ’09 with Maura Stephens 

“The view is spectacular,” says Fred Wilcox, associate professor of writing. “You feel like you’re in an airplane looking out on the world.” Wilcox isn’t referring to a big-city skyscraper, but to the College’s Tower Club, a restaurant known for its breathtaking views, even on cloudy days.

The club is a quiet oasis. While dining atop the East Tower residence, guests view the entire city of Ithaca, miles of surrounding countryside, the southern third of Cayuga Lake and its inlets, and that institution over on East Hill. It’s probably safe to say there’s no more impressive vantage point for vast vistas in central New York.

 “In spite of how wonderful and beautiful it is,” says director of campus life services David Prunty, “it’s never been a sound financial venue.” Because of this, after nearly 44 years, the club will close on May 18, the day after Commencement. Hard economic times and a steady decline in clientele, Prunty says, have made the decision unavoidable.

The eatery opened in November 1965 as the Tower Faculty Club, an exclusive membership-based restaurant. The vision of President Howard Dillingham, the club operated six days a week for lunch and dinner and offered guests an array of fashionable cocktails. Membership was open to faculty and administrators from both IC and Cornell University, as well as to the College’s donors.

In the late ’60s, the club had some 1,000 dues-paying members who would regularly dine midday or in the evenings, and hosted College events. Members once enjoyed a regular all-you-can-eat buffet, flutes filled with bubbly champagne, and live music and dancing. Students were required to have a parental escort if dining at the club, and alumni desiring membership needed to be approved by the Tower Club Board of Directors. Members paid a $25 annual fee. Among the club’s biggest fans were some of IC’s most prominent figures, including Ben Light and several presidents.

Two decades ago the club changed its name to the Tower Club and opened its doors to the public. In 2000 Sodexo, the College’s dining service, took over operation of the restaurant, keeping it open for weekday lunch and special events.

The menu once catered to a sophisticated palate with heavy dishes such as filet mignon, roasted Long Island duckling, and “Danish brook trout sautéed in sweet butter and sherry wine sauce.” In decades past, members also enjoyed elaborate buffets; the price in the mid-1960s was $1.50 for “all you can eat.”

Times change. Today the club’s lunch menu has all taste buds covered and includes heart-healthy, vegetarian, and vegan options as well as more “traditional” fare. The price has gone up some, too, but patrons think it’s a good buy.

“You get great value for your money,” says Wilcox. “I think it’s one of the best restaurants in this area.”

Beth Roberts ’09 recently dined with other students and a prospective professor from her major on a Friday, when the restaurant traditionally serves a special buffet lunch. “The food and service were great,” she reports, “and it was packed.”

Jeff Scott, director of dining services, says Fridays are well attended with as many as 50 guests, and holiday meals (Mother’s Day and Easter, for example) and special events like Commencement and Family Weekend bring in a good crowd. But during the week the average number of customers hovers around 15 — not enough to keep the restaurant viable. Over the years, Prunty notes, the Tower Club has become less of an everyday dining spot and more of a special-occasion destination. “We’ve seen people spending a little less for those types of occasions,” he says, “and it’s definitely impacted the business.”

The steady decline is a reality many faculty, alumni, and loyal visitors to the restaurant wish they didn’t have to face. “I would go out of my way to encourage other people to eat there if I thought that would have anything to do with keeping the Tower Club open,” says Richard Baer Jr., a retired Cornell professor, “just because I love the spot.” Baer has enjoyed meals at the restaurant with his wife, Carol Peugh Baer, M.M.’75, for decades. He describes the Tower Club as a perfect spot for leisurely conversation. “We’ll miss it,” he says. “We have a certain disappointment and sense [that this is] an end of an era. I think that not just IC, but Ithaca, is losing one very valuable spot.”

Some question if stronger marketing efforts might have helped save the restaurant. Jack Hopper, an Ithaca community member, meets friends at least once a month at the Tower Club. “This is about publicity,” he says. “Give it a fair shake, and I’m sure the people who run it would be surprised and happy.”

Wilcox describes the Tower Club as a well-kept secret. “I live downtown,” he says. “When I talk to friends about the Tower Club, no one knows about it. I’ve always been rather amazed by that.”

Robert Bluey ’01, who sits on the College’s alumni board of directors, blogged about his disappointment at the closing of what he describes as a signature spot.

“The first time I [was ever at] the Tower Club was my freshman year,” he recalls. “It was the place where I met [the man who would become] my father-in-law for the first time, and my girlfriend met my dad.” As Ithacan editor his senior year, Bluey often met with the student government president at the Tower Club to discuss student affairs. “It was a great place for us to escape from the busy campus environment,” he says. “It was a nice getaway spot.”

Search committees often took prospective employees and important visitors or speakers to the club to enjoy the view, atmosphere, and food. Margie Arnold, associate professor and chair of the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, says the ambience allows people to network comfortably. “When I was applying for a position [at the College],” she recalls, “I was taken up to the Tower Club. It wasn’t the deciding factor, but it certainly made a positive impression on me while the College was recruiting.”

Over the next year the Tower Club will continue to serve the College for a variety of programming purposes, and the space will be available for catering and events to on- and off-campus customers. “The Tower Club is a special location here at Ithaca College,” Scott emphasizes. “It was a tough decision to make.” Administrators will begin to discuss future uses for the space.

The closing will eliminate five full-time positions in Dining Services, which is run by Sodexo. “We have discussed employment scenarios for all our staff,” Scott says, and he asserts he will try to help them find positions within the College.

The Tower Club will finish out the school year serving its cuisine to daily guests and preparing its signature lunch buffets for a variety of end-of-semester events. “I’m eager to visit the Tower Club at least one more time before it closes and I graduate,” says Roberts. “The view is something you aren’t going to get anywhere else.” 

1 Comment

The Tower Club was a classic. Sorry to see it's gone. It's where I proposed to my wife, and where I worked as a bartender in '73 & '74. Am bringing my sons, HS Juniors, to see Ithaca. That's the first place we thought of eating. Time for plan B.

Thanks Erin for posting such a thoughtful Adieu. George