Requiem for a restaurant: Pierce’s, since 1894

ELMIRA, N.Y. – Picture a restaurant in the same location for more than 100 years, since 1894 to be exact, and run all that time by one family.

It all began with a bit of luck. The patriarch, Crawford H. Pierce, bought two tickets, at $100 each, in a lottery for property. Sponsored by the Elmira Industrial Association, it was a promotion to develop Elmira Heights. The association purchased a large tract of farm land and promised to award lots to winning tickets drawn from a hat.

Three decanters (of 3,500) from Pierce’s 1894 Restaurant.

liquor decanter
liquor decanter
liquor decanter

In 1892, $200 was a great deal of money to risk, especially since Crawford’s business was making and selling straw hats. The chance paid off when he won 228 Oakwood located on the main thoroughfare between Elmira and Horseheads – it was a prime spot right on the trolley line.

Crawford Pierce soon erected a structure and opened a hat business on his new land. A second enterprise, the Double Decker Cigar Factory, took over the second floor. Pierce then found space in the structure for a modest lunch room with bar, and so a dynasty began. The food service officially registered the name “Pierce’s Restaurant” in 1949 under the leadership of Joseph S. Pierce, the third generation owner. As the restaurant grew, so did the building. Adding a room or two at a time, the expansions turned into the imposing structure it remains today, and the restaurant became the sole occupant filling each space with unusual fixtures and charm.

During the Depression era changes had to be made to survive a disastrous economy. The family lived on one of the upper floors, fixed trucks and cars, sold gas, included a pool hall and eliminated the bar. (As soon as the government repealed Prohibition, Pierce’s was again ready to offer a 5-cent glass of beer.) It was the only service station for several miles thus allowing the Pierces to weather the lean years. The family still owns the original oil truck used during the 1930s and it has been professionally restored.

The 1894 room was fashioned in opulent Edwardian style. It opened in 1964 and could seat 200 guests. Every detail in this memorable room was designed by Lee Pierce. Huge chandeliers made to her specifications contained the Three Graces in the center with numerous cherub branches holding delicate etched globes of light. The walls were made from exotic rosewood panels and were complimented by a deep red color scheme.

A Victorian parlor included brass fixtures where light was filtered through cranberry and ruby glass shades. Belgian velvet drapes in antique rose cascaded from 10-foot ceilings, pooling on the floors near hand carved love seats. Numerous other dining rooms were all decorated with unique themes.

Deborah Pierce, one of the current generation of owners, delights in relating the more interesting details of the restaurant. She says famous entertainers from many eras dined at Pierce’s and a few of them include: Gene Barry, Harry Belafonte, Vincent Price, Lucille Ball, and Tony Bennett. There were also some of the most well known racing participants who came from the Watkins Glen track for an evening of elegant dining. Paul Newman, Mario Andretti, and Dale Earnhardt all enjoyed Pierce’s hospitality. “We always felt that the restaurant should be an oasis and endeavored to keep the dining experience private for all, so no photos or autographs were collected,” said Deb.

Of course, the property is haunted. Deb claims there are at least two regular haunts: Emma, who wanders through the dining rooms rearranging the silverware at night, and Gottfried, who was an executive chef for 25 years. He shows up whenever there is a new chef or when he wants to remind the staff that he is still around. He will knock over a pan or two or drop a few pan lids off the shelf or might even flicker the lights in the kitchen. These apparitions alone would have made the restaurant worth a visit. Perhaps the phantom chef just wanted to make sure some the unusual ingredients in his vintage recipes were still being incorporated in the menu. Fresh violet leaves were added to salads, and the secret ingredient for the Pierce’s ham loaf was an equal amount of veal.

Or, was the spirit checking on the wine cellar, reputed to be one of the finest in America? In 1984 nationwide news was made in the cellar when the world’s most expensive bottle of wine was shared among 22 guests. It was an 1806 bottle worth $28,000. All the profits from the $1,500 per person dinner went to charity. The Pierce family has kept the massive wine table from the fabulous cellar dining room, the top of which is embedded with wine labels and “memories.”

With all this history behind the restaurant it should have lasted forever but, facing an increasingly stressful economy, the family enterprise finally closed its doors for good in 2008 and the entire operation and building are for sale. But this is not the final chapter. During the 115 years of Pierce ownership the décor changed considerably. Each generation added to collections and furnishings. The 10-foot ceilings provided plenty of room for shelves, which is a good thing, since the number of decanters reached more than 3,500 and dated from 1940 through 1980. One exceptional decanter is Baccarat crystal.

Fortunately, Deborah Pierce is a partner in O’Shaughnessey Antiques in Watkins Glen, N.Y. She and partner Louise O’Shaughnessey are in the process of selling thousands of items from the restaurant. There are tapestries and needlepoint pictures of massive proportions on display. Mary Queen of Scots, abdicating her throne, is depicted in stunningly colorful threads, worked by Eliza Kellar Radcliffe when she was a student at a seminary in Rochester. Eliza was born in 1854 and died in 1886.

The shop walls and cabinets are full of Pierce’s history. Flatware, dishes, linens, lighting fixtures and furniture are all for sale. A collection of art from the restaurant walls flank a pair of 4-foot tall mirrors originally used as windows in a 19th century pub in England. The glass was brought back on a family trip and silvered in Philadelphia. The shimmering etched glass pieces now await a new owner.

Among the most unique treasures for sale is a rare Victorian dessert service for 18 cast in English sterling then overlaid with gold. The three-dimensional pieces have tiny sculptures of an apostle on each spoon, fork and knife. They were only used for very special dinners in the wine cellar dining room.

Louise O’Shaughnessy says she has felt privileged to be able to help the Pierce family through the difficult transition of closing the restaurant and sending their unique collections and memorabilia to new homes. “I have been a friend of the family for 35 years and feel great sorrow at the closing of a truly magical place. I have wonderful memories of the times I spent at the restaurant and even now cannot view an old menu without picturing in my mind the Chateaubriand, the chocolate brick mousse and so many other delicacies. The Pierce family became part of the extended family of everyone who ate at the restaurant,” Louise said.

One of the most elegant restaurants in New York State will now reside only in whispers from the past, and in the homes and businesses of people who have purchased the part of Pierce’s history.

If you’d like to own a piece of Pierce’s Restaurant or view other fine antiques, visit

O’Shaughnessy Antiques
213 B. Franklin & 300 N. Franklin St.
Watkins Glen, NY

Fine art, antiques, estate jewelry, vintage designer clothing, estate liquidations and expert appraisals.