A return visit to the New Your capital: Albany offers fun food, good shopping and historic sites

By Mike Cohen

The New York Capital in Albany.

ALBANY, NEW YORK – The last time I was in the United States for a getaway was just a few months before the pandemic shut down the world. We had gone for a change of scenery to the New York capital of Albany, where you can count on good shopping and fun restaurants.

Four years later, while I was on holiday from my day job for March Break, I figured that a few days in Albany (https://www.albany.org/)   would be a good idea and I was right. Between the two large malls,  meals at some of my favorite restaurants and a terrific hotel I did indeed come back feeling refreshed.

Albany is a 400-year-old city on the banks of the Hudson River. Discovered in 1609 by Henry Hudson, this city is the oldest continuously chartered city in the country — that means it’s older than New York City or Boston! Albany is a great city to explore because it’s full of so many engaging attractions and must-see sites! But Albany is also a city of storytellers, who want very much to welcome visitors and acquaint them with our fun and quirky history. Let us tell you about this quintessentially American city! 

From museums and historic sites in downtown Albany to scenic views and outdoor adventures in the Helderberg Hilltowns, Albany County boasts a variety of must-see attractions. Tour top landmarks, explore the rich landscape, or visit one of the world-class museums for a trip that is beyond conventional.

Albany lies at the foot of the Adirondacks and Catskill Mountains and is at the tip of the historic Hudson Valley Region

Be sure to check out the Million Dollar Staircase, the awe-inspiring “Egg” at the Empire State Plaza and many diverse examples of historic house sites and public spaces such as the Pruyn House and the first Shaker Meeting House. You can visit the magnificent Gothic structure, now the Administrative Center of the State University of New York, the Delaware and Hudson, and the Albany Evening Journal Buildings, located at the base of State Street.

There is an abundance of professional theatre, music, dance, sports, and a backyard full of recreational splendors. As the crossroads of the northeast, Albany is easily accessible by car, train, and plane and is located less than three hours from New York and Boston. 

The master bedroom is in the one-bedroom queen suite.

WHERE TO STAY: On my previous trip here I noticed that a dual-brand Homewood Suites  & Tru by Hilton had just opened. Wow, one of my favorite hotel brands is literally in the parking lot of Crossgates Mall. I jotted that all down for future reference and we were most fortunate to get a beautiful one-bedroom suite on the Homewood side. A big shoutout to front office manager Bonnie Bevilacqua. We arrived late due to traffic and some other circumstances and she came to our room to set us up and resolve a few minor issues. Throughout the next three days, she worked the lobby, checking to see if any guests needed anything.

This 192-room extended stay facility was the first dual-branded Homewood Suites and Tru by Hilton in the USA when it debuted in 2018. It features two separate areas designed for each brand, unique public spaces designed to promote social connectivity, a 24-hour fitness center, an indoor pool, outdoor grills, sports courts and an airport shuttle. The hotel offers a meeting room and a business centre. The different lobby and dining spaces are extremely large and offer all of the comforts of home and more. There is 24-hour complimentary coffee and tea in the Tru by Hilton lobby.

Our room had a kitchen, stovetop, fridge, dishwasher,  microwave, coffee maker and all of the necessary dishes and cutlery. There were two televisions, two queen-sized beds in the master and a safe (always a must for us) as well as  a pull-out couch in the spacious large living room area

I was beyond impressed with the complimentary hot and cold morning breakfast, from the neat pancake machine to the array of bagels, English muffins, cereals, yogurts and hot and cold drinks. Next to the front desk, there is a small market to purchase refreshments and light bites.

The breakfast area at Homewood Suites Crossgates.

The hotel is conveniently located at the intersection of Interstates 87 and 90, offering guests access to numerous dining, retail and entertainment options within walking distance. It is a six-minute drive from Albany International Airport and a 30-minute drive from Saratoga Springs leisure attractions. In addition, the property is proximate to renowned universities and research centers such as the University of Albany, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Siena College, Union College, and SUNY Polytechnic College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.

A view of the dual-brand hotel property.

For more information or to make a reservation, visit Homewood Suites By Hilton Albany Crossgates Mall or Tru by Hilton Albany Crossgates Mall or call +1 (518) 704-4040 or +1 (518) 704-4010.

Log on to www.albanycrossgatesmall.homewoodsuitesbyhilton.com

or www.albanycrossgatesmall.trubyhilton.com

GREAT SHOPPING:  Over the last few years the team at Crossgates has been sending me press releases about the property. Let me say that this mall has always been one of the draws for me when visiting Albany. The vast majority of entrances are ADA accessible with ample parking distributed throughout the site. You can rent wheelchairs.

Dave & Buster’s at Crossgates.

Crossgates (https://www.shopcrossgates.com/)  is the largest shopping, dining, and entertainment destination in New York’s Capital Region. The center is anchored by Macy’s, JC  Penney, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Primark and Best Buy, while offering more than 180 retail shops, including Apple.  Crossgates offers 10 entertainment venues and over 20 on-site eateries, such as Dave & Buster’s, Get Air, Billy Beez, Apex Entertainment, The Standard Restaurant & Lounge, Maggie McFly’s and Regal Cinemas with IMAX. You can also relax at their award-winning day spa, Spa Mirbeau.   Dave & Buster’s, with its fun food and endless array of games, is always a draw for people of all ages. I spent a good hour there until my power card ran out. You collect points for every game you experience. At the end, the power cards are tabulated at the gift shop and you can pick a prize. I also could not resist a visit to Antie Ann’s Pretzels, a big American chain that has been around since 1988. A homemade pretzel and an original pretzel dog certainly hit the spot.

Dave & Buster’s at Crossgates.

 See this nostalgic 1984 video of the Mall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Nm9WHBp3Lg 

“Crossgates has a lot going on, and we are so grateful for it,” said Marketing Director Jen Smith. “We have over 240 apartments and townhouses being built adjacent to our property, and we are in the final stages of the approval processes to build a Costco on the land, just west of the hotel. Last year we opened the international retailer Primark in the center and this year we will be welcoming the very sought-after REI, amongst many other tenants. Big things are  happening!” 

Colonie Center (https://shopatcoloniecenter.com/), a 1.3 million square-foot enclosed two-level, regional shopping center with over 100 specialty stores, is at the heart of New York’s Capital Region. The center is anchored by a three-level Macy’s. The center boasts the only Cheesecake Factory Restaurant and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro in the Capital Region and a state-of-the-art all-digital Regal Cinema with a newly renovated RPX theater. Additional sit-down eateries include Five Guys Burgers & Fries and Moe’s Southwest Grill as well as the second-level food court. The center sits at the intersection of Wolf Road and Central Avenue, is just five minutes from the Albany International Airport and major hotel chains and is accessible from Interstates 87 and 90.

We also came across a unique shoe store called Fleet Feet at 155 Wolf Road. It carries comfortable, high-quality performance footwear and gear for running and walking. When we arrived two young sales persons took care of us,  T.J. and Jessica. You are first asked to step onto their 3D Foot Scanning Technology. Their state-of-the-art fit I.D. scanner captures 12 precise data points to construct a 3D image of your foot. Measurements like foot length, width volume, and arch height help them select the best shoes for one’s unique feet.  Log on to www.fleetfeetalbany.com

The author at Red Lobster.

RED LOBSTER: As people who read my articles regularly are aware, I have been a big fan of the Red Lobster restaurant chain for many years. Unfortunately, it disappeared from the Quebec dining landscape in the late 1990s.  There are two locations in Ottawa, but when we visited Albany, New York we made a bee-line for the Red Lobster at 170 Wolf Road.

Red Lobster is the world’s largest and most-loved seafood restaurant company, focused on serving the highest quality, freshly prepared seafood that is traceable, sustainable, and responsibly sourced.

I was greeted by the manager on duty, Daniel Rogers. Upon learning that I was from Montreal, he began speaking French to me. He’s from Atlanta but picked up the language in school. In addition, he comes to Montreal often

It was nice to connect with  General Manager Crystal Franchi and   Beverage and Hospitality Manager Dean Stringfellow. This location can seat about 230 people in a very large dining room, separated by a bar in the middle. They also have a seasonal patio for about 20 people. The parking lot is quite large, a good thing since it tends to fill up before dinnertime. 

We ordered the Lobster Lover’s Dream and the Lobster Lover’s Duo with two sides and their trademark cheddar biscuits.  Both meals include  Roasted Caribbean rock and Maine lobster tails. The Dream is also paired with lobster-and-shrimp linguini. For sides, we chose the orzo rice and the creamy lobster mashed potatoes.  I could not resist a bowl of New England clam chowder,  piping hot. We were too full to take advantage of any dessert choices.

My greatest wish remains that Red Lobster returns to Montreal one day. I’d eat there once a week for sure. There is no place like it here right now. Montrealers travel to Albany frequently, either for a long weekend like us or on the way to or from New York City, Washington, or Florida. So indeed this is a must-stop. And given the fact Daniel already speaks French, here we have an experienced Red Lobster official who could get the first franchise up and running.

The very first Red Lobster opened in Lakeland, Florida in 1968.  

This Red Lobster is located at 170 Wolf Road. It opens at 11 am each day. You can call 518-459-1040. To learn more about Red Lobster go to www.redlobster.com

CHEESECAKE FACTORY:  The  Cheesecake Factory also ranks as one of my must-stops in cities like Albany. Of course, Quebec does not have one of these franchises either. The Albany location opened on August 29, 2006, at the Colonie Centre. This 10,800-square-foot locale seats 300 diners and you can always expect a lineup at the door. You will be handed a beeper and an estimated wait time. 

In Albany, Senior General Manager David Albert runs a well-oiled machine.  He has been at the helm of this busy location for 18 years and has an uncanny memory for customers. I had not been there for four years, yet I did not have to reintroduce myself to him or his assistant GM Richard Harris.

The service here is always impeccable and the food is superb.

Cheesecake Factory manager Richard Harris.

The Cheesecake Factory (www.thecheesecakefactory.com) is known for its extensive menu, generous portions and legendary desserts. In fact, there are more than 250 menu selections and this includes more than 50 lower calorie “SkinnyLicious®” selections- all handmade, in-house with fresh ingredients – and more than 50 signature cheesecakes and desserts. Favorite choices include appetizers, pizza, seafood, steaks, chicken, burgers, pasta, specialty items, salads, sandwiches, omelets and desserts.

I know many people who stop here on purpose just to enjoy the experience.  Toronto has one too now yet  Montreal continues to be left out in the cold. Perhaps there is a fear that the language police here would insist it be called La Fabrique de Gâteau au fromage.

We began our meal by sharing a crab wonton meal as a starter, along with a cheese flatbread pizza. For the main courses, the SkinnyLicious offerings, notably the grilled turkey burgers which we can report are out of this world, always top our list. For us, the latter came with a side salad. In addition, our order included a filet mignon medium rare with rice and magnificent mashed potatoes with gravy on the side.

There are multiple fish, pasta and beef options, meal-sized salads and a whole lot more. Give the menu a look online.

As for dessert, well this place is called  The Cheesecake Factory. The window display of pies kind of knocks your socks off when you enter the premises. After dinner, you can review the menu one more time, which includes a calorie count. Favorites include the Godiva chocolate cheesecake, the Oreo Dream Extreme cheesecake, the ultimate red velvet cheesecake and the Reese’s peanut butter cheesecake. This is one dessert menu where I don’t even think about the calorie count.

This Cheesecake Factory remains a real winner in our books and I highly recommend you stop by. You can call them directly at 518-453-2500. There is a large Barnes & Noble bookstore in the mall, a great pre or post-dining stop and the movie theatres.

Yes, Albany remains one of my favorite stops!