There are a lot of sayings about how working together produces something better, like the famous “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction” (C.S. Lewis). But what happens when you put together 19 heads?
In 1973, a small group of Ithacans came together to form the Moosewood collective. The handful of friends eventually turned into 19 food fanatics who hoped to emphasize the importance of natural vegetarian cuisine that is locally and sustainably sourced.
It’s safe to say their goal has been achieved. Moosewood has been a successful pillar in the Ithaca community for 49 years, but also has a greater influence on vegetarians all over. The restaurant’s success led the collective to publish 13 cookbooks in its time, selling five million books in nearly 50 years. It has received critical acclaim from Ithacans and people around the world, including praise from The New York Times, Bon Appetit and the James Beard Foundation.
In 2022, it was announced Moosewood had a new owner: Danica Wilcox. She’s the daughter of Kip Wilcox, a member of the collective and previous chef at Moosewood, specializing in desserts.
“My mother has been part of the collectives starting in the early 80s, so I grew up at Moosewood; in the kitchen, doing my homework and waiting for her to be done with work. It was my first job, washing dishes and making salads. And then I waited tables there for several summers and Moosewood is really kind of like my home.”
After the trials and tribulations around the pandemic time, the collective began to discuss what would happen to Moosewood.
“When they decided to sell, I was actually looking for somebody else to buy it from them. But then, it just made sense for it to be me… the collective was like a family to me, so it feels very much like a second generation taking over the business.”
Upon first hearing this, devoted Moosewood fans may fear that the second generation owner has plans to take the historic restaurant in a different direction. While Wilcox has made changes within the interior, exterior and general operations, they aren’t so much steps forward as they are steps back to Moosewood’s roots.
“I think really what we wanted to do was to strip Moosewood down to its bones. In doing that, we took up the carpet and in doing so, revealed more of the woodwork and space,” said Wilcox
Another part of her changes has been a move back to some of the elements the restaurant had when it first opened, including the table settings. Bringing back the “original look and feel” of when it first opened has been a priority.
“We put the original signs back up, and we have mismatched plates on the table, which is how it was in the beginning,” explained Wilcox.
Moosewood’s menu has changed many times, but this current menu’s picks are also very purposeful. Under Wilcox and co, the hope is to bring it back to its focus on sustainability, with elements from local businesses at the forefront. This can be seen countless times on the menu, including a Wide Awake Bakery sourdough, chevre from Lively Run Goat Farm, sheep milk tomme from Nettle Meadow Farm and carrots from Stick & Stone.
“Obviously, there’s things that we can’t get here, like olive oil, that are crucial to vegetarian cooking. But, there’s a lot of things… if we can get it here, we will. And trying to integrate as many of the local producers as we can into the menus.”
As for changes that are truly “new” to Moosewood, Wilcox is trying to move toward more outdoor elements, despite challenges with Ithaca weather.
“We have plans for the patio and have a kitchen garden, and really make it a very green space and extend the patio in the front of the restaurant with awnings and tables,” explained Wilcox. “It’ll also be a much more vital outdoor dining experience available throughout the summer.”
As you sit at a table at Moosewood, people around you reminiscing and remembering the past isn’t uncommon. Being around for 49 years brings a load of history. Crosby and Nash once shared drinks at the bar, and Allen Ginsberg ended his dinner with a Moosewood brownie and black coffee. Even the Grateful Dead stopped by during their trip for Cornell’s Barton Hall show, only to go unrecognized by the members of the collective.
On a Thursday night, seated in the newly-redone dining room, groups of old friends can be overheard reflecting on menu changes, praising the new local wines list and rejoicing in the continued presence of the Moosewood brownie years later.
Moosewood will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year, a big accomplishment for a small business, especially in a town like Ithaca. In a Facebook comment, Moosewood revealed there’s a 50th anniversary cookbook in the works to celebrate. Wilcox sees this maturing as an opportunity for the restaurant to grow in new ways and refine what it wants to showcase to the world.
“I think of Moosewood as a 50-year-old. She’s going to be 50 next year, and now she needs to be an elegant woman and not a hippy diner,” Wilcox said with a little smile. “She’s coming into herself now I think, in a way. So, I wanted to recognize her—the heritage of Moosewood—and give her that dignity.”
Art by Julia Young.