PERTH - James Palmateer neither cooked nor dined at the first Top Notch Tavern, but when the 21-year-old and his two business partners bought the old gathering place last year, he already had a good sense of history.
It was his grandmother, Doreen Palmateer, who turned the 1840s hotel and saloon into a popular watering hole and biker bar that became the centerpiece of the town's West Galway neighborhood in the 1970s. It was his father, Bob who literally grew up in the restaurant, moving upstairs with his family at age 5 and learning the business at the side of its cooks, bartenders, waitstaff and dishwashers.
And it's now James, two years removed from high school, who is ready to leave his generation's mark on the family business as he prepares to roll up the dust covers, roll in the kegs and fire up the Vulcan range in the kitchen ... just as soon as he hears from his business partners.
The Top Notch Tavern in Perth is shown on June 15. (Bill Trojan/The Leader-Herald)
He's been waiting several months, and he now fears this bump in the road could derail a future that hasn't even started.
James Palmateer and two minority partners that make up 712 West Galway LLC paid $62,500 on Dec. 28 to acquire the restaurant, which sits on the corner of County Highway 132 and West Galway Road, with the front door in Perth and the back door in Galway. But he didn't tell his parents.
"They didn't know anything until a week before," he said. "But this is more about family than anything."
Palmateer and partners Tom Tambasco of Amsterdam and Rosemary McGeehan of New Jersey sank about $80,000 into renovating the tired space, installing new wood floors and carpeting, building a parking lot and undertaking an ambitious upgrade at the bar, which now sports a copper laminate finish and high-end beer taps.
But it's still the old Top Notch, where customers would dine in the old barn with its rough wooden walls, and drink in the cozy bar just past the wraparound porch where motorcycle enthusiasts used to congregate on sticky summer nights. Upstairs, in the apartments still under renovation, layers of paint and wallcoverings have been peeled away to reveal the original wallpaper from when it was the West Galway Hotel.
"That would have been a very important building back then in West Galway," said Perth Historical Society President Sylvia Zierak. "At one point, the horses and wagons were put underneath and they had dancing overhead. It's always had history."
It became the Top Notch when Doreen and her husband, David, bought it in 1968. Doreen earned the nickname Charlie "because she worked like a man - she was the cook, the waitress the bartender and she raised eight kids," James Palmateer said.
The place became legendary for its prime ribs, steaks and camaraderie.
The tavern stayed in the family through David's death in 1974, and Doreen's eventual marriage to Walter Porath. They sold the restaurant in 1978 and moved to Florida, only to return in 1980 and open the Raindancer Restaurant on Route 30 halfway across town.
The family legacy has endured, with the Poraths still at the Raindancer 30 years later and Bob Palmateer and his wife, Carla, opening Charlie's Restaurant, named in honor of his mother, about 3,000 feet north. But the Top Notch struggled, flailing through decades of ownership changes and reinventions - it was last an Italian restaurant, and its roof still sports garish stripes of red, white and green - before falling silent three years ago.
James Palmateer hoped to recapture the family magic and open the Top Notch by Valentine's Day, but that's when communication with his partners hit a snag. He then dreamed of a Mother's Day opening, but by then, the talking had stopped.
"They don't talk to me anymore except through lawyers," said Palmateer, who said he owns 54 percent of the business.
Tambasco did not return calls for comment. McGeehan, who said she and Tambasco are old friends, said she is only a 10 percent owner of the building and stays out of the loop.
"It's a beautiful, historic place, and everyone seems to want to see it open," she said in a phone interview.
James Palmateer, a self-employed electrical contractor with a Broadalbin-Perth High School and Hudson Valley Community College education behind him, said he's been doing most of the renovations himself, but not without frequent, pleasant interruptions.
"The neighbors walk over and ask if I need a hand. Two cars an hour stop. One guy came over and just started scraping wallpaper with me," he said. "People just want to see it back open."
Palmateer said Tambasco offered him $20,000 if he'd sign over the restaurant, but he had no interest in giving up his piece of the family heritage. Bob Palmateer, who had to close his own restaurant earlier this year because the state Department of Environmental Conservation said the septic system was "faulty," said concerns about the potential for similar problems at the Top Notch are clouding the partners' outlook.
With no usable septic system, no hope of a municipal sewer system and an engineered septic system out of easy reach at hundreds of thousands of dollars, Charlie's is twisting in the wind as the Palmateers debate the future. The restaurant's website has gone dark, and its parking lot now houses overflow cars from a nearby dealership. Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman David Winchell said the septic line is plugged so the state will soon close its investigation, but not without issuing an order on consent - a civil penalty that will keep the environmental problems out of criminal court in exchange for a hefty fine.
"I always thought it could move forward. I always thought it was resolvable," Bob Palmateer said. "And then we got the numbers and had to refocus."
The Palmateers and their company, whose corporate name is Prime Expectations, also are facing a claim from an Albany linen company for alleged nonpayment and a lawsuit from Amsterdam and Mayfield restaurateur Michael Russo, who owned Michael's Restaurant on the same site until 2008. Russo claims the Palmateers did not stay current with a $200,000 loan, but the Palmateers justified their repayment method in a court filing, and the case has yet to enter the state Supreme Court system.
Bob Palmateer, who is now working as sous chef for a large Albany-area caterer, would be a consulting chef at the new Top Notch - an experienced kitchen guide who would understand the need to cultivate loyal customers while navigating the minefields of surging food costs, quality control, inflexible customers and, as he's learned, temperamental restaurant septic systems that don't like to digest the diet of grease, oil and other fats they're constantly fed.
But with the partners at loggerheads, does he see it happening?
"I'd love to think so," he said. "I'd love to say yes."
James Palmateer said it will take $30,000 and about three months to fine-tune renovations, stock the kitchen and bar, hire a staff and throw open the doors. Too late to draw in overflow dining crowds from Saratoga Springs during racing season, but not too late to step into the family restaurant footprint.
Two weeks ago, be began an online fundraising initiative through web-based FundRazr.com, which brought in more than $500 in the first five days. The page can be accessed through the restaurant's Facebook page, www.facebook.com/topnotchtavern.
"I bought this place saying whatever happens happens," he said. "Let's just get it back."