Helsinki Hudson

helsinki hudson dance class

By Casey Normile

The owners of Helsinki Hudson have a goal: to bring the community of Hudson together through food and music. And after only two and a half years, they say they're pretty happy with their progress.

The club moved to Hudson about two years ago after 15 years in Great Barrington. Owners Deborah McDowell and Marc Schafler say they wanted a bigger space that they could own themselves, and a spot closer to Shafler's home in Columbia County.

"But we also really wanted to be an integral part of the change in Hudson and help in their renewal," says McDowell.

"Let me tell you something," Schafler, "Hudson is happening."

So what exactly do they see happening in Hudson?

As McDowell and Schafler restored their 19th century former industrial building over the last five years, they say they've watched Hudson evolve significantly -- new restaurants, new businesses, new crowds.

McDowell explains: "You definitely see a change here. There are a lot more musicians here, for sure. It's an appealing town, you don't need a car really, the river is splendid, and a lot of people are moving here and they're coming to work on the town."

"It's a community that's growing in all directions," adds Schafler. "It comes from a lot of ingredients. It's less than two hours away from Manhattan, it's affordable, it's got beautiful architecture and the Hudson River Valley has always drawn artisans."

But, most importantly, they say it's a town that's willing to try something new.

"Here there's a great desire for people to do things differently. They want to get outside the whole 'box-store' mentality and have a more hands-on approach to the social and economic factors. They're pioneers," says Schafler.

The original Club Helsinki was named after the Hotel Helsinki in Finland, where McDowell's grandfather worked. After being raised in a family of artists, musicians, and playwrights, McDowell says she realized her life should always be in theater. So she paired up with Schafler, a builder and designer, to make Helsinki a reality in Great Barrington. With the move to Hudson, their team has expanded to include Cameron Melville, a musician, and chef Hugh Horner.

All week long

helsinki hudson restaurant

Today, Helsinki Hudson has something going on almost every night of the week. McDowell and Schafler say they're not just a concert venue or a restaurant, they're also a sort of community center. Instead of only scheduling shows for the weekend crowd, they also host events during the week, like open mics and shows by local bands. They also host dance lessons, hula hoop classes, marching band practices, parties, weddings, fundraisers, and even a children's summer music camp. Sometimes all in one night. If there's a dance lesson upstairs, a packed restaurant, and a concert going on in one night, they call that "the trifecta."

"It doesn't feel like a job, it feels like a mission. People need to be together instead of in front of a television by themselves. We want to be a place where people can come and work out their creativity, where people can get together and be joyful," says McDowell. "I just feel really indebted to the town of Hudson for embracing us."

A draw -- for performers

helsinki hudson show

Along with those hoop classes and open mics, Helsinki Hudson has also managed to book a series a good shows from national performers. Among the many acts that have come through the club this year: Wye Oak, Sharon Van Etten, The Magnetic Fields, the Antlers, Thurston Moore, Joseph Arthur, and Steve Earle.

McDowell and Schafler say relationships and contacts formed over their 17 years in the business have helped them book good shows. And McDowell says the club has at least one other advantage: its food.

"We've been doing this for a long time and one thing the artists love is the great food. Sharon Jones spent a huge amount of time in the kitchen, just trying things out and talking to the chef. On the road, artists don't get to eat very good food and it's really rare for a venue to have first class cuisine, so our menu is definitely a draw."

"Good food and good music will bring people of all equations together," says Schafler, "and that's how you build community. "

And that's what the duo says they're ultimately trying to do: to help lift the community they've become a part of.

"Hudson is going to continue on the path that its on now," says Schafler, "more creative people are finding this a place to hang their hat. Because it's an affordable, creative and productive community that makes them feel like a part of something. It feels like a small town, but with a lot of creativity."

Earlier on AOA:
+ Truck pizza in Hudson
+ More about that Marina Abramović/Rem Koolhaas project in Hudson
+ Inside Etsy Hudson

photos courtesy of Helsinki Hudson / Will Chilton

Find It

Helsinki Hudson
405 Columbia Street
Hudson, NY 12534


Made it down to Helsinki Hudson for the first time last month for the Magnetic Fields show and had an excellent time. Will definitely keep an eye out for upcoming show there, it's a wonderful venue!

You should do a poll to see what percentage of AOA readers went to the Magnetic Fields show. Really, what a cool place! Love it.

I was the Magnetic Fields show, but the one back in March. I'm jealous of Hudson.

Helsinki Hudson is fantastic. Top notch venue for shows, and the food really is wonderful.

See you again for Eilen next week!

I've wanted to go visit this place for a while now, but I'm a little confused. Can I just show up on a Saturday night around 7p and be able to sit down (eventually) for dinner, or will there be a concert going on instead? Any advice for a 1st-timer?

Sean, there may be a concert going on while you're there, but they have a large dining room separate from the room with the stage, seating and small dining tables.

I've only been there for the two Magnetic Fields shows, but at both they had a video camera pointed at the stage, and the feed is sent to TVs in the separate dining room... sooo you can actually see the concert if you're dining in the other room. (There are just enough TVs and they are out of the way enough that it's not sensory overload - so don't fear a sports bar atmosphere)

@Sean: depends on the show. The first Magnetic Fields show was sold out weeks in advance for example. I saw the last one a couple of weeks ago and while we had our tix this time, all tables in the "concert" part had been reserved way in advance as well. There are, however, tables in the back where you can have dinner, you can't see the stage but you can hear the show somehow. You could certainly have dinner there, but by the time you are done you better hurry up to find a spot on a chair or a bench in the stage area, it fills up really fast. This isn't that bad really, that's what I like about that place, it's intimate and the sound system is great for that space. So yes, my advice is to buy in advance, and call to reserve a table if you can, this won't hurt, especially for "bigger" acts like MF or Sharon Van Etten earlier this year. If you are on your own, sure, you can also try to show up at the last moment, but try to find a seat during the first act. You won't regret it, this is a great venue. The food... it's alright, I prefer Cafe Le Perche, Swoon, Red Dot, Mexican Radio or Le Gamin (or Crimson Sparrow if you have some cash to spare and a mind ready to get blown).

I actually went there for a show that wasn't for Magnetic Fields, but rather Wye Oak. Saw them at Valentine's last November and had to see them again. The space is very nice, my first time in a cabaret-style restaurant setting. I felt a little odd eating as the opening act was playing, but the food was so good that I didn't mind. The Red and Black Sesame tuna was the best I've ever had, seriously, and I still compare all other tuna to it. Looking forward to going back for a show and to try the fried chicken. And of course other shows. Hudson is a lovely town to visit. Well worth the trip.

Went to Hudson a few weekends ago after last having been around 15 years ago and wowie! what a change. If you come in from the north you drive past strip mall/stores that could be Anycrummytown, USA, then once you get into town you are essentially in Brooklyn. The "bones" were already there (ie rowhouses, etc) and since it is two hours (including stops) by train from NYC it was poised for rejuvenation. (I wonder if the locals have a love/hate relationship with the city folk, but there's no doubt a ton of spending dollars have come to the area) I picked up my cousin from the train station and we wandered around on a gorgeous fall day. We also did the tour at Olana which is mere minutes away. Going there is highly recommended--the views from the house are breathtaking.

It was the same weekend as FilmColumbia but I don't know if that had anything to do with our Peter Dinklage sighting. so there was that, too.

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