The Epic Tale Behind New York’s 'The Long Island Bar'
The Long Island Bar was The Long Island Restaurant long before we got ahold of it. A Spanish immigrant named Ramon Montero built it either in 1949 or 1951, depending on varying recollections from the family. His daughter Emma told us both years at different points. She was sharp as a razor, but she was in her late 90s, so you have to give her a bit of rope there. I go with 1949 still, when people ask.
Emma said her father had a number of bars lining the blocks of Atlantic Avenue leading down to the harbor during the Second World War, when that bight was filled with warships and that avenue was bristling with sailors and stevedores. “And above each one,” she noted, “a brothel.” Emma too was from Spain, and an exceedingly upright and pious woman. Thinking she may have misconstrued the word, I asked if she knew what that meant exactly, a brothel? “Of course,” she sputtered, “prostitutes! He became a millionaire during the war, then he sold everything off and moved back to La Coruña.”
He sold the bar to Emma and her husband, Buddy Sullivan, a handsome young Irishman. The neighborhood, Cobble Hill on the cusp of Brooklyn Heights, is now the costliest real estate in the city, but back then was a mean-spirited area. The stevedores who frequented the bar, given its proximity to the harbor, were all Spanish and Irish, and they fought constantly. Further down Atlantic Avenue it was largely all Arabic, she told me, and obviously as you descended south through Cobble Hill and into Carroll Gardens it became all Italians. Next to the bar is a children’s playground now that used to be a notorious alleyway in the 50’s, she said, when every week there would be a corpse thrown there from the gangs fighting. You looked to see whether it was a Spaniard or an Irishman, to tell which it would be next week in retaliation.
Buddy and Emma, along with Emma’s two cousins Maruja and Pepita, ran the restaurant for nearly six decades, 56 years, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. seven days a week, without a single other employee. They had kids, and the bar’s back room was where they had dinner, the basement, eventually the playground for their grandchildren. Emma died just last year at 98. Though she owned several buildings in the neighborhood and was a millionaire on paper many times over, she lived much of her life in the same ground floor apartment across the street from the bar, together with Pepita and Maruja, like three cats in a bag. Every summer they would go for an extended Holiday back to Spain.
Old-school Brooklyn, her work ethic was tungsten and she would pinch a nickel until it shrieked. Once, happening past the bar, she motioned to me from outside and confided to me in great seriousness that she’d espied through the crack in the sidewalk gate that there’s clearly a lightbulb left on down in the basement, and felt sure I would want to take care of that. I asked her once why she never hired anyone to help them out, even as they got older and, sometime around 1974, Buddy succumbed to emphysema. Her eyes widened in response: “Because you can’t trust ‘em!” “No, certainly,” I countered, “but you can make them mop the floors and do the dishes. There’s a certain tradeoff there…” She pursed her lips disdainfully and shook her head at me, the sad embodiment of the dissolute, modern tavern-keep.
They ran the bar, in the waning years, basically on fumes. They own the building and made plenty on renting the apartments above; they didn’t need any real trade and didn’t court any. They just opened for a few hours in the afternoon or evening, she told me, to have vermouth with soda and watch the soaps or Spanish soccer with old friends from the neighborhood. If they didn’t know you, she said, they would just ignore you. I can confirm this personally. In the 80’s I had a friend who lived just nearby on Amity Street. Once she and I ventured through that foreboding portal. It seemed the kind of seedy old spot that might prove a hidden gem. We were resolutely ignored until we finally made our puzzled retreat.
They finally closed the restaurant in 2008, coincidentally the same year the lease on my bar Passerby in the meatpacking district was wrested away from us.
The Long Island Bar lay fallow then for years. Along with seemingly every other restaurateur in New York, I routinely cupped my hands to its windows, in awe of this vintage art deco treasure lying as though it were just about to open again any day, with its ancient cocktail stems lined up still on the glass shelving behind the mahogany bar, the terrazzo floor still waxed, the old neon sign looking as though it could snap into vibrancy any moment. Rumors swirled about the owner, apparently a hermetic, or recalcitrant or possibly crazy old Spanish woman who lived no one knew where–Spain?--and wouldn’t talk to any offers for the space. In truth, they had loved the bar and raised a family there through decades. They had plenty and didn’t want or need some stranger coming in to tear the place apart. Emma didn’t want to think about it, even when her daughter Maureen suggested they might consider the rent they could make on it.
While at Passerby, I chanced to meet Joel Tompkins through his then-girlfriend, now wife Natasha, who was a regular. She told me I should meet her boyfriend who was a restaurateur, sort of. What she meant was that he and his former college roommate were running a brilliant underground restaurant out of a huge loft off of Flatbush Avenue on Rockwell Place in downtown Brooklyn. It was called Coach Peaches, named for a fictitious owner they conjured, a high-school phys-ed instructor who aspired to life as a restaurateur, but was woeful at the metier, and so every other month would open a new restaurant, which had but a single night’s run before closing, to be superseded by his next optimistic offering.
If you were on the carefully curated list, you’d get an email: “Coach Peaches regrets to acknowledge the closing of Coach Peaches’ Winesaps and Periwinkles due to unforeseen circumstances.” Then would follow, “Coach Peaches is delighted to announce the opening of Coach Peaches’ Bromides and Demiglace…” The dinners were amazing, fifty or so guests served lavish multi-course meals in their obvious living space, with bicycles hung on the walls and their little sisters waiting on tables made from cable spools. We fell to talking and hit it off as Natasha had predicted. I was writing for the New York Times at the time and proposed a piece on his place. He told me he loved my bar and wanted to learn how to tend bar, so I hired him on the spot.
A couple of years later, the lease got torn away from us at Passerby, as these things will in the big city, and as I pondered my future dejectedly, Joel said, hey, I was just about to jump ship to start my own spot anyway; you wanna partner up? What I thought would be six months to my next spot ended up taking six years of searching, sizing up, losing spaces to bigger pocketed or more foolish people. All this while, perusing dozens and dozens of commercial spaces, each more dismal and unlikely than the last, Joel had been slipping notes under the door at The Long Island Restaurant, with no glimmer of a reply.
The way we got the lease was pure serendipity, the kind of blind luck that comes around rarely, but can change one’s life. I noticed an interesting shop had opened across Atlantic Avenue, a sort of art gallery that seemed also to have this very deftly curated collection of menswear, called Goose Barnacle. I began stopping into it and fell to talking with the loquacious owner, David Alperin. He told me he’d loved my bar. At one point, he asked if I would be interested in looking at The Long Island Restaurant space on the corner. I sputtered that he must be mad, did he not know the story of that place? He said, innocently, "No, what’s the story?" I told him that it was apparently owned by some mysterious woman who lived in Spain, and might be crazy, no one knew, but who refused to acknowledge any offer on the space. Everyone has tried, and none have ever gotten an answer.
He laughed and told me, “Well, she’s not crazy at all. She just doesn’t want anyone in the space. And she lives right across the street. She’s my grandmother, actually.” I was breathless. “That space? Your family owns that space and you’re not doing anything there?!” He avowed that although he grew up playing with his sister in the basement and the dining rooms, he knew only enough about F&B–the food and beverage business–to know it’s difficult beyond ken and thankless. He continued that he couldn’t really get me anything like an audience with his grandmother, but he did have the keys to the space, if I wanted to just go look at it. I was absolutely stunned; I’d been peering into those windows for years, I told him, yes, hell yes I would love to go in to look at it.
He locked his shop and we crossed the Avenue around dusk to enter the hushed sanctum. I felt like we were spelunking or some such. It was just such a perfect space. Dust covered the vinyl booths and formica tables, but it really was just so ethereally intact. As we were trying to find light switches the door opened and three older women came in jabbering. “Who’s in heah?” one called. David replied, “Grandma, it’s me. I’m with a friend who’s a bartender, I’m just showing him the old place.”
Emma looked me up and down with puzzled hostility and sniffed, “He’s no bartender. My Buddy was a bartender…” I had a Friulian nonna myself who was a very tough customer, so I felt like I knew exactly who I was dealing with. I laughed and told her, “Oh really? You should feel my feet and my back–you should see my lungs–you’d know then!” She wrinkled her nose and conceded, “Well, maybe he’s a bartender.” Nothing much more came of it; we chatted for a few minutes, they told us to lock up carefully and made their exit, the Three Graces, as we came to call them. But the next day, David phoned me and said, “My grandma wants to offer you the lease on the bar.”
I said, hyperventilating practically, there’s no way. This is fake. Either it’ll fall through or they’ll be asking some astronomical sum we can’t possibly pay. Joel was beside himself. But David assured me, “My grandma is very old-school, dude. If she says something, that’s it. You don’t need a contract.”
As we were doing the work necessary to open the place up, we had any number of architect and designer friends come through, all of whom seemed to mirror what my friend Gregg Pasquarelli, of SHoP Architects said after walking through the space for two minutes: “Don’t touch a nail.” We had already determined the same course, aesthetically, but as it happens, to keep something old afloat, one needs to put in a lot of work. We buffed the space for a year and a half before being able to open, putting in all new plumbing and electrical, building out the basement for a prep kitchen and storage, all the stuff–and there’s so much stuff that has to be in place for a restaurant to function with a staff. Behind the bar had been just a school desk, and beneath the sink was a gas pipe with a stopcock on it. I had to ask Emma what it was for. She barked, “To make the hot water, to clean the glasses! What else?”
During the summer, I had been scraping down and resurfacing the old mahogany bartop one day, when I noticed a figure in the open window to my right who’d been watching me work. I looked up into his grizzled expression and he shouted, “Keep it old!” That became our watch-cry to one another then for the duration of the buildout. When we decided to take down the old neon signs on the exterior and have them redone, people in the neighborhood and on archivist websites bemoaned the loss of yet another old classic storefront. Conversely, there was joy in the realm when we had them remounted and they first snapped back into their dazzling illumination, the colors morphed where the craftsmen united the old tubing with new.
Although everyone in this business is always having parties to celebrate their anniversaries, I’ve always been superstitious about publicizing too flagrantly how many years one has managed to keep afloat in this impossible trade. This is our tenth year of service here, but I don’t tell anyone when the actual anniversary is. Even our staff doesn’t know. I believe in just carrying on quietly, doing what one does well. We’ve been exceedingly fortunate, not only in finding and being granted the guardianship of the space, but in how the neighborhood and city at large has embraced this little tavern that we curried back into life. We hope and expect to be able to keep it humming for a long while to come.