Shed a tear for Brooklyn’s great restaurants of the past. They once defined life in the borough, making it unnecessary to toddle to Manhattan for a lively and memorable night out, and they died as the floodgates opened on the national franchises that came to dominate many neighborhoods. (As Cartman would say, “Suck my balls, Dunkin’ Donuts!”) Now, Brooklyn’s undergoing a restaurant renaissance, yet these antediluvian joints can never be replaced. Here’s a look at five estimable restaurants that should have lasted forever.
1. Lundy’s, 1901 Emmons Avenue, Sheepshead Bay — Lundy’s was the city’s most humongous — and one of the best — seafood restaurants. It could seat 2,800 patrons at once, making it the largest dining establishment in the country. Occupying an entire city block, the structure still stands today, a two-story building with unusual Spanish architectural flourishes, poised on the concrete lip of Sheepshead Bay. Favorite dishes included raw clams on the half shell, small buttered biscuits, tomato salads, corn on the cob, shore dinner, Manhattan clam chowder, and huckleberry pie served with Breyers ice cream. The place evolved out of a clam bar that opened in 1907; the current premises dates to 1934. It closed in 1977, only to reopen in 1995, filling only half of its former floorspace, and persisted for an additional decade or so. Now an upscale food market occupies the space.
2. Dubrow’s Cafeteria, Kings Highway and East 16th Street, Midwood — Opened in 1939, this Jewish dairy restaurant was the flagship of a chain that, in its heyday, had branches in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Miami. Founded in 1929 by Belarus immigrant Mowsoha Bencian Dubrowensky (later, Benjamin Dubrowsky), the place served sandwiches, salads, and fish. It was a common place for politicians to deliver stump speeches and baseball players to stage press conferences, a list that included John F. Kennedy and Sandy Koufax. Scenes from the movie Boardwalk (1979) were filmed in the Brooklyn Dubrow’s, which closed sometime in the ’80s. That’s method-acting giant Lee Strasberg in the picture, impersonating a deli man.
3. Richard Yee’s Chinese Restaurant, 2617 Avenue U, Homecrest — Yee’s represented a new type of restaurant when it opened in 1952: Emphatically located nowhere near any Chinatown, it offered a nightclub ambiance with the Polynesian flourishes that were expected of upscale Chinese restaurants at the time, including flaming cocktails, tiki-hut décor, a separate cocktail lounge, and an evolved Cantonese cuisine perfectly suited to the young families that were flooding the neighborhood in the postwar era. Classic dishes included sliced roast pork with garlic and sherry, steak kew, lobster in scallion sauce, and some of the city’s first “sizzling platters.” Sadly, the restaurant closed in 2008, and the space will undoubtedly be occupied by some sort of fast-food establishment in the future.
4. Gage & Tollner, 372-374 Fulton Street, Downtown Brooklyn — Founded in 1879 by Charles Gage, Gage & Tollner moved into its Downtown Brooklyn brownstone in 1892, finally closing in 2004. The interior was sumptuously appointed with flickering brass gas lamps and mahogany paneling, making it one of the city’s most elegant Victorian-era restaurants. Notable regular patrons included Diamond Jim Brady and Jimmy Durante. The restaurant was famous for its turtle soup — which took three days to make — and other specialties included Welsh rarebit, broiled clams, steaks and chops, and crab meat à la Dewey, a rich dish of lump crab, cream, and mushrooms. In the 1980s, Edna Lewis took over as chef, and her menu featured Southern favorites like she-crab soup and fried catfish. After closing, it became a T.G.I. Friday’s, and later an Arby’s — with the same landmarked interior.
5. Monte’s Venetian Room, 451 Carroll Street, Gowanus — Founded in 1906, making it one of the oldest Italian restaurants in town, Monte’s lurked on the verge of the stinking morass that is the Gowanus Canal for over a century before being closed by the city in 2008, ostensibly for “operating without a license.” Once the secret retreat of Sammy Davis Jr., and other members of the Rat Pack, the convivial dining room was hung with crystal chandeliers, and tiny lights outlined a mural of Venice. Of course, in spite of the northern Italian airs, this was a classic Brooklyn southern Italian joint, with notable dishes including mussels oreganata and ricotta cheesecake — though many complained the food had slipped severely in the place’s later years.