The 13 Essential Restaurants in Brooklyn That Are More Than 50 Years Old, 2015


Such is the climate of today’s restaurant scene in New York City that eateries open and close at a breakneck pace — it’s difficult for some restaurants to remain relevant for a year, let alone decades. That makes the places with more than a half-century of history incredibly special — they give us a glimpse of our town’s gastronomic past, and set an example for how to become an essential part of the Big Apple’s edible future. As we compiled our list of 99 Essential Restaurants® in Brooklyn, we found thirteen establishments that are more than 50 years old, and remain crucial to understanding the borough’s dining fabric. Here are the thirteen oldest essential restaurants in Brooklyn, listed from youngest to oldest.

13. Di Fara Pizza, 1424 Avenue J, 718-258-1367
Half a century ago, Domenico DeMarco opened the doors to Di Fara Pizza, a petite Midwood pizzeria in an unassuming corner storefront where Avenue J and East 15th Street intersect. New York’s patron saint of basil-snipping works with enlightened Zen, kneading dough into imperfect shapes and taming the flames that roil beneath his metallic beast of an oven. This is quintessential Brooklyn (and New York City) pizza with blistered crust; rounds (or “regular,” here) are made from mild, slightly yeasty dough, while squares are chewy and thicker. The winning formula for Di Fara’s pies: mozzarella, a sprinkling of grated hard cheese, and lively San Marzano tomato sauce. But it’s the ritual of it all that’s captivated generations of New Yorkers and world-traveling pizza fans; the way DeMarco tends to each pie, anointing it with herbs, more grated cheese, and a generous drizzle of olive oil. All this folklore and fanfare has led to serious waits during primetime hours and occasional closures due to private parties. You can always get there early and join numerous others waiting for DeMarco (and the five of his seven children who run the shop with him) to unlock the doors. Our favorite power move, however, is to place a pizza order at Di Fara and walk around the corner to sibling Italian comfort food restaurant MD Kitchen. Because what makes a two-hour wait for bread, sauce, and cheese better? Shrimp parmigiana heroes.

12. Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop, 727 Manhattan Avenue, 718-389-3676
Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop was established in the then predominantly Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint more than six decades ago, when the Dodgers still called Brooklyn home. It would be hard to fathom the shop existing anywhere else in the city. It’s a neighborhood spot that locals hold dear, a place that new residents go as a rite of passage, and a tasty destination for those not lucky enough to live close by. Here owners Christos and Donna Siafakas, along with their son Peter, turn out about twenty flavors of doughnuts using recipes handed down from the original owners. The varieties are unfussy and run the gamut from sour cream to chocolate to cake and sugar to toasted coconut. The best seller is the red velvet doughnut, fashioned after the classic Southern cake. “When it gets a little warmer outside, we slice them open and fill ’em with cherry amaretto ice cream,” Donna Siafakas tells the Voice. “They’re really good.” Indeed they are. Peter Pan also serves a fine egg sandwich on a fresh-baked bagel or poppy seed roll, not to mention filled éclairs, cinnamon buns, and crullers. People come as much for the atmosphere as for the food, posting up on stools at the S-shape counter with a newspaper while staffers dressed in I Love Lucy-esque green-and-pink dresses serve them coffee and pastries. Hit the place at 10:30 a.m. if you want to see the gathering of regulars. (A morning trip also ensures that your favorite doughnut flavor won’t have run out.)

11. Junior’s, 386 Flatbush Avenue Extension, 718-852-5257
Junior’s interior has been updated in its more than six-decade history, but it has retained its old-school feel. Vintage marquee signs hang over the entrance. A pressed-aluminum-lined bar with stationary stools sits just inside. Partitioned booths fill the large space. A lounge lies to the side. “We’re not just a restaurant, we’re an institution. I take that responsibility quite seriously,” says Alan Rosen, the third-generation owner of this family business. The restaurant won fame for its cheesecake, which Rosen’s grandfather Harry developed with baker Eigel Peterson back in 1950. Rosen insists the recipe is the same today as it was then, though flavor options have changed. Look for fancier renditions like chocolate mousse and pumpkin spice, and simple treats like original New York plain or fruit. Junior’s was once a mostly kosher restaurant — “We also served crab, so go figure,” says Rosen — but today it serves a solid compilation of classic diner fare. The deli sandwiches, like the corned beef and pastrami, are prime. And the “Something Different,” a self-proclaimed sensational sandwich of brisket served between two perfectly seasoned potato pancakes with jus (or mushroom gravy), sour cream, and applesauce on the side, is spectacular. Junior’s has seen its Brooklyn neighborhood “come full circle,” Rosen says, from days when people would catch a concert at Paramount and then stop in for a bite, to the present, when he’ll spy families pushing strollers down the street. As testament to its longevity, the staff can point to regulars who’ve been coming here all their lives.

10. Brennan & Carr, 3432 Nostrand Avenue, 718-646-9559
There’s no greater measure of success than crowds and longevity. Brennan & Carr, Gravesend’s perennial king of dipped sandwiches, boasts both. The low-slung brick building that has served the borough’s hungriest carnivores for more than 75 years looks stuck in time, a better fit amid the farmland that used to surround it than the paved roads that flank it now. A small wooden sign advertises “hot beef sandwiches,” which arrive at your table saturated in a murky jus shimmering with liquid fat. Soggy and leaking, it’s not the prettiest sandwich, but the flavor payoff of concentrated bovine musk more than compensates. Though you’ll inevitably be confronted by a barely held-together kaiser roll, resist the urge to use a knife and fork. Making a mess is part of the plan, as essential to the experience as slurping is to ramen. Eddie Sullivan, whose grandmother was a waitress here in the 1940s, runs the show now. He took over from his father, a retired cop whose fellow boys in blue still stop in for a dose of nostalgia. Most regulars simply sit down and wait for their orders to appear, occasionally placing last-minute requests for cheese fries or cups of Manhattan clam chowder. Look around and you’ll also likely see a Gargiulo burger or two. Credit for this delicacy goes to the Russo brothers of classic Coney Island Italian restaurant Gargiulo’s, who first plunked a helping of roast beef onto their cheeseburgers before dipping them in jus. It was a secret order for nearly 30 years, until Mr. Sullivan decided to share this dastardly mash-up with the public.

9. L&B Spumoni Gardens, 2725 86th Street, 718-449-1230
Sprawled out over multiple buildings and fenced-in areas, Brooklyn’s most famous Italian-American dining complex is part ice cream parlor, part pizzeria, with a broader Italian restaurant thrown in for good measure. Founded in 1939, L&B Spumoni Gardens remains in the care of the Barbati family, whose patriarch immigrated from Italy and set up shop in Gravesend to peddle his frozen treats. The trailblazing pizza operation came a decade later, and chief among its offerings are enormous trays of square Sicilian pies, sold in whole sheets or by the slice. They’re wholly unique among the New York pizzas, the dough left chewy and dense, the cheese melted directly onto the bread and smothered in sweet tomato sauce. “Spumoni” refers to a frozen dessert that’s less ice cream than sherbet, a mix of candied fruit-studded vanilla, chocolate, and nut-filled pistachio with an almost grainy quality. While the two casual operations are L&B’s real draw — the place gets packed and boisterous whenever the weather’s halfway decent — don’t miss out on the sit-down restaurant, which expands on its neighbors’ streamlined menus with a roster of Southern Italian classics.

8. Tom’s Restaurant, 782 Washington Avenue, 718-636-9738
A Prospect Heights institution since 1936 and owned by members of the same family since the 1940s, Tom’s Restaurant is part diner, part interactive museum exhibit. It’s decorated with stained glass, faux flowers, and American flags. Find an archetypal chocolate egg cream, made in five easy steps with milk, seltzer, and chocolate syrup (always Fox’s U-Bet) stirred with vigor and topped with whipped cream. Long lines form during primetime brunching hours, but the waitstaff will reward your patience with gratis orange slices, sips of coffee, and breakfast meats. Jim Kokotas (nephew of Gus Vlahavas, the devoted owner who worked in the restaurant from age nine up until his death in November 2014) has run the show since 2009, expanding the business to include a branch on the Coney Island boardwalk. In recent years the menu has swelled to fit the neighborhood’s changing demographic, with specials like sweet potato latkes and spicy chicken or beef burritos. Tom’s remains a community restaurant at heart, sustaining multiple generations of families on mammoth platters of meat loaf with eggs and potato hash, and fluffy lemon-ricotta pancakes rife with citrus tang and served with a trio of flavored butters.

7. Randazzo’s Clam Bar, 2017 Emmons Avenue, 718-615-0010
When Randazzo’s Clam Bar opened in 1932, it was a waterfront fishmonger and bar. In the decades following, it became a Sheepshead Bay icon, thanks in part to its expansion into a full-fledged restaurant serving matriarch Helen Randazzo’s Italian-American recipes. It’s still a family operation — fourth-generation owner Paul Randazzo weathered Hurricane Sandy from inside the restaurant, escaping via raft when things got too dicey. Bivalves draw the crowds, but it’s the kitchen’s famed sauce, made with tomatoes stewed for hours, that keeps folks coming back for more. Ladled over steamed, fried, or raw seafood, the sauce’s chile heat creeps to a low rumble. Pastas arrive in heaping portions, stained red and hiding a bevy of shrimp or calamari. A special of “marinated, burned chicken” delivers on its promise, though it’s more of a welcome char. Saddle up to the bar in search of chowder, and a waiter’s likely to demand, “Red or white?” Either’s a safe bet, though the Manhattan red hits with a tangy tomato zest like that of the sauce. Savor the namesake mollusk slurped raw, fried, or baked in the shell, chopped and tossed with breadcrumbs and herbs. These days the restaurant’s neon lobster sign cycles through a rainbow of colors, lighting up Emmons Avenue like an undersea rave. Take a seat inside. Even if you’re not on anything, ecstasy abounds.

6. Totonno Pizzeria Napolitana, 1524 Neptune Avenue, 718-372-8606
A decade is a drop in the bucket for Coney Island landmark Totonno Pizzeria Napolitana, a beloved slice of historic New York City that has risen from the ashes twice in the past ten years — first from a 2009 fire, then from Hurricane Sandy. Founder Antonio “Totonno” Pero brought his yeast-risen magic to South Brooklyn in 1924 after working at New York’s first pizzeria, Lombardi’s in Little Italy. “My grandfather Totonno was the first pizzaiolo in America,” says Antoinette Balzano, who now helps run Totonno. “He initiated making pizzas at Lombardi’s — Lombardi’s was a grocery store — which became the first licensed pizzeria in America, because of Totonno.” Ninety years later, the brand has expanded to Manhattan, but none of the other locations holds a candle to the original, its black-and-white-checkered floor as recognizable as the iconic pies for which it is known. What may be the most seasoned coal-fired oven in town cooks up char-speckled crusts sturdy enough to support generous layers of sweet, herbaceous tomato sauce and melted fresh mozzarella. Totonno doesn’t sell by the slice — the better to preserve the integrity of the product. Pizzaiolos prep and fire pies for as long as there’s dough available, which for us occasionally means confronting a locked door. But generations of New Yorkers haven’t minded, and neither should you.

5. Defonte’s Sandwich Shop, 379 Columbia Street, 718-625-8052
A first trip to Defonte’s Sandwich Shop can feel slightly intimidating — here are counter workers with thick Brooklyn accents, working briskly and managing the crowd by slapping an order on the counter and then asking, loudly, if they can help the next person. It’s up to you to determine whether you’re next; your fellow patrons don’t exactly form an orderly line. And most of them seem to have known exactly what they want before they walked through the door: a carton of meatballs for this woman; a hot roast-beef sandwich with fried eggplant for that man. This saves them from reading the menu plus the handwritten items on bits of paper taped around the joint. Many people, you’ll soon notice, are ordering the potato and egg, which piles skilleted bits of both ingredients plus mozzarella between two halves of a hero. You can spot newcomers because they order their sandwiches large — a mistake unless you plan to feed a family or want something to take home. Most neighborhood regulars take their meals to go, but some stand at the counters, taking in old photos of celebrities while mopping their faces with piles of thin napkins. It’s not hard to imagine dockworkers doing something similar decades ago. Defonte’s is a multi-generation family operation. Nick Defonte, an Italian immigrant, paid $100 to buy the business in 1922. Back then it was a longshoreman hangout in Red Hook, a corner storefront that sold basic sundries, where workers would sit and play cards while awaiting a job assignment or to cap off a shift. For today’s regulars, who work in nearby warehouses and at the artisan businesses that now call Red Hook home, Defonte’s offers a glimpse of this neighborhood’s past — and a bite of a once prevalent lunchtime tradition that’s fast disappearing.

4. Nathan’s Famous, 1310 Surf Avenue, 800-628-4267
“Nathan Handwerker” may sound like the name of a very specific kind of entertainer, but this particular Polish expat introduced New York to the joy of wieners (wait) in 1916, when he and wife Ida launched Coney Island landmark Nathan’s Famous. Remarkably, the restaurant stayed in the hands of the Handwerker family until 1996, after which it became an international fast food chain with a world-renowned eating competition. You’ll still find the least diluted version of the brand in Brooklyn, and nearly a century and millions of hot dogs later, the iconic stand serves as a benchmark for processed-meat cookery. The all-beef hot dogs break apart with an aurally pleasing snap thanks to natural casings, and you can have yours slathered in chili, cheese, or peppers and onions. The fryers yield golden-brown corn dogs and stubby wedges of browned, crinkle-cut fries. The flagship’s post-Sandy rebuild included the addition of a raw bar — an initial feature of the restaurant that was axed in the 1950s, we’ll have you know — so you can now celebrate summer with the briny pop of clams to go with your tube steak. That makes for a seriously fab surf-and-turf with inimitable New York terroir.

3. Ferdinando’s Focacceria, 151 Union Street, 718-855-1545
Inhale the same scent of warm bread and sweet garlic that locals have been enjoying inside Ferdinando’s Focacceria for more than 110 years. “Nothing’s changed,” says Francesco (“call me Frank, everyone does”) Buffa. “You make the food. People like the food. Why would you change?” The restaurant is seriously old-school, with brown walls covered in black-and-white photos, Sinatra on loop, and red sauce. It’s determinedly not fancy. Buffa has been in charge for almost half a century. “My father-in-law taught me the recipes,” he says. “Everything comes under my nose.” Hearty sandwiches made with freshly baked bread entice a lunchtime crowd, while at dinner those in the know order melt-in-the-mouth meatballs, arancina blanketed in sweet tomato sauce, and a range of exceptional Sicilian specialties. Don’t miss the panelle, a fried chickpea pastry served with fresh ricotta, or the freshly made burrata, the perfect partner to smoky grilled eggplant. Pasta con sarde is a house favorite made with sardines, wild fennel, pine nuts, raisins, and a saffron sauce. Wine is “red or white. Imported. What do you like? I’ll get you a glass,” says Buffa. Save room if you can for a house-made cannoli — among the best in the city. This is a meal almost outside time, generous and warm, served the way it always has been, with passion and pride.

2. Bamonte’s, 32 Withers Street, 718-384-8831
Old-school red-sauce joints are a crucial part of Brooklyn’s history and identity, even if most of those once-prevalent mobster hideouts have gone the way of, well, mob crime in New York City. But Bamonte’s remains, and it offers a glimpse into this storied past. Opened by Italian immigrant Pasquale Bamonte on a residential street in Williamsburg, Bamonte’s has been serving Italian classics since 1900. These days Pasquale’s grandson Anthony runs the joint. He hasn’t changed much: The décor — a long, wooden bar; carpeted floors; phone booths — feels like it dates to 1955. Bartenders and servers, all of whom seem to be named Henry or Anthony, wear tuxes, and they’re on a first-name basis with many of the Italian families who fill the large tables. These families are decades-long regulars, even if some of them have moved out to Long Island and have to drive in for a meal. The food isn’t groundbreaking, but it is comforting (much of it is pasta, after all), and even new neighborhood transplants with carefully honed palates will likely enjoy dishes like stuffed artichokes and the “Pork Chop Bamonte,” which is made with vinegar and hot peppers. As one regular said, “You don’t go for the food. You go for Bamonte’s.” Make sure to enjoy a postprandial espresso-and-sambuca — it’s the original Brooklyn combo.

1. Peter Luger Steak House, 178 Broadway, 718-387-7400
Few restaurants are as tied to their location as Peter Luger Steak House, and few have achieved such exalted status. In a city famous for its steakhouses, Peter Luger has long been considered the best. The restaurant is layered in history, and you feel it the moment you step through its front door, only to be swept up by a raucous crowd drinking martinis at the formidable front-room bar. Join them while you wait for your table to be ready in one of the several rooms this place comprises. Luger cares not for the plush opulence of midtown meat temples. This place more closely resembles a German beer hall. Eventually you’ll be crammed into a seat at a long table, then greeted by a waiter. You order steak not by cut, but for two, three, or four people, and you’re rewarded with juice-drooling bone-in slabs from the steer’s short loin, plucked from Luger’s own dry-aging box, cooked until crusted and cut into strips. You will be admonished if you order your steak anything other than rare, so it’s best to just let the kitchen take control. Sides you order separately, and if your group is large enough, you want many of them: Creamed spinach, onion rings, and German fried potatoes are a good place to start. Begin your meal with a wedge salad, the sizzling slab bacon, and a jumbo shrimp cocktail. If you go for lunch, do not — we repeat, do not — miss the burger. Ask for it coated in cheese, and possibly topped with bacon, but do not ask for ketchup. This is the way things have been done at least since Sol Forman bought this place at auction in 1950, though the restaurant’s history goes back much farther. It began in 1887 as Carl Luger’s Café, Billiards and Bowling; the last Luger owner, Peter, later put his name on the sign. Forman was a regular at the steakhouse for more than two decades, and he despaired when it fell into disarray after Peter Luger passed away. Rather than find a new restaurant, he resolved to fix up the place himself. He put his wife, Marsha, through meat-inspection training, and she took over selecting the cuts that the restaurant would use. She taught the skill to her daughters, Marilyn Spiera and Amy Rubenstein, who now run the business with Spiera’s daughter, Jody Storch. (A fourth generation has joined the team as well.) Another quirk from the olden days: Luger doesn’t accept credit cards. Come armed with a debit card from a U.S. bank, or loaded with cash.