By Jane and Michael stern
Originally Published 1997 Gourmet Magazine
Ralph the waiter, one of the brisk armadas of white jacketed attendants who patrol the terrazzo floors of LUNDY BROS. RESTAURANT on Sheepshead Bay, knows exactly what most customers want to tell him, even before he brings their silver tureen full of steamer clams. “It just isn’t the same as it used to be,” he says, quoting the favorite refrain of patrons for whom a seafood feast in this boisterous community meeting place was once one of Brooklyn’s sweetest pleasures.
The block-long banquet hall that served generations of prom kids, wedding parties, splurging commoners from Brighton Beach, and rich families from Manhattan Beach across the bay closed in 1979, joining Ebbets Field and the Coney Island Steeplechase as a dearly departed destination that once embodied the high spirits of life in Brooklyn. First opened in 1918, then installed in its grandiose tile-roof Moorish edifice at the foot of Ocean Avenue in 1934, the landmark remained shuttered until December, 1995, when the lobster pots were fired up once again. But just as Brooklyn has changed since Duke Snider’s reign, the new Lundy’s is a different sort of place. Now modernized and downsized, it is no longer the largest restaurant in the United States; it is merely huge, with 800 seats instead of the former 2,800, and a single clattering exhibition kitchen rather than one kitchen on each of two floors.
No doubt about it, the refurbished restaurant is easier to navigate than the one etched so fondly in Brooklynites’ recollections. You can actually call to make a reservation instead of having to wait endlessly in line, and you are no longer required to find your own table and seat yourself. Ralph recalls the days when his uncle used to be the man who counted dishes as they left the kitchen to make sure each waiter paid for everything he toted (it was the waiter’s personal task to collect from his customers). Back then, the waitstaff was famous for its abrasive personalities; a reviewer blithely recounted one of them jabbing a diner with a lobster fork because the patron had the nerve to ask for extra biscuits.
More amused than wearied by the old-timers’ laments for such good old days, Ralph tells us about an elderly couple who recently came in for dinner and to check out what had happened to the restaurant they had patronized long ago. They sat at a table by a paned window looking out on Emmons Avenue and the bay beyond.
“From the beginning, I knew this lady was going to be trouble,” he says. “Everything I brought her, she said, ‘This isn’t the same, this isn’t the way the old Lundy’s made it, this isn’t the way it used to be….’ Finally, when the time came for dessert, she was so mad that she and her husband weren’t even speaking to each other. I said to myself, There has to be some way to make this lady happy. I said to her, ‘Weren’t the waiters back then always very rude?’ That’s right,’ she answered. So I told her, ‘Shut up and eat your cake!’ And she beamed. She was so happy. Finally, it was the Lundy’s she remembered.”
“Those people are correct—Lundy’s is not what it used to be,” confirms our dining companion Richard, a sophisticated Manhattanite born and raised in postwar Brooklyn, who remembers often stopping by the clam bar for a couple dozen warm baking-powder biscuits (all he could then afford) to nosh on his way home from school.
“Actually, it’s better now than it was then,” he says, sipping his Lundy fizz and snacking from a basket of freshly fried potato chips as we waited for our table in the bar adjacent to the dining room. In this casual eating space, which features a fifty-five-foot raw bar and opens onto a small sidewalk café, families and singles and friends choose from a limited menu of fine fried munchables (watch the shrimp being breaded and thrown in hot oil just behind the bar) and cold shellfish platters, quaffing sugary-good whiskey sours or microbrewed beer (“In my day, we didn’t know a microbrew from a Minnie Mouse,” an old-timer announces for anyone who cares to listen). In fact, the clam bar is a good place for a perfectly wonderful ocean-flavored meal or an afternoon’s worth of half-shell delights and cocktails, but the full Lundy’s experience involves a seat in the dining room and a grand, multicourse meal.
Not as cavernous as the original space, Lundy’s is still vast, with plenty of elbow room in the booths and around the tables, which are set with white linen, then topped with sheets of butcher paper to collect the certain spillage from butter-and-broth-dripping meals. Now occupying only about a quarter of the original establishment’s acreage (a Japanese steakhouse and a mall of small shops and crafts boutiques have opened up in the rest of the building), it still seems like some great, echoing, stucco-walled Hall of North Atlantic Gastronomy, done up in Spanish Colonial decor with heavy blue-and-white glass chandeliers and sweeping wrought-iron banisters.
You’d never call this environment cozy, but it is definitely a friendlier place than it used to be. While we ate, a general manager who introduced himself as Steve made his way among the tables, asking people if they were happy and regaling interested parties with bits of history from the era before Irving Lundy “went to the big kitchen in the sky in ’77.”
The clientele is as diverse as ever, including large family groups, people celebrating birthdays (the waiters’ chorus is deafening), big dates, good friends, and seafood lovers from the neighborhood and afar. Although not a formal restaurant, Lundy’s has the feel of a very special place, a place where it is hard not to have a rollicking good time…especially if you like clams and oysters.
Raw ones in their shells, opened fresh and glistening on beds of ice, are always available, the specific inventory dependent on the season (a dozen kinds of oyster in the winter; pretty pink littleneck clams year-round). Raw is flawless, but once a few of Lundy’s exquisite steamer clams have caressed your taste buds they will be the one starter you can never resist. The steamers are served with a bowl of clam broth—the customary dunk for removing any remaining sea grit—but they are smooth and gritless and so moist they need no broth. They come with lemon butter, too; but these warm, tender morsels are so luscious that this also seems superfluous.
Lundy’s chowder is available two ways: Brooklyn-style, which is very much like what is elsewhere called Manhattan-style, meaning tomato-red; and New England-style (known here as clam bisque), which is white. The former is the stuff of legend—a longtime Lundy’s standard—but we say it is too vegetable-soupy, preferring the cream-smooth potato-rich bisque, deeply ocean-flavored, chock-full of clams with just a whiff of onions.
A bread basket accompanies hors d’oeuvres. It contains small, cylindrical baking-powder biscuits, with a marvelous creamy-crumbly texture and a bewitching sour tang that perfectly complements the briny sweetness of seafood. They arrive piping hot from the oven, as do second helpings. Alongside them are squares of dense, chewy onion focaccia, which is faultlessly tasty but simply too busy a foodstuff to command attention when a serious shore dinner is in the offing.
And it is a shore dinner that you must eat. You can put one together yourself from different menu categories; you can get a “family platter” of assorted sea fare; or you can simply select one of Lundy’s predetermined shore dinners. These include chowder, half a steamed lobster, either half a grilled chicken (the “traditional” dinner) or the fish of the day (the “deluxe” dinner), plus vegetables and pie. The menu notes that, for a $2.95 surcharge, one can substitute a whole lobster for the half lobster plus chicken or fish, which Richard’s wife, Alice—herself a loyal Brooklyn native—insisted was the only true and proper way to order a Lundy’s shore dinner. “Never in the history of Lundy’s has anybody had the chicken!” she proclaimed. But being adventurous sorts, we actually got it…and enjoyed it! Juicy and flavorful, permeated with rosemary, it makes a nice, bland company for all the ocean-flavored things on the table.
If you’ve got a healthy lobster appetite, you need to go beyond the fairly small half that Lundy’s provides with its shore dinner. Buy one by the pound—you can pick it out yourself from a tank by the door—and the kitchen will prepare it in one of any number of ways. The most elaborate presentation is stuffed, which means piled with shrimp, crab, and scallops and baked under a blanket of buttered bread crumbs; or you can have it “fra diavolo” (in-the-shell lobster presented atop pasta in a skillet and garnished with mussels and clams—all painted with a chunky coat of chili-hot marinara sauce); and there are the timeless shoreline preparations—steamed and broiled. Richard, who wanted the latter, said loud and clear to Ralph, “Lobster—BR.” When we asked him why he said the letters “BR” instead of simply “broiled,” he clued us in to a shore-dinner-hall trick, no doubt learned during earlier days at Lundy’s, when the din in the dining room could be deafening. “Broiled and boiled sound too much alike in a crowded restaurant,” he said. “BR and BO are always understood.”
Of course, long-handled forks and nutcrackers are provided to facilitate excavation of the sweet, supple meat from the lobster shells, and waiters offer to tie one of Lundy’s paper bibs around your neck to protect your shirt from dripping butter and juices.
We like the absolutely simple BO lobster best: Its meat, which is succulence incarnate, pops from the shell in big, moist pieces. Richard’s BR lobster, spread with oregano-flavored crumbs and served atop a bed of seaweed, was overwrought and also a wee bit overcooked, requiring more effort than was pleasant to extract knuckle and claw meat.
Side dishes, served family-style on plenteous platters, include good mashed potatoes garnished with crisp-fried shreds of leek, steamed and buttered asparagus, nutmeg-spiked creamed spinach, and lyonnaise potatoes that lack the crunch of great hashbrowns, which they resemble.
Abundant desserts are a Lundy’s tradition, upheld by the inhouse bakery that displays what it makes at the far end of the open kitchen. Although Ralph the waiter kindly tried to steer us up from lemon meringue pie toward the layered chocolate cake he likes best, we went with the former and were not disappointed. It is a giant wedge of sweet tart lemon curd topped with an impressive field of crisp meringue spires. We also enjoyed Lundy’s straightforward New York cheesecake, even if it was served atop a rather fruity design painted on the plate in raspberry purée. Rice pudding, “brulee style” (with a crisp caramelized crust on top), was monumentally sweet; and apple pie with streusel topping and caramel sauce was monumental in every way. Of course, we got the latter a la mode, but finally decided, curiously enough, that the ice cream melting on top of the big hot wedge of pie was too rich. In a bowl, as ice cream, it would have been great, but as the crown of this immensely luxurious column of pastry, its high butter-fat character was more smothering than satisfying. Our experienced Brooklyn guides, Richard and Alice, did remind us, however, that it has always been de rigueur to stagger out of Lundy’s with appetite only a dim and distant memory.
Lundy Bros. Restaurant