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Dining at Long Island's marina restaurants

Ocean view from Sea Cliff Beach, Laura's BBQ,

As my Jeep hugged the curves of Glen Cove Avenue one sunny spring afternoon, I was hurrying somewhere else, not looking for distractions. Then, there it was, a hand-inked sign on the side of the road that instantly derailed my plans.

COOL USED STUFF

SALE TODAY

BBQ TOO

I knew serendipity when I saw it. A quick right onto Shore Road and soon enough, I pulled into the dirt lot of a marina unknown to me, alongside Glen Cove Creek. The smooth hulls of sailboats and powerboats, perched on metal stands, trailed off into the distance, a small city of boats. Facing the water was a doorway framed by old ladders, weathered birdbaths, a red children’s wagon—"cool used stuff"—and next to it, a separate business with a blue awning: the barbecue, too.

"A menu, sweetie," said the server after I took a seat on the patio, where a lazy atmosphere prevailed. "Can I get you something to drink?" Sure. My plans could wait—I was staying awhile.

With its frenetic pace and crowded byways, Long Island seems like an unlikely place to find out-of-the-way spots, surprises, or both. Along its 1,600 miles of coastline, though, maritime secrets abound. The barnacle-crusted remains of hundreds of shipwrecks. Clusters of wild oysters in busy harbors. A necklace of boatyards, mostly out of sight of the average Long Islander, but the hallowed ground where Long Island’s shipbuilding and whaling past was forged. Centuries ago, scores of ships took shape on their shell-strewn lots; now, they are where pleasure craft come for rest and repair. And a few of them even serve as portals to a more relaxed world, one of snack bars and bistros and dives, an almost clandestine web of places to grab a beer, or a lobster roll, or maybe some ribs that fall from the bone.

I could hear gulls and distant welding as I studied Laura’s BBQ menu, and ordered way too much: brisket, a pulled pork sandwich, barbecued chicken, collard greens and mac-and-cheese. A stranger appeared, holding a beer, and sat on a chaise lounge nearby. He closed his eyes and turned his face to the sun, as if he’d had a very long day. When he opened them again, I learned he was a spinning instructor, but nevertheless seemed unfazed as I forked my way into the brisket, swirling with paprika and garlic. It was so tender it could fall apart under your gaze.

That brisket reaches its pinnacle in the hands of Lloyd Adams, Jr., who on another afternoon stood behind Laura’s outdoor bar. He wore a camo cap with a Pink Panther logo, and beneath it, his eyes glinted the way a bartender’s might. He was happy to take my drink order, but his senses were closely trained on the smoker at the back of the patio, a few dozen feet away.

"The brisket takes about 14 hours," said Adams, attuned to the hours and minutes each cut of meat should spend in the smoker. He grew up in Stephenville, Texas, about an hour’s drive from Fort Worth, and is highly skilled at coaxing the fatty parts of a hunk of meat to melt into themselves. He pulled open the front steel door of the smoker and an invisible wave of heat surged forward, propelled by maple, cherry and hickory pellets. Inside, chicken wings and racks of ribs slowly rotated on metal shelves, darkening under the smolder. You could rise into heaven on the smell alone. "My wife, she’s running the kitchen."

That would be Laura, for whom the place is named, and I found her in the kitchen keeping the mac-and-cheese suitably oozy for the impending dinner crowd. For 15 years before they went brick-and-mortar, the Adamses ran a mobile wood smoker, catering across the Island for celebrities and others.

"I miss the art," said Lloyd Adams, of loading of logs into his wood smoker and controlling the burn. That original smoker is still parked in the boatyard, on a trailer that resembles a log cabin and is used for catering gigs. "I don’t miss getting up in the middle of the night."

It was in 2019 when the Adamses first saw the space in the marina, which had beenclosed for a few years. They decided to take it over, unaware, like everyone else, that COVID was bearing down. They opened, then closed, then reopened again last summer, sharing a marina that was home to boats named Zephyr, Off Course and Snowhawk. "Being on the water, you cut your radius in half," observed Adams of their suddenly more static customer base.

Being tucked into a marina comes with its own brand of invisibility, but once you’ve had Adams’ brisket or tasted the honeyed sweetness of the ribs, Laura’s stays in your mind. So does Butler’s Flat Clam Shack, farther west along the shore in Port Washington, but for different reasons.

As with Laura’s, Butler’s Flat takes some wayfinding, until you finally discover it behind the dry-docked yachts of a marina in the crook of Manhasset Bay, a sheltered curl of water that has long been a haven for boats. This tidy spot, with a deck overlooking the slips and the bay, was actually a barbecue restaurant when Christopher Blumlo first laid eyes on it over a decade ago. "I was fishing in the marina, and [the space] just screamed ‘clam shack,’ " said Blumlo, a career restaurateur who co-owns Restaurant Marc Forgione in lower Manhattan, but grew up in the working port of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Eventually, Blumlo was offered the lease by the owners of Safe Harbor Capri West and opened his snack bar, which he named for a lighthouse, Butler Flats, near his childhood home. "At first, it was lobster rolls and fried clams, and over time, we expanded the menu. I haven’t done much advertising—it’s kind of grown organically," Blumlo said.

The views don’t hurt, and neither does the resolutely beachy food: Fried clam platters. Stuffed Quahog. Seafood rolls w/fries. The names are spelled out in push letters on a board next to a window, where an order taker stuck his head forward to help a woman whose perfume conquered the salty breeze. Top notes of neroli mingled with the smells of the fryer as she finished ordering lobster and shrimp rolls and rosé, then joined her friends on the patio.

Patrons enjoy outdoor dining, Butler's Flat Clam Shack,
Fried clam platter with french fries, Butler's Flat
Trays of food being carried out, Butler's Flat
Left: Patrons enjoy outdoor dining at Butler's Flat Clam Shack in Port Washington. Top: A fried clam platter with french fries at Butler's Flat Clam Shack. Bottom: Trays of food being carried out at Butler's Flat Clam Shack. Photo credit: Yvonne Albinowski

The atmosphere at Butler’s Flat is 99 percent yacht club, albeit still mellow and linen-free on a weekday in mid-May. A few of the 50 seats were open, a stark contrast to the busy weekends when boaters and others swarm—in greater numbers, perhaps, than in years past. "With COVID, boating has taken off," said Blumlo. "A lot of people who were looking for activities outside the home bought boats."

The lobster roll, barely touched by mayo and minced celery, was cool and creamy, and the emblem with which many jump-start the summer. Keeping pace are crab rolls and baked scallops over farro that Blumlo sources from New Bedford "when I can."

Having considered every aspect of the snack bar experience, he also trades in Montauk flounder and hulking quahog clams stuffed Massachusetts-style, with smoky linguiça sausage and panko, their tops glossed with butter.

As I dug into one, I noticed the tops of the North Shore Towers in Queens rising above the tree line across the bay, the only thing spoiling the sense I was far from the inland hustle. Many moons ago, Pan Am flights used to take off for Paris from a nearby airstrip. Now plovers forage for panko crumbs around espadrilled feet and plastic cups of wine dwindle in tandem with the sunset. The Gold Coast lives on here, even if Champagne has been replaced by Bridge Lane rosé.

Like angels and devils or yin and yang, the North and South shores are opposites that couldn’t exist without one another. But while the waterfront of Nassau County’s South Shore may work and play harder, it doesn’t skimp on the food front.

It’s about 20 miles from Manhasset Bay to the end of Whaleneck Avenue in Merrick, where you have to look sharp to find Anchor Down, a tiny place wedged into the folds of Open Bay Marina. The space had worn a few names—the Sunset Bar & Grill, among them—by the time chef Stephen Rosenbluth and his wife, Jennifer, laid eyes on it in 2014. "It was really crusty," said the chef, standing in the bar, where his head flirts with the low ceiling. Three-story boat racks towered over the patio, oft-flooded carpet covered the dining room, and the kitchen was the size of a postage stamp. But the couple thought it charming and cozy, so they leased the restaurant from the marina owner and named their new venture Anchor Down. It was Rosenbluth’s first place as a chef-owner after having worked in kitchens all across New York City and Long Island.

Chef Stephen Rosenbluth on the dock, Anchor Down,Merrick,
One dozen oysters, Anchor Down, Merrick, May 27,
Local fluke stuffed with crab, Anchor Down, Merrick,
Left: Chef Stephen Rosenbluth on the dock at Anchor Down in Merrick. Top: Oysters at Anchor Down. Bottom: Local fluke stuffed with crab at Anchor Down. Photo credit: Yvonne Albinowski

The Rosenbluths refinished floors, painted some walls cobalt blue and positioned statuettes of mermaids and starfish in the porthole-like windows. "Every year it floods, but it’s worth it," Rosenbluth said.

You can’t quite see East Bay from Anchor Down, but you can taste it on the breeze and hear it via the clamor from the boatyard. Rosenbluth keeps his own boat in a slip there, and some- times decamps to the cabin for a nap between stints searing scallops or pressing sushi rolls. Winters can be stormy, the water can cover the floors from time to time, but Anchor Down stays open all year, trading in martinis and seafood towers, mussels in Thai coconut-curry broth and Montauk fluke stuffed with crab and crumbled Ritz crackers. "You can be seasonal and fail, or you can get the neighborhood to come, and succeed," said Rosenbluth, who has an anchor among the tattoos on his forearms. "We became friendly with all of the Merrick ladies."

A few of them trickle in at happy hour, when the prices of Blue Point oysters and Salty Dogs are slashed. The low ceiling, the weathered wooden bar, the porthole windows—Anchor Down can feel almost like a boat cabin at sea when it’s full. When the weekend rolls around, the kitchen will shuck hundreds of oysters, sending them out with a red-wine mignonette made by the tub. At least 200 lobster rolls will float from kitchen to table, too, both cold and hot, at barely a dollar more than they were last year, when lobster meat was 40 percent cheaper. "They’re almost becoming a loss leader," said Rosenbluth, who had to do acrobatics to keep both Anchor Down and his other restaurant, Anchor Down Dockside, going during COVID. "We made it, though."

That second place is in Seaford, and just beyond is perhaps the best marina hideout of them all, alongside an Amityville canal (well, Narrasketuck Creek). There are few written roadside signs to direct you from Merrick Road past saltboxes and marinas to Toomey’s Tavern—you just sort of need to know about the place. By day, old-timers cluster along its relic-strewn bar, bottles of Bud in hand, swapping stories or drinking in silence before the younger crowd arrives. Outside, on the canal, rows of picnic tables and an open-air gazebo with fishing nets strung underneath its eaves lend an uber-chill ambience.

The menu at Toomey’s jokes that Amityville is "a quiet little drinking village with a fishing problem," and the tropical-hued libations here—a rum punch, say, or a Toomey’s Explosion, which is turquoise in color—pack a wallop. Boaters drift up to the dock and tie onto the pastel pylons outside, ready for wings and sliders and fried clams. There’s spotty cell service, ice-cold beer and a buttery, satisfying clam chowder. A few times a year, competitors in a striped bass tournament will gather here afterward, hoisting their catch high for photos. Towering about it all are more boats, loaded onto racks, sentries guarding one of the last secret lairs in our midst.

Restaurant information

ANCHOR DOWN: 1960 Bayberry Ave. (at Open Bay Marina), Merrick; 516-544-4334, anchordownny.com (open year-round)

BUTLER’S FLAT CLAM SHACK: 86 Orchard Beach Blvd. (at Safe Harbor Capri West), Port Washington; 516-883-8330, butlersflat.com (open May–Oct.)

LAURA’S BBQ: 76 Shore Rd.(at Safe Harbor Glen Cove), Glen Cove; 516-715-1500, lauras-bbq.com (open year-round)

TOOMEY’S TAVERN: 251 S. Ketcham Ave., Amityville; 631-264-0564, toomeystavern.com (open year-round)

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