Later that day, when David McLachlan arrived for his 5:30 reservation, a cucumber martini would be at his table before he even asked, some duck tacos would soon follow, the scallops over lobster risotto would be dependably delicious, and everything would be as it always had been, quite as if his cancer was under control, even though it really wasn’t. View, the Oakdale restaurant that the 58-year-old Bohemia resident was heading to, would keep its part of the bargain, too, pretending to be the same place even though it really wasn’t. After closing down last March along with the rest of the world, View scrambled to reopen in May—a classy enough dining experience reimagined as a pop-up lobster shack offering delivery, takeout and dockside pickup for boaters moored at the Great South Bay restaurant—while waiting for indoor dining restrictions to be lifted.
"I was there the first week it reopened," recalled McLachlan, who fell in love with View five years ago. He has been going with his wife ever since, usually around three times a month, pandemic months excluded. Early on, visiting restaurants was an obvious risk for the immunocompromised, even outdoors, but McLachlan missed his favorite place and knew View would take seriously its responsibility to patrons. His first meals were at tables outside, but eventually he cautiously reentered the dining room, along with the rest of us.
When the pandemic began more than a year ago, the dining rooms of everyone’s favorite places, the ones we loved more than any other, morphed from hallowed venues to seats of danger overnight, and then went dark all over the Island, some never to return. We missed them terribly, but for our own safety ate elsewhere—homes, cars, parks. When table service resumed, we were exiled to sidewalks and tents, peering longingly through glass at rooms where we’d spent hours and hours of our lives over years and years. Gazing at pristine interiors gone dusty and cluttered with worktables covered with takeout boxes, an inevitable question arose: What had we loved so much in there?
"That feeling you get the moment you walk through the door," ventured McLachlan.
"It’s somewhat hard to explain, but I’ve always felt that our dining rooms have an energy and spirit to them," said Mark Lessing, head of a group that owns several Island restaurants with adoring fan bases, View included. He quickly corrected himself. "It’s not the room itself. When the place is closed, the dining room doesn’t have that spirit to it. But when it is filled with friends meeting friends, families getting together, team members greeting them with smiles— it’s just such a special place."
In hopes of discovering the secret to such specialness, I visited a few places that consistently find themselves on Long Islanders’ lists of favorites, noticing first that all were geniuses at making holidays out of the odd Tuesday, for both guests and staff.
"I remember sometimes on the busy nights, I’d have waiters come to me and say, ‘I love this, it’s like Christmas,’ even though you could barely make your way through the dining room, even though it was the middle of the summer," said Constantin Arama of Peter Luger in Great Neck, who manages the steak house’s legendary, sometimes cranky waitstaff, a squad hit hard by the pandemic. One died from COVID-19 just a week after lockdown, another succumbed to a heart attack, six more retired.
Service is a big part of why people fall in love with restaurants, noted Arama, exactly the thing you would expect a former waiter to say. His career at Peter Luger began 15 years ago when, after applying three times, he was finally hired at age 26—so young, customers teasingly asked who he’d killed to get a job at the famously turnover-free establishment. (Great Neck’s Luger averages one server opening every five years.)
Service can be good anywhere, of course, but when it’s that special place, crossing the threshold means entering a world in which you’re instantly a more celebrated version of yourself. There, everyone is happy to see you. Always. There, you are too important for half-full water glasses, and every decision you make is the right one. ("Great choice!") No problem is of your own making ("I asked for medium-rare"), and they really do care if you like the shrimp cocktail, so much so that you can be honest and say no, at which point an army of people in the kitchen and elsewhere will fret, rededicating themselves entirely to the project of keeping your entire table in a state of culinary bliss until the moment you depart.
"Luger was totally different from anything I’d worked at—the intensity, the volume, the expectations by the clientele," Arama said, noting, too, that the steak house’s fierce resistance to change was a big part of its appeal. Diners wanted the same decor, the same servers, the same German fried potatoes and creamed spinach, and Luger obliged them. It’s no accident that there’s been no major addition to its menu since rib eyes were added during a beef shortage. In 2008.
That special place tends to be off-trend and proudly so. "You know these places where you go to pick up some woman at the bar on a Thursday night?" said Steven Scheiner, owner-chef of The Jolly Fisherman & Steak House in Roslyn. "That’s not us."
"He is definitely not looking to be the flashiest," laughed Scheiner’s wife, Lori.
"We aren’t new and shiny," agreed Scheiner, whose father, Fred, started the place in 1957, "but if you want a great lobster—that’s Jolly Fisherman."
His resistance to flash and shine has had its downsides. "For a while, the joke was, when you walked through the dining room, it looked like a cotton field. Everybody had white hair. We got a reputation for being an old age home, and it took a long time to get rid of that."
Even now, loyalists view his menu as sacrosanct—a framed copy of the original hangs near the front door— and any change risks bitter backlash.
"Anybody with a brain has stopped selling them," Scheiner said of the restaurant’s fried Ipswich clams, which once cost him $22 a gallon but now go for $178. "A lot of my items are not available in restaurants anymore." One of these: his superb house-made banana cream pie, a Jolly Fisherman specialty. Years ago, a stranger noticed the restaurant’s insignia on Scheiner’s jacket while he was vacationing in Europe. " ‘Is that the place with the pie?’ the guy said. True story."
All restaurants value a certain amount of predictability, but at that special place, the audience demands it, and the restaurant caves, especially when it comes to menu items. "I had this lobster deal one time for $21.95," recalled Butch Yamali, who owns and operates Jericho’s venerable Milleridge Inn. "I thought the place would fill up. I got three people. But if I put pot roast on sale, the place is packed."
"This building is built on sauerbraten and pot roast," agreed executive chef Christopher Seidl, his voice a mixture of amusement and resignation. "That’s what makes The Milleridge what it is." Still, Seidl tries valiantly to "bring some new life to the place" with his menu and every so often, he succeeds. One of the hottest menu items these days is also one of the newest: a pot roast ... sandwich.
That night, George Seropian was sitting with his wife, Josephine, in a corner of the dining room, a plate of The Milleridge’s fan-favorite apple strudel between them. "My first time was, I think, 1968," he said, ticking o some personal Milleridge milestones. "I had my first communion here, my college graduation. My parents’ 50th anniversary was this year." Nearby, a pile of logs blazed and crackled in a fireplace. "The only thing missing from this place is the marshmallows."
Another thing about that special place: Invariably, you leave a bit of your life there. During the pandemic’s ceaseless misery, much attention has been rightly paid to the financial losses suffered by restaurants and the vast network of personnel and suppliers whose livelihoods depend on them. Less often mentioned is what’s been lost by those who patronize restaurants, we the public, who depend on them to bring meaning and moment to our lives. What has become of all those uncelebrated birthdays and bat mitzvahs, retirement parties and marriage proposals? Without restaurants to separate the befores from the afters in our lives, what happens to us?
"It’s sad, all the little things you can’t do," said Seidl, whose parents celebrated his christening at The Milleridge. "I have a friend who’s getting married in a small little ceremony, and then next year they’re going to have a big party. But what about the 100th-birthday parties? The sweet 16s? Those are things you can never get back. That’s what hurts."
"I get goosebumps at Luger all the time," said Arama. "I saw a little girl the other day, I remember her mother being pregnant, and now she’s 9 years old. I just set up a reservation for a kid who I’ve known since he was 7 or 8. Now he’s calling me for a favor, to get a table for him and his date." A third memory: a boy celebrating a 16th birthday with his mom. "I stopped by the table. His mother said he didn’t want a party. The only thing he wanted was a porterhouse-for-four.’ " Arama scrolled his phone for a picture. "We put a candle on it and sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ That’s all he wanted."
Recently, Mark Lessing was in Florida hiring for some new restaurants he’s opening there. "Two people came up to me after the orientation and told me they had met their significant others at the Post Office Café in Babylon. In Florida!" he said, still a bit in shock. "I always think that’s a great first-date spot. It has that fun vibe, and it’s kind of safe, too. You can always slip out the back if you don’t like the way things are going." If things do go well, other Lessing’s properties await. "When they start getting more serious, I think that’s when they go to Sandbar and View," he laughed, "and then they pop the question at Mirabelle."
Restaurants figure into so many of our Big Days, it sometimes seems like nothing important happens anywhere else. In July, The Jolly Fisherman is hosting a wedding for a woman whose mother was also married at the restaurant. "And her parents were married in my grandfather’s restaurant," said Scheiner.
Even death need not separate you from that special place. "The most popular party we have here is for funeral homes," admitted Butch Yamali. "People who know they’re going to die say, ‘I want to have my party at Milleridge.’ I guess they have a lot of memories here and they want them in the end."
It seems fitting that our special places outlive us. After all, they wouldn’t have become favorites in the first place if we hadn’t judged them enduring enough to keep our memories safe. Great restaurants have been through this all before, we tell ourselves, and will soldier on, pandemic or no.
Fred Scheiner opened The Jolly Fisherman when Steve was 3. When he was 8, he remembers his father coming home from the restaurant in his white apron, still smelling of fish, sweat and Scotch. When he dropped out of college at 20, Steve agreed to work at the restaurant temporarily, which he’s now been doing for 46 years. But until last year, his dad still ate lunch there five days a week, even though he’d retired years earlier, and was still the only one Steve trusted to tell him when the Manhattan clam chowder was too tomatoey. At present, Fred is 93 and in an assisted living facility, but Steve has no doubt he’ll be testing the chowder again very soon.
"He’s very, very frail physically, but mentally he’s very fit and getting his vaccination," he said. "I saw him yesterday and told him that as soon as the pandemic is over, I’m going to bring him here for lunch. He’ll be back, even if we have to bring him in a wheelchair."
THE JOLLY FISHERMAN & STEAK HOUSE: 25 Main St., Roslyn; 516-621-0055, jollyfishermanrestaurant.com
THE MILLERIDGE INN: 585 N. Broadway, Jericho; 516-931-2201, milleridgeinn.com
PETER LUGER STEAK HOUSE: 255 Northern Blvd., Great Neck; 516-487-8800, peterluger.com
VIEW: 3 Consuelo Place, Oakdale; 631-589-2694, lessings.com