A Longshoremen’s Retreat at the End of Brooklyn Gets a New Lease on Life

At first glance, The Long Island Bar looks almost as it did when the lights first went on for the original patrons back in 1951, and it should.

The 63-year-old neon signage of the Long Island Bar still glows like a lighthouse at the end of Atlantic Avenue near Brooklyn Bridge Park. The name — a scripty “Long Island” in crème de menthe green, and “BAR” and “RESTAURANT” in maraschino red — can be seen from blocks away, just like the welcoming beacon it once was for thirsty sailors back from the waterfront piers nearby.

At first glance, the place looks almost as it did when the lights first went on for the original patrons back in 1951, and it should. Owners Toby Cecchini and Joel Tompkins — the author/barkeep and former investment researcher who reopened the spot in October 2013 after it sat shuttered since 2007 — spent the better part of a year painstakingly restoring the spot — wires, pipes and all — scraping off five layers of old tile from the ceiling but otherwise freezing much of the bar’s bygone charm: A stunning Art Deco bar, travertine tiled floors, feathery-patterned Formica, old red-and-cream-colored high-back booth seats and frosted, tilting transom windows that leak in both the late-day glow and nighttime breezes.

Yet what’s served at both the bar and kitchen, while comfortingly familiar, is an ocean away from the Long Island Bar’s dusty, rusty-nail roots.

This you will slowly start to understand when you wander in, answering the bar’s friendly neon siren song, its final crescendo a peek through the broad picture window that reveals the honey tones of that mahogany bar in all its glory.

A snappy bartender — often the dashing Cecchini himself, who wears wire-rim owl-round spectacles and navy blue suspenders without irony — will hand you a demure six-by nine-inch menu, austere in both its black and beige appearance and seemingly in execution as well. There are only seven cocktails, unshowy in their simple descriptions, and, listed above them, ever-changing “Suggestions” from Cecchini: an aperitif, a whisky, a shot and a beer, a Paloma.

Simple stuff. But, then again, the whisky is a 12-year-old Hakashu; the Paloma, a pinch of salt, an ounce of fresh grapefruit juice, a half-ounce of fresh lime juice, a couple of ounces of Pueblo Viejo Blanco tequila and a generous top of San Pellegrino Pompelmo grapefruit soda. The shot and a beer, meanwhile, are barrel-aged Linie, a Norwegian aquavit, and Point Lager, a nod to Cecchini’s Wisconsin roots. So are the Green Bay Packers decanter sitting on the back bar and the fried cheese curds sourced from Ellsworth Creamery on the food side of things.

Those are part of a menu where the chef, Alinea alum Gabriel Martinez, serves trout roe with housemade rye crackers cut in the shape of its swimmy inspiration, carrot ribbons with sunflower sprouts, golden raisins and feta, but also a double-patty Fleisher’s Meats burger with American cheese. Martinez makes it himself: He whips up a cheese sauce of Reading raclette from Springbrook, Murray’s Cheese’s house yellow cheddar and a touch of gelatin and chills it in a log the same diameter as the burger so each slice melts just so.

The Long Island Bar is deceptive that way. Or rather it’s exactly the bar you dream of having as your local watering hole: easygoing yet stylish; smart but not pretentious; drinks that are so gorgeously balanced that you don’t even realize what’s going on behind the scenes — you just sip it and smile because it’s thoroughly great.

Like Cecchini’s version of the Boulevardier, a whiskey-based tipple that has seen a spike in cocktail-darling adoration around town. It arrives in a statuesque yet sturdy coupe glass, vibrant in its chilly, brick-hued glory. Sip it and it is the perfect balance of sweet, bitter and spice, like three-part family harmony. But see, it’s not just three parts, boom, boom, boom: It’s the result of 20-plus years of tinkering behind the bar on Cecchini’s part.

The simple-seeming 2:1:1 ratio of rye, sweet vermouth and Campari is, says Cecchini, “compounds of different products that I like to blend in order to round out the drink more.” That is: for the whiskey, an equal split of Rittenhouse bonded and Old Overholt; a two-to-one of Cinzano Rosso and Carpano Antica Formula for the vermouth.

“The Campari, thankfully, is simply Campari,” he shrugs.

Cecchini, if you didn’t know, is a both an author (Cosmopolitan: A Bartender’s Life) and a bit of a cocktail legend. In a “he invented the Internet!” bit of lore, this 27-year veteran of the bar world is irrefutably credited with the famed Cosmo (or perhaps its reinvention — it had the name, but not the ingredients that made it what it is now), back in the day when he worked at Keith McNally’s Odeon in Manhattan, shaking up drinks for Madonna, Lou Reed and Basquiat. Something you’d think would make him a boisterous, flare-favoring mixer, but instead to witness him make a drink is like watching a magician seamlessly, elegantly flow through a trick. He has a way of touching things and yet looking like he’s not touching them at all. Just like the Long Island Bar.

“Joel and I both loved this place because it reminded us of the kind of old taverns where we grew up,” Cecchini says, referring to his upbringing in Madison, Wisconsin, and Tompkins’ in Oneonta, New York. (Although, Cecchini admits, he found the spot a bit foreboding when he’d first stumbled upon it in the ’80s, visiting an old girlfriend who lived in the nabe.)

The two men, who both live nearby, originally met back in the mid-aughts when Cecchini was the proprietor of Passerby, a beloved, bodacious bar on the lower edge of Chelsea where Tompkins’s wife used to hang out. Tompkins had been moonlighting on his day job as a researcher for the investment firm D. E. Shaw, in Midtown, with a Brooklyn supper club near BAM called Coach Peaches. Eventually, he found his way to nights behind the bar at Passerby, too, interested in the art of mixing a good drink.

They struck up a friendship and, in time, a mutual vision for the ultimate neighborhood bar. When Passerby lost its lease in 2008, they embarked on the hunt for their future watering hole’s home — they just didn’t know it would take five years to find what was right in their own backyards.

Tompkins, who lives in Cobble Hill, long loved the beautiful Long Island Bar and began leaving messages in earnest for the elderly owner of the spot, one Emma Montero Sullivan who, with her two female cousins, ran the place as a working-man’s watering hole until it closed in 2007. (The women were part of a seafaring, ex-pat contingent from northern Spain that once owned many a spot up and down Atlantic Avenue.)

Tompkins’s persistent but polite pleas to bid on the space were left unanswered. Meanwhile, leases were signed and lost on other spots, and as the years wore on, the whole project began to seem doomed.

Until one lucky day when Cecchini got to chatting with a young man in local shop who said his grandmother owned the perfect space. He had a key, and offered to take Cecchini down to see it: It was the Long Island Bar.

Sullivan and her cousins accepted their bid the next day. The three women — whose names are on gold plaques on the back of three high-backed red stools on the Atlantic Avenue side of the bar — wouldn’t come in until the renovations were done. When they finally did, they knew they’d made the right decision, says Cecchini, recalling Emma’s response.

“She had tears in her eyes and she said, ‘It looks like the day it opened!’”

It does. But perhaps better still for the bar’s new regulars, it eats and drinks like the present.

Photo credit: Vicky Wasik

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Amy Zavatto is the daughter of an old school Italian butcher who used to sell bay scallops alongside steaks, and is also the former Deputy Editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She holds her Level III Certification in Wine and Spirits from the WSET, and contributes to Imbibe, Whisky Advocate, SOMMJournal, Liquor.com, and others. She is the author of Forager's Cocktails: Botanical Mixology with Fresh, Natural Ingredients and The Architecture of the Cocktail. She's stomped around vineyards from the Finger Lakes to the Loire Valley and toured distilleries everywhere from Kentucky to Jalisco to the Highlands of Scotland. When not doing all those other things, Amy is the Director of the Long Island Merlot Alliance.