Dining underground on Long Island

A couple of weeks ago when I wrote about the various editions of the Underground Gourmet, I omitted Long Island and Honolulu because I couldn’t find those books. But then a reader generously sent me a copy of the Long Island Underground Gourmet.

If you were looking for inexpensive restaurants with good food on Long Island in 1973, you might have been disappointed by the Underground Gourmet. It has me puzzled. Why were so many restaurants rated as expensive and even very expensive included in the book? Was it because of the opening sentence in the Foreword which said , “People still persist in saying there are no good restaurants on The Island.”

That sentence and others that say Long Island “has long been in the shadow of New York” and is “unjustly ignored” make me think that demonstrating the existence of fine restaurants took precedence over advising readers where they could find good food at bargain prices. The author’s belief that the Island’s restaurants were not well regarded was reflected in a 1972 restaurant review in New York magazine with a pull-quote referring to the Hamptons area as “a culinary desert.”

But, indeed, just how wonderful were many of Long Island’s restaurants that were rated “expensive” ($10 to $14) or “very expensive” (“Bring your checkbook”)? Barbara Rader made some ambiguous assessments of some of them, not saying they were bad, but planting little seeds of doubt. For example, she commented that the “very expensive” Greenbriar in Great Neck was beautifully decorated but, “I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the food as the decor.” Of the expensive Sans Souci, in Sea Cliff, she wrote, “the food is fairly good.” Similarly, expensive-to-very-expensive Hadaway House in Stony Brook had “some fairly good dishes.” The venerable Beau Sejour (“expensive to very expensive”) in Bethpage offered “good-to-excellent food” but sounded as though it was on the point of collapse, with “paint and wallpaper . . . showing their years, the chairs . . . a bit rickety and the electric wires draped across the paintings on the dining porch . . .” It closed a short time later.

The book leaves the impression that if Rader had limited her survey to “finds” comparable to those in other Underground Gourmet editions it would have made for a very slim volume. About 38 of the 300+ eating places covered in the book are given “mini reviews” of one short paragraph. They are mainly seafood stands, pizza joints, luncheonettes, and diners. No price range is given for them, but presumably they would fall in the category of “low cost” (95 cents for a meal) or “inexpensive” (under $3). I wonder if some of these would have qualified as finds but not a lot is said about the quality of their food.

There is not a great deal of cultural variety represented in the book, but what little exists is captured in a few of the mini reviews. Examples include a soul food place (Reid’s Bar-B-Que in Copaigue); a Puerto Rican restaurant (La Lechonera in Brentwood); and Pepe’s Taco in Smithtown.

Perhaps to make up for the small number of bargain places with good food, the book concludes with 13 pages of chain and fast food restaurants. The section includes some local/regional chains such as Wetson’s, serving “Big Ws” at 16 Island locations. Her assessment of it is “Strictly a drive-in, mobbed with families with kids, or with young couples with poorly developed palates.” Of the Big W she says, “Stick with the plain hamburgers.”

Other restaurants that I would think could be considered finds fall in the inexpensive to moderate ranges ($3 to $7 for a meal). They include Linck’s Log Cabin in Centerport (“A food fantasy for families; good food”); The Elbow Room in Jamesport (“plain but excellent food”), Wyland’s Country Kitchen in Cold Spring Harbor (“good home cooking”), and Gil Clark’s in Bay Shore (“one of the best known seafood houses on The Island” with “better-than-average food”).

Rader as well as the NY Times’ critic Craig Claiborne were in agreement that the “expensive to very expensive” Capriccio in Jericho was, as Claiborne put it, “probably the finest restaurant on Long Island,” one that could easily compete with the city’s best. However, on the whole the Long Island UG makes me think that the Island still had one foot in the era when many customers prized decor, atmosphere, and deferential service over cuisine, and were not interested in adventurous dining.

The contrast between Long Island in 1973 and San Francisco in 1969, as painted in the two books, is quite striking.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022


Filed under guides & reviews, restaurant prices

2 responses to “Dining underground on Long Island

  1. Absolutely loved this! Long Island has some fascinating history!

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