From the street, much of Brooklyn Heights looks similar to how it did 60 years ago. On the inside, however, shops and restaurants tend to offer a different story.
But not if you walk in The Long Island Bar.
“Our goal was to make it look like we hadn’t really touched the place,” said Joel Tompkins, 41, one of the owners of The Long Island Bar, which reopened on Atlantic Avenue in 2013. “I think, in general, New Yorkers love eating and drinking in old establishments. Like McSorley’s or old hotel bars in midtown — I suppose they imagine themselves eating and drinking in the same space that figures they think about romantically did.”
Red and white striped vinyl booths and neon signage evoke a perfectly retro atmosphere where sipping a gimlet in dim lighting feels almost mandatory. The bar, which holds on to its 1950s past in pretty much everything except the electrical and plumbing, is one of several area businesses making an effort to recapture the old way of doing things.
Peter Freeman, co-owner of Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain in Carroll Gardens and “head jerk,” was living above what was then a shuttered pharmacy when he got the idea to revamp it.
“The space was kind of a kooky time capsule. You could only see through the front windows, but even that was obscured by centuries of junk,” he said. “But it was beautiful — you could see very clearly that it was a special space.”
Freeman got the owner to agree to rent him the space and he set about restoring it, but Freeman quickly ran into problems: serious structural issues, termites, plumbing and electrical issues, and at least $90,000 just to fix the basement.
(That’s when a woman pulled up asking for directions to Fairway and, in a movie-like twist of fate, happened to be a casting director for a construction show looking for a season finale. “Within two weeks of meeting her, they showed up with a crew of about 50 people, threw us out and four days later turned over the keys to a soda fountain,” Freeman said, opening in 2010)
The 1920s penny tile floors, pressed tin ceilings, and pharmaceutical cabinets are all still there, adding an authentic ambience to the egg creams and milkshakes that draws the neighborhood in droves.
“I really think it’s a multigenerational draw of something like a soda fountain or another nostalgic business. It’s something a whole family can be involved in,” Freeman said. “It’s what people remember this neighborhood being — a place where you can go and sit at a counter and know the people who are serving you, who are sitting next to you. That’s what you want from New York City.”
Sometimes the draw is simply about reopening an old business to make the food as you think it should be made. That was the case with Juliana’s, the pizzeria Patsy Grimaldi opened about five years ago in the same spot he founded his namesake, Grimaldi’s Pizzeria.
After selling his original restaurant, and the name, Grimaldi retired. Only he wasn’t quite ready to retire.
“He couldn’t keep away from it, couldn’t help himself going around to pizzerias telling people ‘you’re doing it wrong,’ ” said co-founder Matthew Grogan, who started as a customer himself. “I think we’re offering the same thing, it’s a little beyond just bringing back old New York. We’re trying to put the best damn pizza in the world on your plate.”
Grogan said Grimaldi’s goal is simple: to make “pizza the way it was made 100 years ago.” And who better than a New York legend (Frank Sinatra was a family friend, after all).
While DUMBO is a lot different from when Grimaldi first opened his pizzeria in 1990, the new shop still evokes an old Brooklyn vibe with creamy egg creams, Grimaldi himself greeting diners, and the first coal-fired oven commissioned in New York in more than 50 years, according to the restaurant. And don’t forget the lines.
There often tends to be a 20-year cycle as people become nostalgic for things from their own childhood, said Mitch Broder, author of “Discovering Vintage New York.”
“At some point they want to feel some connection to something that’s more than just the latest thing,” Broder said. “There are still people with heart and people with dreams of bringing things back — that’s part of the motivation. People often are delighted to discover it themselves after it’s brought back to them.”
Broder said the “hunger” for authenticity is nothing new, but he doesn’t see it as something that will take over the city as a whole.
“It doesn’t seem like there is ever going to be a return to streets filled with places that look like the past,” he said.
So for now, New Yorkers can fill up on egg creams, coal-fired pizza, cognac and more because, at least in Brooklyn, nostalgia is alive and well.