With Brooks 1890 Restaurant in Long Island City, the "Who Goes There?" feature I write for Eater ventures for the first time into Queens. (Manhattan has been covered fairly well, so far; Brooklyn has been the focus twice; The Bronx and Staten Island not at all. Suggestions are welcome!)
Few old New York restaurants look more like a movie set than Brooks 1890. One can easily imagine Big Tim Sullivan, smoking a big cigar, adjusting his derby, his huge stomach straining against a fine tweed vest, walking through the entrance and down the stairs of the boxy, red-brick building.
For whatever reason, Brooks 1890 has never been as celebrated, or even noticed, as much as its fellows of the same basic era—Peter Luger, Old Homestead, Keen's, P.J. Clarke's. You can barely find much evidence it even exists on the Internet. It has no website, and, in this day of Menupages and the like, there's no copy of its bill of fare on the web. Curious.
Here's what I found out:
Who Goes There? Brooks 1890 Restaurant
On approach, Brooks 1890 Restaurant can look like the Last Restaurant on Earth, so lonely and isolated does it appear on its dark corner of Long Island City’s Jackson Boulevard. But sitting inside, looking at the grand Long Island City Court House, clearly visible through the windows, and watching the commuters emerge from and descending into the 23rd St/Ely Avenue stop of the E and V lines—which lies directly alongside the north end of the building—one can imagine how, decades ago, this dark-wood bar and eatery reigned as the designated chop house of back-room Queens politics.
It still gets its share of jurists and local union officials, but they come mainly for lunch, when the trade is enough to fill out the larger dining room accessible through a door to the left of the bar. (There is a “Jurist’s Special” at lunch.) At dinnertime, the lights are switched off in that room, and the place is quiet as a graveyard, with a few loyal customers eating solo, and a handful of regulars holding up the bar. Traffic dies down so, that most nights, Brooks rolls up the sidewalk around 8 PM (though the management doesn’t complain if some wish to hang out a little longer).
The bill of fare is simple—burgers, sandwiches, Italian dishes, various cuts of meat. Portions are generous and prices are reasonable. The only exotic aspect of the menu is the offer to prepare any meat dish “Brooks style.” This involves the deployment of plenty of onions, oregano and lemon, and is not a bad way to embellish your dish. There’s also a “Bobby Burger” (fried onions, bacon and blue cheese), named after a frequent diner who likes his patties that way.
The bar room has all the Gilded Age touches you’d expect from a joint founded in 1890—tile floor, tin ceilings (painted a unique and engaging combination of ochre and sagebrush), touches of stained glass—but is more snug that is usually the case. The slightly elevated, L-shaped dining area is separated from the bar by a series of dark wooden pillars. The walls are unusually free of the typical historical paraphernalia you see in these sort of places—no plaques or old photos; just one newspaper clipping.
Which brings up to the most frustrating aspect of Brooks 1890 Restaurant. Its origins are an unsolved case, one which nobody working there seems very keen on cracking. Mr. Brooks (actually Bill "Brooks" Gounaris) bought the place in the 1970s and stuck his name everywhere—on the sign hanging from the building, even on the sidewalk outside the entrance. But what went on in the place during the 70 years before that is anybody’s guess. The letters “K” and “N” are part of a beautiful, stained-glass canopy behind the bar. These likely stand for the last names of the founders of the restaurant, but nobody knows who “K” and “N” were.
Did they serve pork chops “K & N Style”? Could be.
—Brooks of Sheffield