27 August 2008

Lost City: Albany Edition: Jack's Oyster House

On a recent trip to Upstate New York, I was talking to a local businessman and asked him if there were any old bars or restaurants in Albany that captured the city's past, the world of William Kennedy's novels. I was crestfallen when he shook his head and said, "All of that is gone." Then he remembered one place: Jack's Oyster House.

You can tell from just the name that Jack's is old. It still serves oysters, just to keep up tradition. I imagine in the old days the bivalves played a much bigger role. It was founded in 1913 by Jack Rosenstein, a former oyster shucker who actually hated oysters. The restaurant was on Beaver Street. In 1937, it moved to its present location on State Street, just a stone's throw from the Capital Building.

Now you know no restaurant is going to survive that long in Albany without the patronage of politicians. And Jack's gets them in droves. During a recent August lunch visit, the place was pretty barren except for a gigantic telemarketer jawing nonstop to his parents about all the tricks of his trade. He sure looked like a politician; the back-room, cigar-chomping kind. Otherwise, nobody. Albany goes on vacation in August, like everyone else. The waitress pointed out a large booth in the back, however, as being the Governor's Booth.

Jack's is still run by the Rosenstein family, the third generation. It survived the Depression and the awful "urban renewal" years of the '60s and '70s. It never closes. Not even on Christmas Day.

The Menu includes a few things that supposedly have been there since 1913, including the Manhattan Chowder, which I tried. They also boast a Bloody Mary using a "1913 recipe," which I didn't try, and which I'm going to publicly dispute here as bullshit. Most drink experts credit Fernand Petiot, an American bartender at Harry's New York Bar in Paris during the 1920s, as inventing the Bloody Mary. It didn't arrive on these shores until the 1930s and didn't become widely popular until after WWII. If Jack's made a Bloody Mary in 1913, they're saying they invented the cocktail. And I doubt they're saying that.

Nonetheless, Jack's is a pretty swell place. Old booths, wooden walls, mirrored back wall, checked floor, bentwood chairs, chandeliers. Albany lawmakers deserve a place like this to scheme and unwind.

Below is a picture of the Jack's building before it became Jack's. Hm. When's the last time you went to an Oriental Occidental Restaurant?


Ken Mac said...

this alone is reason enough to visit Albany.

Editorial Staff said...

You're Albany informer was wrong - there are plenty of Old Albany places in and around the city. I was told by the new owner that The Palais Royale holds Albany's oldest liquor license, and Pauly's Hotel has the second oldest. No doubt some of the working class bars in Albany's North end along Broadway have been around for quite awhile. Old Albany can also be found in City Hall, St Mary's Church (I believe the oldest in upstate New York), the Miss Albany Diner, the old Railroad Station, the old Hudson Day Lines building (now a restaurant I believe), and hundreds of other places. Your informant apparently suffers from the same kind of forgetfulness that Mayor Jennings has, to the detriment of the Albany's historic resources.

By the way, love the blog.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Glad to hear it, John Warren. I will look into these places on my next visit.

Daniel B. said...

Should you still be interested in this kind of thing, you will want to check out The Orchard Tavern in Albany. It goes back even further.

Kevin Chun said...

The Oriental-Occidental Restaurant belonged to my great grand father and grand uncle.
Our family still owns and uses items we collectively have from this restaurant - serving dishes, mother of pearl in-laid tables, a lantern light fixture and some portions of the gold leafed room dividers of Chinese design. My late father spoke of the place many times, his living siblings frequently mention the restaurant at various family gathering. It was one of the first places they lived when they came to America having been expelled from Australia due a 7 year limits on non-nationals. This was prior to 1928.