Sunday, May 21, 2017

BAYSIDE, THE BIRTHPLACE OF A FOODIE



Bell Boulevard - Bayside's Main Street


BAYSIDE, THE BIRTHPLACE OF A FOODIE
An Homage to Sal’s & McElroy’s


I love food, especially food eaten in restaurants… from funky diner cheeseburgers to five course meals at The French Laundry.  I also love writing about food, so much so that besides this food blog, I am the food and drink writer for the glossy magazine, the Ojai Quarterly… but Bayside (Queens, Long Island, New York) and much of the world were indifferent to fine dining when I was growing up in the late 50’s and 60’s. Fine dining was for people in Manhattan.  The foodie and fast food culture was decades away. Fast food “restaurants” weren’t on every corner and family restaurant chains were few and far between. People in Bayside mostly ate at home. 

Oh, we had a couple of Chinese restaurants in neighboring towns such as Flushing… you know the ones where sweet & sour everything reigned alongside gooey pork lo mein.  And for “special” occasions like Mother’s Day, graduations, or Easter Sunday there was always Patricia Murphy’s family friendly Candlelight Inn in Manhasset, a bit of a car ride schlep on Northern Blvd, but that just made it more “special.” 

And, I loved it when my dad would pack up my mom, brother and me into the car and drive us to Howard Johnson’s in Little Neck (or was it Douglaston? Great Neck?) for a family dinner of burgers with that “secret sauce” and fried clams… or when he took us to the car hop diner across from Kiddy City on Northern.

But these were “family” restaurants and weren’t in Bayside. There were no Thai, Korean or Greek restaurants in town, nor French or nouvelle cuisine restaurants for that matter.  But Bayside did have Sal’s Italian fare, and McElroy’s, an Anglo-American is it a pub, a bar, a restaurant? restaurant.

Even though we would walk “downstreet" to Sal’s on Bell Boulevard (as my New England bred mother would say), going there as a family seemed a very grown-up outing.  

The old movie house marquee that is no longer a movie house

This wasn’t a kids’ place… it was an “adult” neighborhood red sauce restaurant. I usually put on a dress for dinner at Sal’s. The dining room had a couple of Italian scenic paintings, white table cloths and red candle “globes” in plastic webbing, after all. Atmosphere. It was at Sal’s that I had my first pizza (pizza chains weren’t even in their embryo stage). 

Of course, we always started with a “first course” salad made of iceberg lettuce, cut up tomatoes, shaved carrots and maybe an olive or two. You had a choice of dressings including “Russian” (ketchup and mayo), Italian or blue cheese.  Blue cheese dressing!  How exotic was that?  When we didn’t have pizza (another exotic food to me), spaghetti with meatballs was our family’s popular second choice. There was no fettuccine alfredo or picatta or marsala anything on the menu, though I think steak pizziaola, eggplant parm and lasagna made nightly appearances.

It didn’t matter if the food was good or bad, to be at Sal’s, sitting at a white table-clothed table, white cloth napkin on my lap, having foreign food made me feel worldly and oh so sophisticated (well, I was in a dress). Yes, mom made spaghetti, even eggplant parm, but that was at home, and I could only have pizza at Sal’s (I never counted the pizza my mom made using American cheese and a slice of tomato on an English muffin).

After my dinners at Sal’s, I yearned to go to McElroy’s. But for me, McElroy’s was for grown-ups only. It was the place in town where my parents could go “on a date,” sometimes after seeing a movie at the old Bayside movie theater.  A sitter would show up at our house and dad would put on a sports jacket and mom a dress and they’d take the car “downstreet.”  I wanted to go, or at least be a fly on the wall so that I could discover the mystery of McElroy’s. What was behind its doors? What kind of food did they serve? Was it really forbidden to children?

I think I was about ten when I got my first glimpse inside. I was strolling down Bell Blvd. when I came to the restaurant. Its doors were open and I couldn’t resist. I peeked inside.  It was dark with a bit of amber glow from a few lighted lamps that was diluted by the daylight glare streaming in from the street through the open door.  I squinted to focus my eyes and saw a dark wooden (probably mahogany) bar and a few tables. Liquor bottles were lined up behind the bar like bowling pins and I wondered where the coca cola soda fountain dispenser was. I guessed that grown-ups didn’t drink cokes when they went out to dinner by themselves.

I liked what I saw. The room reminded me of bars I’d seen in old movies on TV where Nick and Nora Charles might get a nightcap, though I had no idea what a nightcap was. But it wasn’t until my dad died and I was in my early teens that I got to finally experience McElroy’s… the food and the total restaurant ambiance. 

My mom was working for a local contractor and asked my brother and me to meet her there for dinner. I was stunned. We were still kids! But I trusted she knew what she was doing even though I was at the age where I thought she was the dumbest adult on the planet.

My brother put on a good shirt and I wore my nicest skirt and blouse. It was summer, so the sun was still shining when we walked “downstreet” to the restaurant where she was waiting outside to take us in.

It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dimly lit bar, but once they did, I felt I had entered another world. As we went into the adjacent dining room and were seated at a table I was overcome with déjà vu. Why did I feel comfortable in this cozy dark wood paneled room? I thought. Why did it feel so familiar? As I looked at the menu with entrees of Salisbury steak, pork chops, chicken and London broil, it came to me. I felt as if I was in Manhattan’s famous Sardi’s that I had read so much about in movie magazines, sans all the drawings of famous theater people. I had arrived!

My mom ordered a perfect Rob Roy and I was given permission to have a coke with dinner (brought to me in a bottle). I ordered the London broil with mashed potatoes and peas and when I finished every last morsel, I thought it was the best meal I’d ever eaten. In fact, the mashed potatoes were instant and the peas canned, but I didn’t know that. Even if I had, it wouldn’t have mattered, my palate was not that educated and I was in love with the room.  Atmosphere.

I went to McElroy’s many times for dinner after that and each time I ordered the London broil with those potatoes and peas. I was never disappointed. I loved it there, and years later when I was a young writer in New York, I loved going to Sardi’s. Each represented my parents’ era, a pre and post WWII time I found so very sophisticated and glamorous. I wanted to be Kate Hepburn in “Stage Door” or Bette Davis in just about anything.

The last time I was in McElroy’s was the weekend I left my Manhattan apartment to go home to Bayside for my mother’s wedding shower. Eight years after my dad died, my mom had found a man whom she wanted to marry and family and friends from near and far came for the shower.

Afterward, some of us ladies met up with our husbands and boyfriends at McElroy’s for nightcaps (I had had a few nightcaps by then – often in Sardi’s). We sat at the bar and toasted my mom as memories of my London broil dinners and of mom going there on dates with my dad came flooding back.

A memorable restaurant for me is not always about the food… it’s about the feeling the room gives you and the memories it may trigger or the memories you create there. In that context McElroy’s and Sal’s were memorable, so when I walked Bell Blvd. the last time I was in Bayside after a thirty year absence, I was sad to see that both these restaurants were gone. There are so many more choices in Bayside now and I hope some of these new restaurants will feed fond memories to those who go there.

Bourbon Street - one of the hippest bars in Queens - and written up in the NYTimes


I wish I had had time to dine in all of them, creating new Bayside memories and food fodder for my blog.

For now, I’m content with the glorious memory of instant mashed potatoes and canned peas… and dinner with my mom.



10 comments:

Sandra Lewin said...

Ilona,what wonderful memories!Do you remember or did you go to Woodie's in Essex? It has changed some now, but back in the day the lobsters were out front crawling around to entice you and the fried clams were almost the best around. Farnhams were the best. Both were places my family went to when we were "back east". Now I have different choices.

Anonymous said...

Lovely evocative memories of a time long past. Thank you for sharing. They say that only specifics can resonate as universal, and this piece has awakened a lot of long forgotten family dining experiences.

Susan Leroux said...

Having grown up during the same time period and in the same town as you did although I was 2 years ahead of you I have almost the same memories of Bayside, the Howard Johnson clam dinners at 10 did not excite my then uneducated palate but and so when my first taste left me cold, my dad told me that it was "good, because they were too expensive for me anyway" only made them more desirable and years later that was my Saturday go to dinner. I didn't go to McElroy's with my parents at any age so had to wait until I was 18 to make into the bar/restaurant where a few years later my then fiancee and I went to celebrate our engagement and you are right , it then reminded me of Sardi's where I also frequented later in life. I stayed in Bayside longer than you did and saw the evolution of choices, with UNO's Chicago Pizza become the first chain restaurant but long before a "pizza parlor" had opened up which my friends and I frequented on a Friday evening, more a gegitmate hangout type of place as long as you kept ordering something. For the life of me though I cannot place what you are referring to as Sal's Try as I might I can only place Stella's which was just off the corner of 38th before Buzz and Mac's and the movies and one block down from our church. I know we have shared so many Bayside memories in common but this one eludes me Stella's is the only Italian restaurant that fits the description of white table cloths and napkins but I didn't start going there until I was about 18, seems my culinary world started opening up about that time when dates included trips to Manhattan and drives out on the island Is it possible that before I was going there it was Sal's and then became Stella's. With my grandmother living with us we didn't go out to eat much in the early days and like you said there weren't many choices, but Manhattan trips always included dinner at some place that seemed exotic to me. Luchow's,, Keene's chop house, anywhere in LIttle Italy sstand out but I am sure there were many others. Since I lived in Bayside until 1997 the evolution of dining was not always what it seemed. Donvan's then became the place to go or you went further afield.

kdmask said...

I think every kid shares memories like this!! I grew up in a tiny town in the middle of "no where" the larger cities Rochester/Buffalo were 200 miles away!! I grew up on Mom/Pop places and some still exist 50 years later. If we went out for a more "Fancy" dinner it was in a neighboring smaller city 40 miles away. So, it was an adventure to get dressed up and pile in the car for the drive. Great Italian place called "The Castle" which --looked like a Castle. So 60's-70's cheesy but great memories!
Great blog. I could sit here and dish about childhood food experiences all day !

Anonymous said...

What beautiful memories. A knowing laugh at the "coke in a bottle". The ultimate big kid moment to be trusted with a bottle! Norrth

ilona saari said...

Sandra, the only restaurant I went to was in the Griswald(sp?)Inn in Old Saybrook a few times when I was an adult - still a favorite memory. I have scant memories of Essex since we moved to Bayside when I was 3 or 4.

Anonymous said...

Lovely article!!!
It brought back so many memories of eating out(which was such s big deal) with my mom and dad in the Oil refinery town of Elizabeth New Jersey...
Eugenia

LBC said...

Loved this! I, too, loved Sal's, although I wouldn't touch pizza until I wanted to impress my older sister's boyfriend be eating "grown up " food. McElroys was where my husband and I invited my parents to join us one night to tell them that we were having our first baby. Sat at the bar just like real adults, too. It will always hold a special place in my memories. But what about Schmitt's? Hung out there after school with Melinda Lee and talked about boys, boys and more boys! Best grilled cheese sandwich ever! Bayside was a special place with its proximity to all the City had to offer, but also all the small town comforts of home.

ilona saari said...

Loved Schmidtt's - hung out there w/ Gisela and other friends after school, too. I guess it was our "Mel's Diner" like in "Happy Days." And yes, the grilled cheese was fabulous. And I loved the black & white ice cream sodas.

ilona saari said...

And I totally agree that Bayside was a special place then - a fabulous town to grow up in. Thanx all for sharing your memories. I hope more people will, too.