How New Owners Revamped Brooklyn’s Historic Long Island Bar

The longshoremen who jammed the Brooklyn bars once lining the foot of Atlantic Avenue are gone, and the bars themselves have dwindled to just a handful, but the large neon marquee at the corner of Henry Street has recently sputtered back to life in wraparound red and green letters. “Every time we light it, people go bonkers,” says Toby Cecchini, who, along with partner Joel Tompkins, somehow stumbled into one of the city’s most elusive commercial leases: that of Long Island Bar & Restaurant, a mid-century diner and neighborhood landmark that has sat shuttered for the last six years in all its vestigial Art Deco glory.

The restaurant has been run by owner Emma Sullivan and her cousins Pepita and Maruja Fernández for as long as anyone can remember. “I started leaving notes under the door about four years ago,” says Tompkins, co-founder of the Coach Peaches supper club and an erstwhile bartender at Cecchini’s defunct meatpacking tavern Passerby. Tompkins eventually heard from Marissa Alperin, the granddaughter of Emma Sullivan, who owns a jewelry studio nearby. “She was very nice,” he says, “but politely said, ‘Sorry, they’re not interested.’ ”

By chance, however, Cecchini made the acquaintance of Emma’s grandson and, through him, Emma herself. She and her cousins were ultimately won over by the prospective tenants’ experience and their intention to faithfully preserve and restore the space. They have made one change: Long Island Bar & Restaurant has become Long Island Bar. (Although the kitchen is surprisingly spacious, Tompkins and Cecchini have yet to hire a chef.)

Things are firmer on the beverage front: Cecchini, after all, is a bit of a legend in bartending circles—not only for running Passerby but for inventing the modern Cosmopolitan at the Odeon in the late eighties. On matters potable, he is quite particular. For one thing, he has pointedly decided not to invest in a fashionable Kold-Draft ice machine, known for making super-dense cubes that take longer to melt. “I believe in a ferocious amount of dilution in cocktails,” says Cecchini. “To make them palatable and to chill them.” He adds that the drinks will be “straightforwardish,” and there may not be a printed menu at all.

When the doors open in the next week or so, expect very subtle twists on classics like the Jack Rose, the Boulevardier, and the Corpse Reviver. It’s undoubtedly this immunity to trends that helped Cecchini and Tompkins secure the space. That, plus the way their respect for the hangout’s past melds with their vision for its future. In Tompkins’s words: “It’s a fifties bar, it’s near the water, and it’s the most gorgeous, warm place you’d want to have a drink in.”

Long Island Bar, 110 Atlantic Ave., at Henry St., Cobble Hill; 718-625-8908.

*This article originally appeared in the October 21, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

The long-damaged cursive “Long Island” portion of the famous neon sign glows anew with noble gas thanks to Jeff Friedman, of Let There Be Neon in Tribeca, who spent three months replacing its busted tubes and sockets. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine
From left, Pepita Fernández; Emma Sullivan’s husband, Buddy Sullivan; Maruja Fernández; and Emma Sullivan at the bar circa 1959.
The old-school terrazzo floor has been buffed and rebuffed to its original luster. The pair scored new bar stools that resemble the originals, plus three vintage pink ones that will be embossed with the names Emma, Pepita, and Maruja as a kind of permanently reserved seating. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine
Cecchini, a Wisconsin native, has dubbed the narrow barroom’s adjacent seating area the “Packer Room.” It features a “make-out” alcove lined with old floral wallpaper excavated during renovations, and plans include a stealth TV that springs out from behind a painting during Green Bay games only. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine
A new, custom-made blue neon sign hangs between the bathroom doors. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine
Tompkins found one vintage Lightolier sconce on eBay that seemed to match the space. A friend of Cecchini’s was able to reproduce the design perfectly, and now each booth is adorned with an ideal quotient of mood lighting. The two-tone vinyl booths have been reinforced and meticulously cleaned. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine
Much of the narrow space is occupied by its long mahogany bar and palatial Brunswick Deco back bar. It glows like an old Wurlitzer at dusk, with new, retrofitted LED flares behind the sconces that flank the center console. Tompkins and Cecchini labored to restore the lowboy refrigerator to its original wood finish, and thousands of old cigarette marks are visible on the bar, ghosts of Pall Malls past. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine
Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine
Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine
Anton Baranenko, who worked on the calibrated taps at Tørst, spent weeks dismantling the bar’s old steampunk beer siphon and retrofitting its “Bay Ridge” handle unit to work compatibly with modern kegs. Rosé will be on tap in the summer, alongside local brews from Captain Lawrence and Kelso, as well as Cecchini’s cherished Yuengling lager. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine
Cecchini’s Boulevardier. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine
How New Owners Revamped Brooklyn’s Historic Long Island Bar