8289 Jericho Tpke, Woodbury
(516) 367-7400 | pjclarkes.com
It took 130 years for the legendary P.J. Clarke’s to make it to Long Island. Its new digs in Woodbury follow the original on Third Ave, two additional Manhattan outlets, another in Washington D.C. and two locations in Brazil (of all places). P. J. Clarke’s 200-seat Island outpost is a near-exact replica of the 1884 original. It’s a masculine, saloon throwback of waiters in white aprons and shirts with black ties, red and white checkered tablecloths, brick walls, a tin ceiling, wood paneling, pictures of old New York, a seafood-on-ice display, mirrors and overhead fans. The awning outside proclaims “Steaks, Chops, Seafood, Burgers” and when you add sandwiches, plenty of beer and an extensive raw bar, you’ve got the picture. P.J. Clarke’s serves hefty, he-man style American fare, just as it has throughout its celebrity-filled years.
There are restaurants and there are institutions. P.J. Clarke’s is a restaurant institution—a meeting place frequented by famous athletes, entertainers and politicians (Photos of everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to Frank Sinatra dot the walls.) The so-called Cadillac bacon burger ($17.85) got its name from Nat King Cole, who called Clarke’s version “the Cadillac of burgers.”
Despite its hallowed historic roots and reputation, as two visits illustrated, the food at P.J. Clarke’s is a mixture of the memorable and the forgettable. That burger with good, thin shoestring fries was tasty but ordinary. Rather it was surprisingly small on a very ordinary bun. The three other entrées sampled reflected both the up and down nature of the menu as well as the restaurant’s erratic portioning.
A regular size salmon special ($22.85) was fresh and fine in every way. But on a first visit, a larger than average serving of fish and chips ($22.90) was bogged down by grease-drenched breading that had to be peeled back to get at the pristine fish. Yet on a second visit, it was a light, grease-free delight. A smallish square of standard sliced flat-iron steak ($29.95) looked lonely on its plate on visit one, but was accompanied by baked potato strips the second time around. Our waiter also offered an accompanying steak sauce that he later admitted the restaurant didn’t serve.
Appetizers had a better batting average (two for three, then three for three). A deeply comforting New England clam chowder was loaded with tender clams ($10.55), and six excellent short rib spring rolls packed with soft meat, potatoes and green peppers ($9.95) easily fed two diners. The midget iceberg wedge salad with scant dressing ($10.05) encountered on a first visit grew in size and was accompanied by plenty of dressing and bacon on a repeat foray. A large portion of whiskey bread pudding ($7.95) was exemplary. Strawberries Romanoff ($7.35) and a chocolate fudge brownie sundae ($9.15) both passed the taste test, although a homemade cheesecake ($10.25) displayed an unexpected texture that was neither New York nor Italian style. A butterscotch pudding ($7.55) lacked the density of pudding and was more like a cold, tasteless liquid.
The almost museum-like P.J. Clarke’s, with all its highs and lows, has managed to stick around for decades without changing much. As a result, its name is magical among many diners, as was illustrated by the one-hour wait for tables at 7pm on a recent Friday night.