A Natural Treasure and an American Classic.
One oyster often yields only one precious pearl, lustrous in its own particular way and unique to the animal that created it. From many grains of sand come this pearl, and it is a rare instance that more than one comes into being at a time.
However, in the sleepy village of Oyster Bay, many seedling pearls have been started since its founding, softly polished to a sheen with the richness of its history, accented by the new growths in their periphery, which are only beginning to take their own shine. Together, they meld into one lovely prize, long dormant in this quiet harbor on the North Shore.
Ubiquitous as its name is, Oyster Bay is much less famous for its oysters, only now making its way back onto menus in this reawakening town, than it is for its favorite Roosevelt—I mean, resident.
Every native Long Islander knows that Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the 26th president of these United States, was a born-and-raised Long Islander. It’s a point of pride readily boasted about, in much the same way as we feel obligated to be able to recite Billy Joel lyrics at the drop of a hat. However, in his hometown, the commanding presence of this great leader is palpable, and here, this interesting piece of trivia becomes a point of entry into a passionate community of self-made historians. In fact, Roosevelt was the inspiration behind the 30-year-old Oyster Festival, the largest outdoor festival on Long Island, whose origins can be traced back to a humble local parade honoring his contributions. No matter the food served or goods sold, the residents rally under the banner of dear Teddy and will treat any newbie to a host of fascinating facts about his storied life.
A few blocks from the heart of downtown, Roosevelt’s “Summer White House,” Sagamore Hill, is already a cherished museum and monument to his life. But the entire town of Oyster Bay is just as much both of those things as the official property. One need only begin one’s tour by simply driving into town, where a majestic statue of the ex-commander-in-chief on horseback welcomes visitors, and heading straight to Canterbury’s Oyster Bar & Grill, home of what owner Mark Fox proudly calls “the greatest collection of Theodore Roosevelt memorabilia other than Sagamore Hill.”
“I grew up in the township of Oyster Bay, in Massapequa, and so I knew this village was hallowed ground,” Fox says. “When I got a bit older, when I was 26 and ready to buy my own restaurant after 12 years in the industry, I felt the magnetism of this history and the draw of these older, preserved buildings. It captivates you.”
“Captivating” is certainly an apt description of the immersive glimpse into Roosevelt’s life a visit to this 27-year-old “unpretentious eating spot and watering hole” provides. Giclée prints of great American artist and Oyster Bay resident Mort Künstler’s Roosevelt paintings hang in places of honor, and lovingly retouched sepia photographs of the former president decorate every inch of the dining space.
“Here, we tie the local history and flavor of the landscape into the flavor of our beautiful, diverse selection of seafood,” Fox explains of his decor choice. “We want to give people a sense of where they are and our town’s context to American history while they enjoy a great meal.”
This connection is never far to be found in Oyster Bay, with significant landmarks peppering nearly every block. Wild Honey, an elegant New American restaurant soon to be celebrating its 10-year anniversary, may look like a posh, modern space, but its bones are sheer Roosevelt.
“My husband and I looked at about 60 places until we turned the corner and saw this building and got that feeling that it was just right,” says Tina O’Brien, owner of this much-acclaimed restaurant. “Then we found out it was the executive summer office of Teddy Roosevelt from 1901 to 1909. He’d spend the summer at Sagamore Hill, and his staff would meet here while he did his office work.”
A discreet plaque on the building commemorates his tenure in this romantic building that is flooded with light and covered by sky-high ceilings. The O’Briens have taken care to preserve the space and bring a bit of the village into their restaurant, creating a more personal history that resonates just as much with the community that has embraced them as heartily as it did with Roosevelt himself.
As deep as the devotion to Roosevelt runs in Oyster Bay, there is also a sense of kinship in the business community and little hesitation to pay it forward.
Pat Spafford of Periwinkles Catering is a perfect example of effusive support. “The sense of community is wonderful, and they’re so good about patronizing local businesses. It’s such a friendly place, and everyone wants to keep things local.” She adds, “We as retailers want to invite more shopping in the hamlet and support one another. It always helps when another store opens—it’s another reason to come here!”
Tina O’Brien agrees. “When we first opened up, we made a conscious decision to support local businesses. Our menu is changed seasonally, which is a big inspiration, and we source locally as much as possible. In fact, a friend of ours has a farm out East that sells to us, and all the seafood’s local.” With a sense of reflection, she says, “We work with the people who have come for these 10 years, and it’s amazing to have grown with this community, to celebrate an 18th birthday to a college graduation, then bridal and baby showers.”
Lynn Gerald hopes to be a part of many families’ stories in a similar way. As the owner of the bright and fun-filled children’s culinary school and party venue What’s Cooking?, she’s hosting birthday parties and is looking forward to growing with her young clientele. “I love Oyster Bay! It’s very artsy with a lot of cultural activities going on, and so friendly. Everyone knows each other. The people that live here are so special. It’s not uncommon to find fourth and fifth generation here; it’s a real community.”
“These families that have been here forever—they’re the heart and soul of this place,” Spafford muses. “If it weren’t for them, Oyster Bay wouldn’t be what it is today.”
Those words ring true for businesses such as Bonanza’s, a century-old Italian ice and snack stand known for its lemon ices. And they’re especially musical to George Melillo’s ears, owner of Oyster Bay Fish & Clam. “My family is one of the oldest families in Oyster Bay, immigrating here from Italy in 1871,” he shares with a smile. “So I love Oyster Bay Harbor and have a passion for food and for the people who I’ve seen come here as kids. Now they come with their own kids and tell me, ‘Gimme what George is having,’ or ask me to cook their catches.”
It’s because of these relationships that restaurateurs are committed to serving seasonal, fresh food, because as Melillo says at the polished bar over a slice of fresh apple pie, “I don’t serve what I wouldn’t give my own family.” This mentality is what has kept him personally behind the shucker’s knife for over 30 years, and not just during the iconic contest held during the Oyster Festival. In fact, he still handpicks his never-frozen seafood and stays true to family recipes that are beloved by his regulars, such as the lobster-topped Italian-style stuffed artichokes.
Meanwhile, Tina Mazzarella of healthy eatery Sweet Tomato jokes, “I actually am serving my own family!” as she tucks dollar bills and a sweet treat into the fist of a rosy-cheeked child. That’s why she cuts no corners, sourcing locally and going organic whenever possible, often without even parading those facts. For her, it’s not about being able to label any one of her 12 rotating daily soups “organic” or her buttery shortbread scones “housemade” but more about providing a service for a community she has long been a part of.
“I saw a need for a fresh, healthy eatery that provided options for vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and regular diets. We don’t even have a deep-fryer installed!” Mazzarella explains earnestly in her cheery, bright dining space. “I just care about what my customers, family and friends eat, and it’s been so rewarding. I’m very fortunate that people come in and say, ‘We are so happy you came to the neighborhood.’ These are people thanking me, when I should be thanking them! … I never forget that, which is why my motto is: The only taste that matters is yours!”
Over a luxurious cup of Lavazza espresso, accompanied by a signature “Magic Bar,” an enthusiastic layering of graham, walnut, chocolate and toasted coconut, Mehmet Ozisik echoes the same sentiment. “I want to give the people here only what they want,” he says of the European-influenced, eat-in kitchen-style café and bakery he and his mother, Gulden Kaser, own. “I grew up here, and it’s a great, safe, quiet, laid-back community that has been so supportive of Gulden’s. That’s why we don’t take shortcuts, and use fresh, natural ingredients, even making our lemon curd and raspberry jelly from scratch to my mom and grandma’s family recipes.”
The Call of the Water
Particularly in Oyster Bay, it’s not just friends and family that these ambitious restaurateurs are feeding, though. For some, it’s their colleagues, teammates or even competitors.
Although tall ships and pirates are a major draw during the Oyster Festival, it’s the Oakcliff Sailing Center that brings true ocean adventurers to the town. A competitive wooden boat racer with this nationally acclaimed racing center, the ocean is a siren for Tina Mazzarella and creates a large part of the appeal of Oyster Bay Harbor for her. “We make picnic lunches for sailors looking for a bite when they get off the boat, and it combines my two passions: food and sailing.”
Bernie DelBello, owner of Jack Halyards, felt those two identical forces guiding his path, too, opening up his nautically themed restaurant in 2010. Named for the lines that pull up the sails and a fictional tale of a boy named Jack from New Jersey who sailed around the world, this lifelong sailor brings the sea into his kitchen. “We just added a sushi bar for even more seafood variety, and we welcome people to sit down and relax for a while. But our specialty is Oyster Bay Pine Island oysters and clams and local seafood from Long Island.” This emphasis on local is also why he and Canterbury’s Mark Fox proudly serve Oyster Bay Brewing Company beers, crafted only a few blocks away from their respective establishments.
As mentioned before, the oysters for which the town is named were surprisingly not actually a matter of course for local dinner menus. Canterbury’s Mark Fox muses, “When I first came to Oyster Bay 27 years ago, there weren’t really any restaurants that were serving oysters. To me, that just made no sense! So we expanded our selection, buying locally when possible, including Frank M. Flower oysters right in our own backyard.”
George Melillo does the same at Oyster Bay Fish & Clam. “I don’t claim to be in the restaurant business; I’m in the clam bar business!” He says with enthusiasm. “I get very fresh, local seafood. I’ve dealt with one clammer for 25 years and know exactly where everything comes from; I’m very selective. With my oysters and clams, I can eat one and tell you exactly where on Long Island it came from.”
Well, no doubt about it—mention Teddy Roosevelt, sailing and the sea and you’ll know exactly where on Long Island an Oyster Bayman or -woman is from. After all, this peaceful village isn’t only a gem on Long Island’s North Shore. It’s a hidden pearl, coated in layers of American history, family history and years of tradition as a community, quietly maturing into something lovely and well rounded. Watch out for the shine on this community as it continues its revitalization, because its luster will soon be sure to dazzle.
Canterbury’s Oyster Bar & Grill
46 Audrey Avenue
Gulden’s Café & Bakery
124 South Street
Jack Halyard’s American Bar & Grill
62 South Street
Oyster Bay Fish & Clam
103 Pine Hollow Road
Periwinkles Catering & Café
6 Audrey Avenue
91 Audrey Avenue
30 East Main Street
1 East Main Street
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