Before chain restaurants dotted the landscape of Bergen, there was no such thing as take-out food. Instead, the “man of the house” would take his family out for a leisurely dinner at their favorite local restaurant.
Until the 1980s, restaurants were typically one-of-a-kind, and run by one family, with speacialties of the house and daily specials - not a fanciful menu crafted by a marketing office following food and design trends.
And before "casual dress" became the norm at restaurants, men would wear sport coats and ties, and would wear dresses and heels - no slacks or pantsuits for these discriminating dinners. Reservations were usually needed. Waiters and waitresses enjoyed long, satisfying careers at these restaurants, and developed close friendships with the customers.
"The number of restaurant choices you had back then were limited," says Charlie Klatskin, a real estate developer in Bergen. "It's even more fun to talk about them now, because you can't remember every last detail except the one's you like."
Most of those one-of-a-kind dining establishments are long gone, but remain as fond memories among nostalgic locals.
Leon Arrigo remembers well growing up above his family’s Italian restaurant, Leo’s, on Sylvan Avenue. In his youth, Englewood Cliffs had only 400 residents, but the
town could boast some very popular restaurants, including Leo’s, which remained in business for more than 70 years before closing and being sold to the owners of what is now The Assembly.
Arrigo’s parents, Leo and Serafina “Sadie” Arrigo, opened the restaurant in 1926 before the construction of the George Washington Bridge. Sadie made all the pasta, and Leo ran the restaurant. Celebrities like Arturo Toscanini would take the ferry across the Hudson River from Riverdale to enjoy an authentic Italian meal at Leo’s.
Film and theater stars like Carole Lombard, Helen Hayes, Alan Alda and Eli Wallach – a personal friend of the Arrigos’ – were regulars. Sports legends like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Gene Michael and Weeb Ewbank – not to mention The Great One, Muhammad Ali, all stopped in for lunch or dinner at Leo’s.
But not only the customers were of star quality. Most of the waitstaff came from the Cunard Line. “Many of the waiters went on to run their own restaurants and one became the manager at Elaine’s in New York City,” Arrigo beams.
After his parents’ death, Leon’s brother, Robert, a waist gunner in World War II, took over the business, which he ran until it closed in 1998.
The Old Salt
Hing’s China Inn
No matter when you arrived at Sid Allen’s on Route 9W in Englewood Cliffs, “it was always crowded, and they always had a waiting list,” Klatskin says.
But somehow, if you were a “favorite” customer, there was always room. Klatskin fondly recalls Sid Allen’s luxe atmosphere: “There was a lot of black and white, and a lot of gold fixtures.”
Down the road, The Old Salt was a “very family-oriented place,” adds Klatskin. “They served veal chops, steak chops, roasted chicken. Today, everyone goes out of their way to become a French chef, but 30-plus years ago, it was all about wholesome foods. I still remember, The Old Salt served half a head of iceberg lettuce with a heaping amount of Russian dressing.”
The service provided in these long-gone restaurants was extraordinary, Klatskin recalls.
“As soon as you opened the door and walked in, you were greeted with a smile. You were entertained emotionally, and when you got to the table, people knew what they were doing. You don’t have those dedicated people anymore,” he says.
Longtime Englewood resident Karen Fierstein fondly recalls Hing’s China Inn in Englewood Cliffs, located where the Italian restaurant Grissini now stands on Sylvan Avenue.
“It was the absolutely go-to-meet place, you ran into everyone you knew there on a Sunday night. It was my only exposure to Chinese food at the time – ’50s-style Chinese food, chop suey and noodles.”
From the 1950s into the ’70s, Fierstein and her family were also regulars at The Lounge in Tenafly (now the upscale Greek restaurant Axia).
“What I really remember is the huge lobster tank,” she says, laughing. “As a little girl growing up and then going with my own children, we were all fascinated with those lobsters swimming around.”
Fierstein said the name was apropos. “It had a nice bar, people really used it like a lounge; I remember really hanging there.”
But it was also a family restaurant, “a great Sunday-night-with-the-kids kind of place; they had typical, American, easy-to-eat food.” Fierstein says she misses restaurants like these, which had “no pretense” and were “easy places to fall into.”
For more adult evenings, she recalls the Englewood Cliffs hot-spots Ronnie’s Run and Sid Allen’s, where she and her husband, Paul, had their first date.
“Sid Allen’s was one of the first kick-it-up-a-notch kind of places; it was sexy, with stars painted on the ceiling – a mini Caesar’s Palace feeling. Ronnie’s Run was a pick-up place, plain and simple. It was more of a bar, with disco music and lots of singles. It didn’t last.”
The Fin and Claw
The sleek and swanky Seasons catering facility in Washington Township bears no remnant of the captain’s chairs and fishnets that defined the location’s previous restaurant, a celebrated seafood eatery. The Fin and Claw featured traditional nautical décor and a large tank stocked with lobsters. First known as the Washington Villa (inset), the Fin and Claw stood prominently at the intersection of Pascack Road and Washington Avenue.
“The Fin and Claw was very popular back in the 1970s,” remembers township resident Carol Zwain. “It’s near and dear to my heart because that’s where my surprise bridal shower was in 1976.” Zwain recalls that the restaurant had a large main dining room plus one or two private party rooms, and that it “was always crowded.” In addition to seafood and steaks, “surf and turf was a big thing.” She says that the restaurant also served Italian fare, and that the food was “excellent.”
The Steak Pit
In the early 1970s, Victor Rosasco was just out of high school, breaking in his new driver’s license and hanging out with his buddies. One of their favorite places was Chan’s Waikiki in Paramus – now the site of Chakra on Route 4.
“It was one of those original Polynesian garden-type restaurants, with lanterns, Buddha statues and fake palm trees around the tables, which gave it the look of an island hut,” Rosasco notes. “It was like you were somewhere in Bora Bora!”
Drinks came in “brownish-gold totem-pole glasses, or enormous fluted glasses, with an orange slice and maraschino cherries stuck in a paper umbrella,” he says, with an affectionate laugh. “It was hokey, but boy, it was a lot of fun. The pu-pu platters were great.”
Chan’s Waikiki probably had its hip heyday in the 1960s, Rosasco says, but by the ’70s, it was most popular among young adults – particularly those who had not yet reached the legal drinking age.
“We were trying to look older and serious, and nobody carded you back then,” he says. “You could get a beer or a mai tai with no problem. I never went to Chan’s and had a bad time. The staff was always happy. Maybe it was those drinks!”
Today, Rosasco is a nationally certified executive chef who operates his own culinary-consulting business. He says that Bergen’s old-time restaurants suffered with the advent of takeout and delivery.
“Our world changes daily, and restaurants today have to reinvent themselves every eight to 10 years,” he says.
If someone wanted to “reinvent” Chan’s Waikiki, Rosasco maintains, “it definitely would work today. If it was done the right way, it would be fun and colorful … like the adult Chuck E. Cheese.”
Ray Wells remembers The Chimes of Paramus very well – he and his wife, Betty, raised their six children in a house across the street. The Chimes was an upscale restaurant with a huge property that hosted many wedding receptions.
“A number of their best dishes were prepared right at your table,” Wells recalls. “They had a duck specialty that was very good – flambéed with cherries.”
Wells’ son, Thomas, remembers going to eat at The Chimes with his family “and ordering my favorite meal in any restaurant – a roast turkey dinner.”
“When I was 11 years old, I had a newspaper route and delivered The Record to the bar at The Chimes,” he says. “In those days, a big tip was 50 cents, and I was allowed to come into the bar and sometimes they’d give me a Coke.”
Tom Wells especially remembers the restaurant’s owner, Pete Peterson, “who, for a kid, was an interesting guy because he had a patch over his eye.”
Ray Wells recalls the bitterly cold night when the popular restaurant was leveled in a fire that destroyed the old wood mansion that housed the restaurant, which was originally owned by the Geering family. After the fire, The Chimes reopened as a smaller restaurant on the site of what is now McDonald’s on Route 17 North.
Ray Wells also remembers fine dining during the 1950s and ‘60s at The Steak Pit, on the site of what is now David’s Bridals on Route 4 in Paramus.
“It hosted a lot of big events. It was a special place. You would go there for dinner and dancing on a Saturday night,” he says. “They always had live music – Louis Prima played there.”
Like The Chimes, The Steak Pit was also destroyed by a fire that swept through its wood-frame structure, Wells says.
Fricke’s Old Hook Inn
There was no diet food on the menu at Casa Hofbrau in Emerson, which specialized in authentic German fare, particularly sauerbraten. Susan Luckner of Fair Lawn says her family loved the place, dining there once a week and on special occasions, including Luckner’s own wedding luncheon.
“Their lunch specials were delicious and always very reasonable price-wise, as were their dinners,” she remembers. “Our favorite bartender was Pete. He could make the best Singapore sling around.
If Pete was off that day, Roy was on, and his specialty was a whiskey sour – the best. The best waitress was Alice. She would make us feel like family.”
Luckner especially remembers the prime rib of beef sandwich, chicken parmesan, and “a dessert called nut roll,” she says. “It was vanilla ice cream with nuts in it, and delicious flavored nuts as a coating.”
Then Casa Hofbrau closed, “and we were very disappointed,” Luckner says. “Later, we found out that our favorite waitress – Alice – was at Fricke’s Old Hook Inn, not far from there. We started to go there for our special occasions about once a month, and were very pleased. They always made us feel at home.
“Their scallops were the best,” she continues. “They also had a special every day. We had our parents’ 50th-anniversary party there, with Alice as our waitress.”
Unfortunately, Fricke’s also eventually closed its doors; a bank now occupies the spot.
“We felt very sad,” says Luckner, “but we will never forget the wonderful times we had there and the delicious food – but most of all Alice, who made the meal much more enjoyable and made us always feel at home. Thank you, Alice!”
The Brass Lamp
Over the past 20 years, downtown Ridgewood has become a dining destination for residents of Bergen and beyond, boasting a wide collection of restaurants – casual and fancy, with many ethnic cuisines. But, it wasn’t always that way.
Frances Ekblom of Ridgewood says her family moved to the village in 1969, and would visit The Brass Lamp every Thursday night “to eat dinner,” she says, “for many years. Maria was our waitress, and we had our special table. The walls were covered in murals of old-time Ridgewood.”
Ekblom’s father, she explains, “worked on Wall Street and came off the train, and my sister, my mother and myself would just walk down the hill from where we lived on Crest Road and meet him.”
At The Brass Lamp, “I can still remember the menu,” Ekblom adds. “I would have one of two things every time I went – either stuffed butterfly shrimp or the Delmonico steak, and as an appetizer I would have clams on the half shell or a fresh fruit cup and – of course – my Shirley Temple.”
The building once occupied by The Brass Lamp is now The Office, a popular chain restaurant.
“It is amazing to think that The Brass Lamp was one of only a handful of restaurants in Ridgewood,” Ekblom says, “compared to the many and exotic ones there today.”
La Petite Auberge
Classic French fare became legendary in Bergen because of La Petite Auberge, a small restaurant in Cresskill where chef Jean Breque created culinary magic in the heart of suburbia.
Charlie Wrubel and his wife, Myra, of Demarest were frequent patrons of the restaurant in the 1970s before it closed.
“We’d go there at least every other week with neighbors,” Charlie says. Breque and his wife “were very congenial, very understanding of people’s needs.”
One room in the restaurant was, Charlie notes, “a little more casual, and the one on the right was a little more formal – but they both had the same service, the same food from the same kitchen.”
Myra Wrubel recalls that Breque’s cassoulet (a rustic casserole with chicken, sausage and beans) was “superb.”
“Sometimes,” her husband remembers, “he’d get in a goat, and he’d call us and tell us to come in that night. We loved the French-style pepper steak. All the veal was excellent, and the mussels were wonderful.”
The sumptuous tarte tatin, a carmelized upside-down apple tart, “was my favorite dessert,” Charlie adds, with a twinge of hungry longing in his voice.
Do you remember any of these long-ago dining establishments?
The Print Room inside Packards, Petrullo’s Everglades, Guido’s (now the Stony Hill Inn), La Pace
Antlers or Piro’s (now Andiamo)
Jorgensen’s Maywood Inn
The Hanger, Luccibello’s 35 Club, Jade Fountain, La Normandy, Olsen’s
The Old Dominion (now Dinallo’s)
Manero’s Steak House