When I asked Les Barnes, the owner and operator of London Lennies, what he thought the reason for his and his family's longevity in the restaurant business, he started with his father Len 'London Lennie.': "My father knew that if you wanted good fish, you had to pick it yourself."
London Lennies is a rare restaurant, a living and breathing institution that seems to evolve and grow; without losing their identity. Today, in 2010, they are seven times larger than their beginning fish & chips restaurant that started in 1959. The tables are now covered with white linen. The menu is now a fish market driven menu, with diversity and seasonality. The restaurant is a metaphor for Queens itself, with platings that defer to many of the ethnicities that make up Queens. This year the Barnes family is celebrating fifty years of being in business.
I have known Les, and London Lennies for twenty of those fifty years. In 1990, when I worked as a wine salesperson, I was fascinated by this "old school" fish house that seemed to be a cultural landmark in Queens. Les took me to the old Fulton fish market several times, where he personally selected fish for the restaurant. He grew up learning from his father, who had taken him to the fish market for as long as Les can remember. Les tells stories of his childhood, when his father placed a five year old Les on top of the boxes of fish his father had selected, while his father went surveying the market. His father didn't want anyone to switch out his selections for inferior fish.
Recently, Les led a group of his staff on a tour of the new Bronx Terminal fish market, where he said in reference to the difference between the old Fulton Street market, "the characters are the same, but the place doesn't have the same character." For those uninitiated to the fish market, it is a macho world of specialized talents; such as fish cutters, merchants, fishermen, and middlemen. Les walks comfortably amongst them, understanding the rhythm and pace of the market. He has handed over the reins of the day to day fish buying to his long time colleague Adam Kolenberg, but Les still oversees all aspects of the fish buying.
I am now in my third year of working with Les, as a consultant for London Lennies wine program, and have a bit of an insider's perspective. Joan, Les' mother, and "London Lennie's" widow, will be celebrating her 80th birthday in April, at a joint celebration with the 50th anniversary of the restaurant. Mrs. "B," as she is referred to by the staff, is still very active in the restaurant, where she oversees the finances, and can be seen at the front, welcoming both old timers and new customers. She is still a vital piece of the scene that makes London Lennies a very rich tapestry of generations.
I hope the borough of Queens and the city of New York, recognize the unbelievable achievement running a restaurant for fifty years means. If you want to find the best clams in New York City, you still have to go to London Lennies.