Many families abide by tradition and routine, such as a nightly meal together, but rarely does a young family treat a public restaurant as its home dining room.
However, in the case of Emma and Buddy Sullivan — an immigrant couple who began raising a family in Brooklyn Heights in the 1950s — the couple and their three children came together night after night at Long Island Restaurant and Bar, the restaurant they owned and operated. They upheld the tradition even after Mrs. Sullivan’s two daughters married.
“They came from work with their children and we ate as a family every single day at the bar,” she explains.
In so doing, they unknowingly set a foundation that would serve as a draw for commerce and be built upon by future generations of the Spanish-Irish clan. Indeed, today, Mrs. Sullivan’s offspring — and their offspring — have followed in the stalwart businesswoman’s footsteps. Her granddaughter Marissa Alperin operates a custom jewelry business in the neighborhood and her grandson David Alperin opened a menswear boutique and art gallery nearby. Marissa’s husband John Lowe runs a fashionable children’s boutique next door, so that stylish spawn can match their fathers.
Mrs. Sullivan bought the Long Island Bar and Restaurant at 110 Atlantic Ave., recognizable by its green and red neon signage, from her father Ramon Montero in 1955. The fact that it still exists today in its near original form (the bar replete with varnished cigarette marks from the 1950s — the result of a solicitous barkeeper resting lit cigarettes on the wood while tending to thirsty patrons) is a testament to the love and care that was perennially bestowed upon the corner haunt.
A conversation with David reveals how his grandparents met: Galician patriarchs — Mrs. Sullivan’s father among them — fled Spain for other parts of the world during the 1936 civil war. Some settled in Brooklyn Heights, where they worked in construction, or invested in real estate, to become solvent before moving their families across the ocean. When Emma was 4, she moved to the neighborhood, where she eventually met her Irish sailor husband Buddy. At the time, Buddy was a member of the U.S. Navy. The former navy yard occupied what is now Brooklyn Bridge Park.
The corner establishment, named after the adjacent Long Island College Hospital, drew a mixed clientele — hospital staff patronized the restaurant during the day and an after-dinner contingent would occupy the bar through the early hours of the morning, with Buddy on staff until 4 a.m. Ties to other Spanish families in the neighborhood helped perpetuate what was then a European custom — going out for a drink after dinner, which was another draw for the fledgling business.
Vintage photographs show the clamor of jovial patrons seated on tall, red, cushioned bar stools, hanging over the counter in conversation with one another. When one visits the newly reopened restaurant and bar today, the scene is much the same: its red and white leather booths remain and even the original cash register is functional. Framed portraits of the old guard sit discreetly atop the bar back, reminding of days past.
Mrs. Sullivan, now widowed, ran the restaurant alongside her beloved husband and two cousins Pepita and Maruja “Uca” Fernandez, whom she refers to as her “right and left arms.” She recalls working day and night, seven days a week, and never taking a vacation. The restaurant opened at 8 a.m. and closed at 4 a.m. the following morning, making for a 20-hour work day, the shifts of which were divided among the familial quartet. The relatives were a symphony of cooperation; they worked in harmony with each other and claimed one of the cleanest establishments in the city.
Cleanliness was a priority for Sullivan. After all, the joint doubled as the family’s kitchen and dining room. When asked by an inspector why her refrigerator was kept so clean, she replied, “Because we eat here as a family.”
The inspector even suggested that he would use her restaurant as a standard against which all others should be measured.
Sullivan’s commitment to maintaining an immaculate dining place for her family and neighbors only hints at how devoted she was to providing opportunity for successive generations within an open community.
“All I did was work for my children, so that they could go to good schools and do well for themselves. My life was around them,” she says thoughtfully.
She still lives nearby, on Henry Street, where she’s been for 55 years and counting. Her residence operated as a hub at which family members would check in on each other’s whereabouts with a phone call, or an in-person visit. Sullivan was a sort of receptionist who kept tabs on the comings and goings of her nearest and dearest. Though she appreciates the conveniences of modern technology, she’s nostalgic for the organic communication of neighbors and the care they used to take of one another.
“Before, if you didn’t see someone for a couple of days, you would ask someone else, ‘what happened to so and so?’ Now, you go out and you don’t know anyone. It’s a different life,” she says.
Sullivan is acutely aware, too, of the improvements that Atlantic Avenue’s commercial landscape has seen over the years, as well as the increased foot traffic from Pier 1 that has benefited local businesses.
“I find every business on the avenue is fixed up so lovely, where, in my time, there wasn’t enough money to do all that fixing up,” she comments. “Now, they take a store and they renovate it from bottom to top. I never thought Atlantic Avenue would look like it does today,” she says.
She also notes the differences in how present-day businesses are managed.
“Today,. you go in and the owner is never there, whereas we never left the place without an owner. In those days, if you weren’t there, they wouldn’t come back,” she explains.
Sullivan is instinctively nurturing, which is perhaps why her clan has remained in the neighborhood. Her jewelry designer granddaughter Marissa rents from her a space called Marissa Alperin Studio that is somewhat tucked-away, but successful by word of mouth. Located at 25 State St., it stands in the place of a long-shuttered grocery store that was once run by her grandparents.
Marissa’s brother David opened Goose Barnacle at 91 Atlantic Ave. in 2010, following a career in finance and retooling of skills, courtesy of the 2009 Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The children’s store, called Junior Lowe, is located at 89 Atlantic Ave.
The siblings’ businesses are inextricably linked to family: Marissa designed a “boob pendant” for her mother Linda when she underwent reconstructive surgery following a mastectomy. David’s store, named after a Galician crustacean, features repurposed objects from the restaurant, including a metal silverware container that now cradles ties in varying hues for sale. Original phone booths from the restaurant stand tall in another corner, housing European sandals and fine bath products.
In fact, family values are so ingrained in David that he immediately makes the women he dates aware of his priorities.
“You’re not just dating me and, if that’s a problem, then it was nice meeting you,” he says with a smile.
It could be argued that David pioneered Atlantic Avenue’s retail boom, with other retailers such as Barney’s following suit in the wake of his success.
Sullivan spent part of the summer in Spain with her family, following the recent, premature death of her 65-year-old daughter Linda (David and Marissa’s mother). Linda was also an integral part of the community. She volunteered at the Women’s Exchange and her husband Dr. Robert Alperin practices at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Sullivan was joined by David, John and Marissa and their three children, her cousins “Uca” and Pepita and other family members. Luckily for Sullivan, her grandchildren take vacations. Marissa’s jewelry studio closed for seven weeks and reopened in September. An assistant kept David’s shop open while he was away. This is, after all, a family that reveres tradition and lives for one another and, since returning from her family vacation, Sullivan has reintegrated into the caring fabric of her three-block-radius world, still on a full-time schedule, at the metaphysical epicenter of one family’s universe.