What dates back to the Grant administration but is also as fresh as the catch of the day? Claudio’s in Greenport, of course. It was established in 1870, and the National Restaurant Association recognizes Claudio’s as the oldest same-family-owned restaurant in the U.S. And it’s located in what current co-owner Janice Claudio describes as “kind of a good location,” and more genuinely, “[you] can’t beat this,” indicating the bay view from the main room of Claudio’s dining area. Claudio’s is a white-tablecloth affair. But they have satellite eateries even closer to the water—Crabby Jerry’s is self-serve and Claudio’s Clam Bar boasts plastic tablecloths and a relaxed atmosphere for your bivalve-centric gustation.
The history on the main dining area’s menu tells us, in part, “in 1854 the Portuguese Whaler Neva, from Fayal in the Azores, docked in Greenport with a whaler onboard named Manuel Claudio. For the next 16 years the Neva set sail from Greenport on even longer and more arduous journeys, sometimes sailing for two years. In 1870, Manuel set foot ashore, never to sail again, and open[ed] Claudio’s Tavern. It has been in the family, with a Claudio at the helm, ever since.
“History surrounds you in this National Historic Registered Building, circa 1845.
(Which is, significantly, fully air-conditioned.)
“The magnificent Victorian bar was installed in 1886 by Manuel, who salvaged it from an old hotel being torn down in New York’s Bowery in 1885. At the end of the bar is the beautiful mirrored hardwood saloon door, which [once] served as the summer entrance.
“During prohibition, Claudio’s, now under Frank Claudio, Manuel’s nephew from Portugal, became a fine French restaurant downstairs, while the upstairs became a lively place for imbibing illegal spirits that found their way by the boatload from the southern islands, through Greenport, on the way to the City. Behind the glass door, at the left of the bar, is a dumb waiter that let the folks downstairs join in the fun too, sipping from their ‘water’ glasses.
“Throughout the east end of Long Island, bootlegging had become big business! In the dark of the night, and preferably in the heaviest fog, they would race for port and often glide into the harbor and under Claudio’s, which then sat on stilts, [and] off-load their goods through trap doors. One trap door still exists behind the bar—now used to handle utility services under the building.
“In the late 20s, Greenport became the mecca for our country’s sailing forays in defense of The America’s Cup, which was wrested from England in 1851 by the yacht America. Around the walls of Claudio’s hang photographs and artifacts from our cup defenders including the great “J” boat racing ships. Many were outfitted by S.T. Preston’s just across the street from Claudio’s. Over the front porch windows of Claudio’s, you will find a piece of the main mast and the lower spreaders of the yacht Enterprise—Commodore Vanderbilt’s East End crew successfully defended the 1930 Cup Race.
In 1990 the fourth generation of Claudios embarked on the continuing voyage.”
The history, the atmosphere, the view are all remarkable, but what about the food and drink? My husband and I recently discovered that you can check those boxes too. The Claudios have had a long time to get everything right, after all. And people know that—it was busy for dinner, but not loud. Looking around the fine space, Husband announced, “I didn’t eat much today in preparation. I’m happy about that.”
In the spirit of life on the high seas I ordered the Drink of the Day—the Sangria Olé!—chilled red wine with apple, pear, orange and maraschino cherry. Strong but balanced, not too sweet. It’s a drink that says, “you’ve made up your mind, you’re on vacation!” I thoroughly enjoyed a second one. Conveniently, both the bartender and our server were named John.
The wine list offered an impressive selection of East End varietals. If you don’t know where to start, get the NoFo White Flight—two ounces each of three local varietals. If you already have local favorites you’ll likely find them here—among selections from Bedell Cellars, Channing Daughters Winery, Duck Walk Vineyards, Macari Vineyards, Martha Clara Vineyards, Paumanok Vineyards, Pellegrini Vineyards, Pindar Vineyards, Pugliese Vineyards, Raphael, Sparkling Pointe, Wölffer Estate Vineyard.
We had to try something lobster. Claudio’s uses Canadian lobsters, because they are their first choice for quality. So I started with the lobster bisque. It was so rich, I was flabbergasted that it could take liquid form. Very flavorful, pale terra cotta—the color of love in full blush. Husband agreed with my assessment when he sampled it. I didn’t get a taste of his Mediterranean Grilled Octopus with roasted tomatoes, kalamata olives and capers served over frisée with a lemon vinaigrette. It’s a small, whole cephalopod artfully presented. Upon his first taste he exclaimed his definitive “Mmm-hmm.” [Pause] “Oh, it’s really nice. It’s close to being puttanesca [one of his favorite things]—lotta umami goin’ on. Just the right level of char.” Not another word was heard until the besuckered arms were no more.
Of course I went for the only dish with “Portuguese” in its name—Clams Portuguese. Steamed local clams with thick slices of chorizo, fresh, chopped tomatoes and onion over fettuccine, with a splash of Pernod adding a welcome hint of anise to the butter broth. Our now beloved server John sprinkled my dish with Parmesan, generously. Talk about an “umami-bombi.” I magnanimously shared my clams. Word to the wise: do not attempt to share the pasta from this dish—that’s where things get messy.
Husband and I were each given two lemon quarters with our entrées. That worked out just right, he had the Broiled Sampler—a mixed platter of swordfish, cod, shrimp, scallops and a neat pile of roast vegetable quinoa. No samples pour moi. His one comment: “Tasty seafood.”
We were stuffed, so we each ordered just a glass of port for our dessert course. The classic 20-year-old Sandeman Tawny Port with its notes of honey, almond and orange for him, Duck Walk Blueberry Port for her. Duck Walk is local, the blueberries are not—they’re from Maine—but that is as it should be. The Maine blueberries are more concentrated in flavor, tighter than local, commercial blueberries, which strikes just the right chord here—sweet but also tannic. Saúde!
How do you know that an old whaling port has gentrified? When, while gazing out the windows across the dock to the Wednesday night sailboat race, you count nine man buns flip-flop by during the course of your sumptuous dinner.
Did I mention the people watching to be had looking through those historic windows? Oh my. Everybody from ladies in gingham blouses and the right, bright white pants to the aforementioned man-bunners to summer campers to motorcycle dudes in offensive T-shirts. Claudio’s Thursday night Lobster Bake combined with Claudio’s Clam Bar’s Tribute Band Thursday crowds probably bring an even richer mix. Bonus: they can’t see you looking at them.
Claudio’s Restaurant, Claudio’s Clam Bar, Crabby Jerry’s, Claudio’s Marina, 111 Main Street, Greenport, 631-477-0627, claudios.com