Cliff’s Elbow Room

Hannah Selinger
Independent/Hannah Sellinger

In 1958, Cliff and Joan Saunders purchased a tiny building on Jamesport’s Main Road. The cozy space would later become Cliff’s Elbow Room (years later, in 1976, they would add a second location in Riverhead, named Cliff’s Rendezvous). Little did they know at the time that they would be creating a legacy, a restaurant that would stand the test of time.

These days, Cliff’s is owned by another Cliff, the son of Cliff the Original and Joan (he’s actually Cliff Saunders, III). Saunders still works the restaurant, chatting up the local clientele and slinging the two things for which the restaurant is known: steaks and clam chowder. The majority of his staff has worked at the restaurant for three to four decades.

The restaurant’s history precedes the space. In 1946, Cliff Saunders’s grandfather, Cliff, Sr., along with wife Helen, bought their first restaurant, located in Laurel. It was called the Laurel Inn, and was known for its sea-to-table service. The eldest Cliff was an avid fisherman and his catch on the water invariably became the restaurant’s catch-of-the-day. By the time the next round of Cliffs was ready to purchase a restaurant, the family had already established themselves as capable restaurateurs.

Independent/Hannah Sellinger

Joan Saunders worked at Cliff’s Elbow Room well into her 80s, cooking baked clams and chowder, which has been an award-winner (they have the trophies, proudly displayed, to prove it). The regulars who come back again and again to Cliff’s know the whole family by now (and yes, if you’re curious, Cliff III’s son is, in fact, named Cliff). Cliff, Jr. died in 2002, at 74, but his specter remains. He was known, among regulars, as a raconteur and a perennial host, ushering in everyone from the guy next door to the judges from the Riverhead courts.

When Cliff, Jr. died, his son took over the family business, a business that he had grown up in, quite literally, and that already bore his name. To that end, he made few changes, keeping the hearty, reliable menu intact. The dining room itself — dark, rustic, and possibly in need of an update, if one were so inclined — looks much like it did in the 1950s. To patrons who have loved this Jamesport institution for decades and decades, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

The steaks, though. The steaks! One item you’ll hear mentioned again and again, in particular, is the marinated steak. Technically, the marinade is a secret, but a little sleuthing reveals that it’s an umami-packed combination of soy sauce, red onion, garlic, and seasoning, poured over a shell steak. It’s simple, and lovely, and it won’t set you back that much (steaks run in the $30 range).

A framed menu from 1965 does show how much time — and price — has changed. Shrimp cocktail? Seventy-five cents. Lobster tail? Under $5. The rest of the restaurant is decorated with awards, placards, and news articles about the restaurant. Cliff’s Elbow Room, Cliff’s Rendezvous, and Cliff’s Elbow Too, in Laurel, were once part of a quartet of restaurants. The fourth, once known as Cliff’s Elbow East, is in Southold, but was sold to an external buyer in 1998. Since then, they dropped the “Cliff’s” from their name.

Ultimately, the Saunders family has created something solid, something that can be reconfigured, in the face of loss, and continued. At this point, Cliff’s Elbow Room, run by one Cliff or two — and someday, there may be another, still — is a venerable institution, gracing Jamesport, year after year, with reliable food that speaks to the community. It’s a community place, after all, even if your name isn’t Cliff.

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