This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.[Krieger]
Bamonte's is an outpost. It's bordered on one side by the BQE, and on other side by weedy vacant lots fenced in with plywood. It looks truly alone as you turn the corner on Withers Street, its big sign alerting you to the fact that, merchant-wise, the restaurant absolutely rules its block. It also seems alone in greater Williamsburg, an island of Italianate unhipness in a sea of bistros, boutiques, bowler bars, art galleries and espresso bars. You get the feeling that regulars at Bamonte's don't go anywhere else in Williamsburg. They just go to Bamonte's, and then they go home.
Home could be anywhere. The neighborhood, Jersey, Long Island, California. My waiter said diners come from all over, though many originally used to live in the once heavily Italian neighborhood. When they do come, they seem to arrive in big groups. Five, six, seven. It's a gathering, a dinner party; its Old Home Week, and the talk and food never stops.
"Hey! My uncle's table!" said the leader of one party of five as they were seated in the corner behind the partition that separates the large dining room from the bustling bar area. Uncle couldn't make it this time. "He's getting old," said the guy, who spoke in a loud and happy voice. "He can't go out two nights in a row." Wine and Martinis were ordered. A cell on the table rang. "This is Jimbo's brother," someone predicted. The leader turned to the woman on his left. "You know Frankie. You know Joey. I know Frankie and Joey. Frankie and Joey know you. I can't believe I didn't know you until now!" They talked about a woman that wasn't there who thought she knew Brooklyn. They scoffed. "She don't know Brooklyn! She knows Park Slope!" A Scorcese wannabe could have trained his camera on the table, made no cuts, and ended up with a pretty solid short film.
My red-jacketed waiter was a rookie, he told me. Only been there five years. "My partner," he said, pointed to a tall, silver-haired man, "30 years. The chef, 40 years." The chef and his staff work behind a glass wall in the back, their actions completely visible. The visible kitchen is not a gesture to trendy restaurant design; its been that way for 50 years. "You should see it when it gets mobbed here. Yelling, cursing." He laughed.
I ordered a Manhattan, perhaps too specifically: two to one, with rye. The drink arrived so quickly that I seriously doubt the bartender, a rotund man in a vest, paid any attention to my instructions. He just made the Manhattan he makes for everybody. Tasted good, anyway. And strong. I had the mussels, because everyone has the mussels. The red sauce they marinate them in is "famous." It's good too. I polished off a veritable mountain of mollusks in minutes, and splashed some of the sauce on the white tablecloth. I apologized for the mess but the waiter told me to "Fuhgeddaboudit." Seriously.
I was stunned when Nicole Bamonte came to my table to ask whether I was enjoying myself. Small, blonde and pretty, she's one of three Bamonte sisters set to inherit the place from their father Anthony. The other two are Laura and Lisa. The place was founded in 1900 by Pasquale Bamonte. It's a two-story, nothing-special building and the Bamontes own every bit of it. There are wooden phonebooths and the men's and women's bathrooms are spaces widely apart. The place is beloved by its clientele, which is somewhat specific. On the wall are plaques honoring Bamonte's 50th, 75th and 100th anniversary. Each once is signed "From the Boys." I didn't dare ask who "The Boys" were.
"Hey," said the man at the corner table to the portly barkeep. "Remember when Kris Kristofferson came in here with Bob Dylan and Jeff Beck?" "Who's Kris Kristopherson?" asked one of the younger women at the table. "He's an actor." "What was he in?" "Uh, 'The Rose' with Bette Midler. He was married to Barbra Streisand. He wrote, too. Wrote songs." "Who's Jeff Beck?" asked the woman. Another guy answered this one. "He's, like, the greatest guitarist in rock 'n' roll ever." This guy apparently knew Jeff Beck. "He's at the Iridium in midtown. He mailed me eight e-tickets. I don't know what to do with them!"
Someone mentioned that somebody everyone knew from the neighborhood called. The lead guy guffawed. "Where'd he call you from? Jail?!"
—Brooks of Sheffield