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.
"Get some cheese!" bellowed the young man in the booth at his friend, who was headed for the counter at Roll-N-Roaster. "For the fries!"
Roast beef is the raison d'être of this curious Sheepshead Bay fast-food institution, which has only one location and a lot of un-fast-foody characteristics. But gooey, drippy cheese — or "cheez," as it is always spelled here, even in the neon signs — plays an important role as well. "You can have cheez on anything you pleez," declares a sign. Cheez on a sandwich is fifty cents. Cheez on "pickle chips"—the odd potato disks that are Roll n Roaster's version of french fries—costs 35 cents. "Cheez in a cup" will set you back a dollar.
The woman standing next to me knows about the cheez. She always orders the Cheezburger. "It's worth the wait," she said. And wait she did. At Roll-N-Roaster, they don't start making the burger until you order it, so it can take eight minutes to come out. The roast beef sandwich — the joint's most popular item — arrives with more speed. It's drier and not as flavorful as the one at Sheepshead Bay's other temple of roast beef, Brennan & Carr, but at $5 it's a bargain. The concept of "fresh" is very big here. The orange juice is "freshly squeezed," the iced tea is "freshly brewed," the cole slaw is "freshly made," the apple pie is "freshly baked."
Like some other New York food landmarks—like Katz's Deli and Marchi's—Roll-N-Roaster has its own quirky way of doing business. You approach a cashier, place your order and receive a ticket. You then back up and wait until it's ready, picking up the food at a different station. Everyone knows the drill. My cashier was a bored Russian teenager who knew nothing about the place where she works, and looked as excited as any McDonald's drone. But this ain't McDonald's. Every kid who goes to the golden arches doesn't get a balloon. And McDonald's doesn't have a birthday wheel where you can "spin and win" anywhere between $5 and $25. You also can't order Moët Champagne for $59.99, as you can at Roll-N-Roaster — though who drinks Champagne with roast beef and corn fritters, I do not know.
Though I was told that people come from all over the city to eat here, the crowd looked pretty local to me. Regular Brooklyn folks. Many older people, but also teenage high schoolers on dates. One big-bellied father started rhapsodizing about the first time he visited the restaurant. His family, familiar with the old story, wasn't listening. At a booth, a friend stood and chatted with a seated diner as casually as if they were standing on their back deck. "How's Carl?" asked one. "He's retired. After 28 years," was the reply. "What as?" "A captain, and that's good money. I know." Cops like this place. Kids like it to. They run around and play games. No one stops them, because there's more than enough room. Following two additions over the year, Roll n Roaster is cavernous.
After I finished my roast beef and pickle chips, I lingered. The place is made for lingering. Finally, I grew hungry again. Curious about the cheezburger the woman has praised, I ordered one. It took a long time. But it was pretty good. Next time, maybe, the Champagne. With cheez.
—Brooks of Sheffield