Could Brooklyn lose its flavor? Borough’s landmark restaurants aren’t landmarked

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Photo by Bess Adler

The impending redevelopment of Downtown’s famous Junior’s restaurant goes to show that just because an eatery is a landmark in the guidebooks does not mean it is safe from the wrecking ball.

Brooklyn’s iconic restaurants have acted as beacons for tourists and hungry residents for decades — and, in some cases, whole centuries. But no eatery currently operating in Brooklyn enjoys official city landmark status, meaning nothing but the continued entrepreneurial spirit of their owners stands between them and destruction.

None of these beloved eateries are in imminent danger, but none have any legal protections to prevent them from disappearing either.

Peter Luger Steakhouse

178 Broadway near Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg

Peter Luger’s massive porterhouses have made it a favorite hangout for political power brokers, and have enjoyed acclaim as some of the best in New York. The love comes in spite of the restaurant’s famously sparse and utilitarian interior. The 127-year-old steakhouse has watched the neighborhood absorb successive waves of German, Jewish, Latino, and hipster transplants, and still thrived. But Williamsburg’s real estate values are rising fast. The city last assessed Peter Luger’s property at $2.22 million and a Department of Finance spokesman said the lot would likely sell for much more. Current zoning would allow a residential structure of up to seven stories to rise on the spot.

Nathan’s Famous original location

1310 Surf Ave. at Stillwell Avenue in Coney Island

The People’s Playground’s self-declared mayor Dick Zigun tried to get the home of the Fourth of July hot-dog-eating contest landmarked in 2009. But the Landmarks Commission shot the idea down, arguing that the structure’s architecture was unremarkable and mostly concealed under the frankfurter emporium’s distinctive signage. The controversial Coney Island rezoning that passed that year calls for a 20-plus-story hotel on the premises. But Lloyd Handwerker, whose family founded Nathan’s and still owns the property said the 98-year-old hot dog joint has at least 15 years left on its lease, and that there are no plans in the works to sell the lot.

Tom’s Restaurant

782 Washington Ave. at Sterling Place in Prospect Heights

Tom’s breakfasts have been a hit since 1936 and the old-fashioned diner is one of a handful of places where you can still get an authentic egg cream or lime rickey. Sitting just outside the purview of the Prospect Heights Historic District, Tom’s occupies a prime spot in an increasingly pricey ‘hood. But the location’s zoning is strictly commercial, so the odds of a condo tower appearing there are low.

L & B Spumoni Gardens

2725 86th St. between W. 10th and W. 11th streets in Bensonhurst

Famed since 1939 for its Sicilian squares and the nutty Italian ice cream that gives it its name, Spumoni Gardens sprawls across five addresses in a neighborhood where houses can sell for more than $1 million and chain drug stores are spreading like weeds. The Italian population of the neighborhood has been declining for more than a decade, but the food is popular with all nationalities. The property is zoned residential and sits along one of the neighborhood’s biggest commercial thoroughfares, so the Barbati family that owns L & B’s could be sitting on a gold mine.

Brennan & Carr

3432 Nostrand Ave. at Avenue U in Sheepshead Bay

This Sheepshead Bay institution turns 86 this year. An old-fashioned Irish eatery known for its broth-soaked roast beef sandwiches, it takes up a city block between Nostrand, Avenue U, and Gravesend Neck Road. Built at a time when Sheepshead Bay was still mostly farmland, Brennan & Carr is today surrounded mainly by banks and by a neighborhood that has become predominantly Russian and Asian.

Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitano

1524 Neptune Ave. between W. 15th and W. 16th streets in Coney Island

A fire gutted this iconic coal-oven pizzeria in 2009 and Hurricane Sandy almost drowned it three years later. But the staff soldiered on and the place is still serving by-the-pie only pizza the way Antonio “Totonno” Pero did when he opened the joint in 1924, in the same tiny one-story structure now sandwiched between a Chinese restaurant and a hair salon. Neptune Avenue remains one of Coney’s most desolate industrial stretches, mostly home to auto body shops, which is the kind of thing Totonno’s building is zoned for.

To be clear, landmarking doesn’t necessarily save restaurants. Sheepshead Bay fave Lundy’s and Downtown’s Gage and Tollner both bit the dust despite the official designation.

Reach reporter Will Bredderman at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-4507. Follow him at twitter.com/WillBredderman.
Dog gone: The city's plan for Coney Island calls for a towering hotel where Nathan's Famous has stood since 1916.
File photo by Ted Levin