Saturday, August 7, 2010

Lunch At Jack's Oyster House

Darlington House is not all that far from Albany, New York, the state's capital, and a city that Boy and I find ourselves in at least several times a year, often at lunch time.  One of our favorite watering holes there--well our only watering hole there--is Jack's Oyster House, a venerable, old-line seafood and chop house established in 1913.

Jack's Oyster House's business card

As readers of this blog know, I am a great fan of authenticity.  And, as I wrote on my essay on the Pursuit of Authenticity awhile back, that includes restaurants.  In addition to enjoying new restaurants, I like to visit old-line ones that have been around for many years and still retain a unique, vibrant, non-corporatized image all their own.  Prime examples would be Keens Steakhouse and '21' Club in New York City, Galitoire's in New Orleans, and D'Ignazio's Towne House in Media, Pennsylvania, to name a few.

Old-line favorites needn't be expensive (but some are) or glamorous (which few are), but they do need to be authentic, and retain a look and feel of what made them famous in the first place, while still evolving to meet their customers' changing tastes.  Otherwise they die.  The streets are littered with ones that have failed at such a challenge.  Sad examples of ones that lost their way--and therefore their clientele--and closed in recent years include Gage & Tollner of Brooklyn, now the site of an Arby's; Haussner's of Baltimore, which stands empty and derelict; and Blackie's House of Beef of Washington, D.C., a great favorite of my family in the 1960s and more recently the victim of the wrecker's ball.

But Jack's Oyster House of Albany retains its relevance, even after almost 100 years, and is a place that Boy and I enjoy visiting whenever we find ourselves in that city.  I encourage you to do so as well, should you find your way to the Empire State's capital.

Jack's main dining room, pre-renovation
Image courtesy of www.lostnewyorkcity.blogspot

Boy and I first came across Jack's a decade or so ago, shortly after we bought Darlington House.  We were visiting downtown Albany one Saturday to see what was what there, and found ourselves hungry and in need of lunch.  Just as we agreed that it was time to feed ourselves we literally drove by Jack's.  We liked the look of its exterior and its old-fashioned signage, and decided to give it a try.

Jack's facade, July 2010

Little did we realize as we walked through Jack's doors that we had stumbled across one of the city's most beloved dining establishments.  As it turns out, the restaurant is great favorite of the capital's politicians, and is frequented at lunch during the week by state senators and congressmen, and those who lobby their patronage, and a table is reserved there for whenever the governor stops by.  It does an active business at lunch and dinner, attracting not only politicians but also business people and professionals during the day, and pleasure seekers out for the evening at night.  Boy and I usually find our way to Jack's for a lunch a couple of times a year, including one during the week between Christmas and New Year's, a minor tradition of ours.  During the holidays, Jack's tables are packed with groups of friends, families, and colleagues out for a celebration.

Jack's main dining room, pre-renovation
Image courtesy of Jack's Oyster House

The restaurant's menu features an extensive raw bar (not surprisingly, given its name) and a large selection of grilled and broiled seafood, chops and steaks.  At dinner Jack's menu is dominated by such classic standbys as Oysters Rockefeller, Maryland lump crab cakes, grilled lobster, Steak Diane, rack of lamb, duck "A L'Orange," and at least several Surf and Turf options.  For lunch Jack's offers a lighter selection, including a variety of sandwiches, chopped and assembled salads, and pastas.  Desserts include at least several cavity-inducing cream pies, Banana's Foster, and--more recently--cotton candy.  But we usually skip dessert at Jack's since by then we're already full, as the portions are generous.  With the arrival of Chef Luc Pasquier two years ago, Jack's menu has expanded to include more contemporary options, but the restaurant remains firmly grounded in providing the classic American food that its regulars return for again and again.

Jack's has been owned by the Rosenstein family since it was first opened in 1913, and today it is run by Brad Rosenstein, the grandson of its founder.  The restaurant has recently undergone a major renovation, which, to be honest, I have somewhat mixed feelings about.  As can be seen from the pre-renovaton photographs on this post, Jack's had a 1930s/1940s feel about it, much like a classic roadhouse restaurant of that era.  The renovation has taken Jack's back to a turn-of-the-century look, circa 1900/1910, when it was originally opened (but in a different location).  I'm okay with the intention and the end result, but I think that the quality of the renovation could have been better.  If you stop and really examine it, as Reggie is wont to do, the details and finishes look a bit more Home Depot than I'd like.

Jack's new (old) look
Image courtesy of Jack's Oyster House

But that's really a minor complaint as far as I'm concerned, and certainly no reason to stay away.  Because, while the renovation gives Jack's more of a concept steakhouse look than I would have chosen, the food has actually never been better.  Boy and I recently stopped in for lunch one Saturday between errands, and enjoyed the best meal we've ever eaten there.  We started out with a round of ice-cold Beefeater martinis (couldn't have been better) and a dozen perfectly shucked and briney Bluepoint oysters (a Jack's signature).  We each then followed that with one of the best BLTs we've ever eaten, accompanied by a mound of delicious potato salad.  The sandwich was built out of thick, toasted artisinal bread drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with raw garlic, spread with a delicious, flavorful mayonnaise, and layered with slabs of smokey, peppery bacon, thick slices of perfectly ripe, juicy tomatoes, and buttery, tender Bibb lettuce.  Incredible.  We finished our lunch sharing a plate of butter cookies and cups of coffee.  'Nuff said.

Jack's butter cream mints

As one leaves Jack's it is advisable to help oneself to at least several of the restaurant's butter cream (or "creme") mints before walking out the door.  Prior to its renovation, Jack's mints were heaped in an open bowl and filled with flavored jellies.  They've since lost their jelly fillings and are now solid butter creams, and covered with wrappings emblazoned with "Jack's Oyster House, Established 1913."

Its a nice souvenir to come across in one's pocket several days later, as I did just the other day.  

Jack's Oyster House
38-44 State Street
Albany, New York 12207
(518) 465-8854

Unless noted, all photos by Boy Fenwick


  1. Reggie, I so agree with supporitng establishments/ restaurants that are both locally owned and not corporate entities.

    Adore the Jack's business card!

    Art by Karena

  2. What a good read, Reggie. I must say I do value your essays on authenticity - especially to ones about places in Manhattan. Having said that, there isn't a post of yours I don't enjoy reading. Reggie's Revels - is that already a heading for a series? - would be something to look forward to, if you had the time.

    As I said, a very good read and a great one for a Saturday morning.

  3. Thanks for the wonderful review. The next time MrBP and I drive through Albany we'll have to time ourselves properly: lunch at Jack's is a must.

  4. Ah. A restaurant like that should always be named "Jack's."

  5. This is off the above topic and I have been away. Do you happen to know what happened to Frognail Dibdin's book blog?

    Also would love to hear how you felt when Yale started to take women students?

    I also would like you to write about owning 2 places. I am thinking about this and would really like to know how you organize and do you always have to have a local person employed to check on your place? Really interested in the good and bad parts of moving between 2 places.

    Thank you for a great blog and I like when you talk about your youth and family.

  6. If a restaurant can make a good martini, chances are the food will be good too! This is just my kind of place. I'm with you Reggie, give me a good authentic hot dog and I'll take that over a mediocre filet mignon!

    It is 1:29 pm I haven't had lunch and now im ravenous for a martini (make mine Kettle One) a plate of oyster and that wonderful sounding BLT. The chances of finding that anywhere near are slim to none... Damn you, Reggie!!!!!!!!

  7. I went to college in the Capital District back in the early 80s, and until recently also owned a weekend home in Kinderhook, not too far south of Albany. I've enjoyed many a happy meal at Jack's over the years. Glad to hear you and Boy enjoy it as well.

  8. Karena: Agreed, certainly. Stay tuned for another post I'm working on where the subject of supporting local establishments is discussed.

    Blue: Why, thank you. Coming from you that is a compliment, indeed. I am honored.

    DaniP: Put it on your itinerary!

    LPC: Isn't that so? "Jack's" is a marvelous name for a restaurant, and this one lives up to it.

    Anonymous 1:33: Thank you for your comment. Here are the answers to your questions: (1) I do not know what became of Frognall Dibdin. I miss him, and hope that he shall one day return to the blogosphere, where he had a wonderful, unique voice. (2) I was twelve when Yale began admitting women, so I do not have any personal experience of what it was like before they were admitted. Yale had been co-ed for six years by the time I arrived there as a freshman, I know it no other way. (3) Owning and maintaining one residence is challenging enough, but having responsibility for more than one can--at times--be somewhat daunting, despite the many pleasures, for which one is appreciative and grateful. In our case it requires the support of many service providers, which we are fortunate to have helping us. Without such support Reggie would be driven to distraction and would become a raging lunatic, but some think he is one already. Finally, thank you for your feedback. I am working on a post about my parents when they were young, beautiful, and at the brink of adulthood that I hope you will like.

    Lady Lindaraxa: Reggie awaits the pleasure of your company and is filled with the happy anticipation of sharing a round of martinis (or two) and a delicious dinner with you, the first of many he hopes.

    Karen: Thank you, it must have been difficult to give up Kinderhook, it is a very special place.

  9. Reggie you could be a food writer as well.
    Great post.

  10. Dear Reggie: As you know, I lived and worked in Albany for many years. Jack's was my favorite place for lunch. When I left my position with New York State, my friends and colleagues, knowing of my fondness for the place, held my going-away party at Jack's. I apologize for never mentioning it to you as just the sort of joint you and Boy would enjoy and am awfully glad you managed to discover it on your own. Frecky

  11. I have no plans to visit Albany, but, based on your review I've written "Jack's--Albany, NY" under the "just in case" heading in my long-term planner. Sounds like a wonderful place!

  12. Reggie
    Loved that you mentioned Galatoire's in New Orleans. Are you sure some of your wonderful family was not born south of the Mason Dixon ?
    I am a big fan. Many of our "Jack's" in Atlanta are long gone.
    Becky in Georgia

  13. I shall add Jack's to my list should I find myself in Albany.
    If you are every in Louisville, KY, add Jack's to your list.(Jack Frye's that is)

  14. You may hate me for this, but I'm going to share a guilty pleasure that the divine William Grimes shared with me (my reward for finding the 'Dinner on Horseback" menu) –– the American Menu website run by Henry Voight. I'd like to think of it as your reward from me for a great post. I think it's something you will enjoy.

    That said, love the post and the place. I am with you about renovations of old classics (the great part about GC's Oyster Bar is it would be hellish to renovate so it stays fairly much the same). It's rare that renovations are done properly and often result in an old-timey-wimey feel that's off. I love the patina of the real deal that has been well cared for best (Keens did a splendid job... after all this time it now just seems as if it's been that way forever).

    Jack's menu is lovely and when done right and with care, well, dishes are classics for a reason. I love steak Diane (it was on my list to make for the blog). Thanks for sharing Jacks with us. Next time I'm up that way I'll give it a visit.

    1. Hello LPR: Thank you for your comment and kind words. I am most defintely going to check out the American Menu website, and I appreciate the recommendation. Please let me know what you think of Jacks after you visit it. I hope you like it. Rgds, Reggie


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