With each of its two counties, Nassau and Suffolk, containing approximately one million people each, Long Island is home to a variety of diverse people. Though the island is rather small, being only about 20 miles from north to south at its smallest points and one thousand miles from west to east, it’s very densely populated and there is a plentitude of restaurants to feed all of these people – and then some – on almost every main road.
What makes the restaurants of Long Island unique is the fact that the majority of them are independently owned and operated. Although major chains – think McDonald’s, Panera, Taco Bell and the like – do have a presence on the island, they are often more sparsely spread apart and can take years to open up their first franchise on the island. For instance, it took 73 years since the founding of the company for the first Dairy Queen to open up on Long Island. This can be attributed to the fact that local restaurant culture is so alive; The amount of restaurants on Long Island is so large that these large chains cannot compete with their local counterparts. Sometimes, chain restaurants on Long Island fail and end up being replaced with new, independently-owned joints. For example, Bellmore housed a Red Robin location from 2016 until 2022, when an all-new restaurant known as Bluebird Kitchen took its place, to Red Robin’s demise. Bluebird Kitchen focuses on American comfort food with an elevated twist, and its head chef is Al Di Meglio. The offerings of the restaurant’s menu are themed around seasonality.
The restaurants which tend to be most well-known on Long Island are those which have stayed open for many years due to consistent popularity. All-American, a retro-style burger restaurant in Massapequa, is the prime example of this. They have a minimalist menu consisting only of burgers, hot dogs, fries, potato knishes (a traditional Jewish dish consisting of mashed potatoes formed into a square or circular shape, then battered and fried) and milkshakes. There aren’t any “health-conscious” options here – you won’t find any salads, gluten-free buns, or keto-friendly milkshakes on All-American’s menu. Yet even in this modern age where American consumers are increasingly looking for ways to eat healthier, All-American thrives due to its nostalgic value and higher quality of its “fast food” offerings than national chains like McDonald’s or Burger King. Another one of Long Island’s “standby” restaurants, which many people living on this island know of, is Peter’s Clam Bar. Located in Island Park, it has been serving seafood and steaks since 1940. It draws a lot of tourism from those who come to visit the Long Beach area due to its proximity.
However, Long Island also has a strong market for trendier restaurants, such as gastropubs and dessert bars, which score points, especially in this day and age for being Instagram-friendly with the unique, aesthetically-pleasing meals they serve. Whether or not the foodstuffs taste as beautiful as they look, though, is the indicator of whether or not they stay open. Yet still, they are a fun novelty to have around even if it’s only for a short time. Health-conscious restaurants, or those which cater to a specific diet, are also on the rise on the island. There has been an increasing number of vegan restaurants in recent years. Some examples of these are 3 Brothers Vegan Café in Lindenhurst and The Purple Elephant in Northport. The former focuses on Italian cuisine with a vegan spin, and the latter’s menu offerings have roots in Latin American cultures.
Other Long Island restaurants have gained notoriety due to their innovative concepts, whether it relates to the food offerings or the overall experience. For instance, the Post Office Café, Library Café and Tellers were originally a post office, library and bank which were converted into restaurants dishing out classic comfort foods like burgers and “bar food”-style appetizers. At the International Delight Café, which has locations in Bellmore and Rockville Centre, the extensive menu is complemented by over 100 flavors of ice cream which guests can pick from to end their meals in a “sweet” way – pun intended!
Long Island is home to a variety of diverse ethnicities, and as such, it is easy to find ethnic food across the island as well. There’s a large Italian population, so Italian restaurants – some of which specialize in Americanized Italian fare, which is comforting to many, and others which take cues more so from cooking as it is done in Italy – can be found in every town. Chinese restaurants are also common. Most of them serve Americanized fare, but some like MOGU and New Fu Run focus more on styles of cooking from specific regions of China. Apart from those, Long Island is home to Mexican, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Thai, Argentinian, Jamaican, Vietnamese and even Polish food, among many more. The list goes on.
Of course, there are specific dishes and styles of restaurants that are distinctive to Long Island, as well. Three examples of such are diners, pizzerias and bagel shops. Diners thrive on Long Island due to their nostalgic value, much like All-American. They tend to feature menus with well over 200 items, often with a special section for Greek food, as a lot of Long Island diners are owned by Greek-Americans. Pizzerias resemble those in neighboring New York City and usually only serve New York-style pizza. With its distinctive thin crust and the fact that it is sold by the slice, often with innovative toppings ranging from chicken and bacon to curly fries at one pizzeria in Sayville, the pizza experience on Long Island is unique. True “New York-style pizza” is difficult to find outside of the city and the island, and this is often attributed to the water used to make the dough. This same “New York water” is said to be the secret ingredient to what makes Long Island and New York City’s bagels have their distinctive mouthfeel and taste. As such, bagels are an extremely popular food on Long Island. Chains such as Town Bagel and Bagel Boss can be found all over the island, but almost every town and village seem to have its own bagel shop that the locals frequent. And these bagel chains don’t exist once you leave the island.
The most unique food of Long Island is, arguably, “creme ices.” Often, Long Islanders take this frozen treat for granted because the chain which sells them, Ralph’s Italian Ices, is so ubiquitous on the island – but nowhere else. “Creme ices” are a variation on the Italian ice which is made with cream or milk, but not enough to be considered ice cream. Therefore, it is lower in fat and calories than ice cream, and it has an icier texture. Ralph’s does sell traditional ices, known there as “water ices,” but there are far fewer water ice flavors than creme ice flavors. Creme ices’ flavors range from ice cream classics such as vanilla and chocolate to unique creations such as cherry cheesecake and mint cookie crunch. Of course, since this sweet delight is the brainchild of Italian-Americans, you can find Italian-inspired flavors such as cannoli and spumoni (pistachio, chocolate and almond flavors swirled) on Ralph’s menu as well.
The joy of Long Island is that with such a strong, diverse and thriving food culture, anyone is bound to find something they like to eat on the island. Its local restaurants and unique food items that you cannot find anywhere else make the island a prime hub for foodies.