London Lennie’s is here to stay!
In an age marked by the loss of cultural cornerstones like Jay Dee Bakery, Ben’s Best Delicatessen, Shalimar Diner and many other mom-and-pop shops citywide, longtime patrons breathed a sigh of relief to learn that London Lennie’s at 63-88 Woodhaven Boulevard will not become another development site.
“For the past 60 years, my family and I have been serving the community with the finest and freshest seafood,” wrote Leslie Barnes in an open letter. “We will carry on the tradition for the next 60 years. My family and I look forward to sharing traditions and making new memories, with gratitude for your loyalty.”
In May, an ad marketed the restaurant for sale or lease and as a development site. Barnes explained that he and his family were only “exploring the value of the property.”
“I am 65 and I have been running London Lennie’s since I was 22,” he said. “When I was five, I would visit the Fulton Fish Market with my dad.
“I thought about my plan around five years from now, and then it got blown out of proportion,” he continued. “We received calls from California and Florida, and people wanted to come in since they heard we were closing. I also heard that we were closed and we will redevelop the place. We had to put an end to the rumors.”
The family business began in December 1959, when Joan Marilyn Barnes and her late husband Leonard Barnes acquired a small wooden-floor fish market on Woodhaven Boulevard and named it Rego Park Seafood.
After undergoing several expansions, it was renamed London Lennie’s in 1968, and as the decades passed it came to be regarded as the premier seafood restaurant in Queens.
“My dad fried with a beer batter in London and then here, whereas most people in America were frying in bread crumbs,” Barnes explained. “His frying was so good that we boughtbigger fryers, since people wanted his fish all week long.”
Today, an estimated 140,000 meals are served annually, and London Lennie’s has become a go-to destination for birthdays, anniversaries, and social gatherings. Signature events are the Crabfest for four weeks in October and November, Crawfest for a week in April, and Oysterfest for two weeks in September.
Miracle Met Ed Charles, LL Cool J, Jimmy Heath, Gerry Cooney, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Connie Francis have all been spotted there. Cyndi Lauper mentioned London Lennie’s in her book about being raised in Queens.
“She loved the name and her mother loved our fried shrimp,” Barnes said. “That is how you become part of the fabric of Queens.”
He compared the bar crowd to the fictional one on the hit television show “Cheers.”
“Everyone knows everyone and they all joke,” Barnes said. “We get people from Manhattan and Brooklyn, but we are still a neighborhood place where you feel like you are at home.”
Barnes also spoke about preserving traditions and the benefit of family businesses to a community.
“I have young kids working for me whose parents worked for me, and I have a couple of people whose parents met working for me,” he said. “One was a hostess and one was a busboy. They got married, had kids, and now their kids are working for me. That is what a community is all about.”
Barnes said he occasionally runs into former employees who began working for him at the age of 18.
“They still talk about the lessons they learned, such as being responsible, looking clean and neat, being on time, and working as a team,” Barnes said. “Those are great life lessons that help everybody in our community.
“I love our family tradition,” added Barnes, who takes pride in being a second-generation owner. “I had the opportunity from my parents, and I said give me one year to see if I can make London Lennie’s better than what it was. When I took over in 1977, my mother said do what you think is best.”
If Barnes decides to retire, the question then becomes who acquires the restaurant.
“My daughter Teagan really loves the business,” he said. “In the summer, she worked for a well-known restaurant to see what working for another restaurant is like. She thinks London Lennie’s will be great.”
The menu has been updated to meet evolving tastes and dietary preferences, while retaining classics from 1959.
“We are still learning to change our menu to what people want to eat today. We sell a lot less fried foods and do more broiling, grilling, and sautéing,” he said. “But how could we ever change fish-and-chips, seafood platters, lemon sole, baked clams, steamers, mussels, or our raw bar?”
Barnes admitted that it is currently a very tough business environment.
“Between the state and city, they’re burdening small businesses with regulations and expenses that make it difficult to be profitable,” he said. Those are the big hurdles that we will have to overcome within the next few years.
“But we want to keep London Lennie’s an active part of our community and stand for quality fish and service, as we always have,” he added.