Widgets Magazine

Bill Claudio on Claudio's 147-Year Journey from Billiard Parlor & Saloon to Fine Dining

Q: Claudio’s is a Greenport institution. How did it get started? A: Claudio’s was started in 1870 as a billiard parlor and saloon by my great granduncle Manuel Claudio who was from the Island Fayal, Portugal. Fayal is in the Azores.

Q: How did he get from Portugal to Greenport?

A: Whaling. Whaling vessels would leave Greenport, starting around 1790, and they would travel far and wide. One particular ship was the Neve—built in RI, but owned by Greenport merchants, crewed by local people.

She left here June 1851, followed the whales north to their breeding grounds, then to their birthing grounds down south, then followed them down south to feeding grounds around Cape Horn, and then followed them all the way north to the Bering Sea, and then reversed the process. One of the places they would stop would be Fayal, which had become an important part of the whaling trade. Fayal had a whale processing factory on the hillside.

The Neve stopped there as the boats did. When she left Fayal in 1854, she had a 12 year old cabin boy on board named Manuel Claudio. When the Neve returned to Greenport in June 1854, that was the first time my Great Granduncle set foot on American soil. Family lore has it that he continued to sometimes sail with the whaling boats until 1870, when he opened Claudio’s.

Over time my Great Granduncle’s two sons died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. He brought over his nephew from Portugal—that nephew was my grandfather—and indoctrinated him into the restaurant business.

Q: What remains of the original Claudio’s?

A: The saloon and billiard hall is the same building Claudio’s Restaurant is in today, the only difference is that porch is now enclosed. The building itself was built no later than the late 1840s.

The big beautiful Victorian bar in the restaurant came from a hotel in the Bowery. When the bowery was still upscale New York, that hotel thrived. But as NY expanded north, the Bowery became down trodden. The hotel was going to be torn down—one of four torn down in the same year--and Manuel Claudio bought the bar and installed it in 1886. IMG_2424Tony Claudio in front of the Victorian bar

Q: How did Claudio’s get from 1886 to the present generation?

A: My grandfather died in 1929, ostensibly of a heart attack, found in the room next door to his two sons. I say ostensibly because we’ve always been a bit suspicious; he was heavily involved in the illegal alcohol trade.

A little known local fact: in the rum running days there was this radio network in what’s now Mashomack on Shelter Island that would keep the bootleggers in the know about the Coast Guard.

Anyway, after my grandfather died my grandmother took over the business, and my father took it over sometime in the 1930s.

Myself, I’m one of 6 children. I have five sisters, two of which are involved with me, and one of which her husband is too. They run and have been running Claudio’s clam bar and Crabby Jerry’s, and myself, my wife and my sister Kathryn have been involved in the main business. We five purchased the business from my father in 1990.

The plan was, when bought the business, was that the restaurant alone was not going to be able to the support the docks and everything. The clam bar was one of our ideas. We had the clam bar built within three months of closing.

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Claudio's Clam Bar & Wharf on Memorial Day Weekend 2014

Q: Claudio’s is now listed for sale; none in the new generation want to take over the business?

A: All of our kids are highly successful in their own right—a couple of my kids are self-made millionaires—and they are widespread. One is in Arizona, two are in Tennessee, one in Maine, one on Long Island, a local school teacher in Mattituck, and one in NYC as a successful public relations manager. So my kids don’t want to take over the business.

Kathy and Jerry have two girls, and one is in Greenport, married and successful, the other one is in Springfield Massachusetts and her husband is part of a big, well known family in the jewelry industry. They all have chosen other paths.

Q: Did you grow up in the restaurant, working for your father? Or did you get into the business later?

A: I lived upstairs from the restaurant until I was 11, and then we moved into a real house in Greenport. I stayed in Greenport until I was 17, and then went to prep school, the military, college—graduated with an aeronautical engineering degree, became an air force fighter pilot. After that, I did a lot of things, but usually involving aviation.

In 1989, Jerry came to me and said: Father’s going to sell the restaurant, let’s buy it. At the time I was living on Long Island, buying and selling airplanes for Beechcraft. But I was interested so we started thinking it through.

We realized we could only do it by copying what Paddy McGee’s did up in Oceanside. They had a restaurant operation, but outside they had decks alongside a canal, they had a bar, music, dancing. We realized, hey why don’t we do that. And that’s what led to the clam bar.

So I got into it late in life, I guess. I still fly, but it got me out of the buying and selling planes business. Jerry was a retired cop. Beatrice was a school teacher, so they did too.

Q: What’s the differences between the main restaurant, the clam bar, and Crabby Jerry’s?

A: The restaurant has developed into a prominent white tablecloth service restaurant, American continental cuisine, pegged to fresh seafood. Particularly but not only lobster--we know how to cook, prepare a lobster and serve a lobster better than anyone.

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Claudio's Dining Room

The clam bar has sit down, table service, that’s one part; but the main part is the setting—you’re out in the open, with the breeze blowing, the boats going by, it’s really the nautical experience. Then when you step onto the wood part of the clam bar—the dock itself, under the tent—then you’re entering a whole new atmosphere. Even more nautical, --you sit on cloth covered bar stools, under the sun or moon, while music is playing. No better place to be when the weather’s nice.

Crabby Jerry’s is what we call a quick family eatery—it also has a bar though it’s not as magnificent as the clam bar. You walk up to the window and order of the board, you pay, get a ticket, when you’re number’s called, you get your food and bring it to your table.

We originally built Crabby Jerry’s to take the pressure off the clam bar, because we couldn’t meet all the demand there. Over time it evolved to the family eatery that it is.

Q: You opened the main restaurant a couple of weeks ago, and the clam bar’s opening this weekend. When will Crabby Jerry’s open?

A: We follow a process every year; a week before Easter, the restaurant opens. First Friday of the season, we always throw a party—this year was 145 years—so the beer and wine was $1.45.

Around three weeks later, weather dependent, the clam bar opens. Crabby Jerry’s will open the week before Memorial Day. They’re packed all summer, and then in the fall we reverse the process. The week after the Maritime Festival, Crabby Jerry’s closes. At the end of October, the clam bar closes, then the restaurant closes at the end of November. The Sunday after Thanksgiving Day is the last day it’s open.

Q: You’ve been in Greenport so long, and it’s changed a lot. Do you have any comment on what’s changed or remained the same?

A: Greenport has been around. It’s a historic town, some its buildings go back to the 1800s. Greenport was a trading port for a long time before it became New York’s first incorporated village in 1838. Even in those days the Peconic Bay and the surrounding area was a tremendous supplier of seafood to New York and the area around.

Greenport is still a very old, beautiful historic village, even though it has seen the growth of modernity cross its path. So how did it change? The people who have come have brought more of the world with them. But it’s down and dirty still.