The Capitol at the top of the hill may be where legislation becomes law, but it’s often at the bottom of the hill, Jack’s Oyster House, where bills are born.
“Lord knows how many deals were settled over a table at Jack’s,” said Jack McEneny, a former state assemblyman, who had his wedding reception at Jack’s Oyster house back in 1968. “It was always a place to go where you would see politicians and lobbyists, designing their strategy. It’s one of those special places. It’s not just a restaurant. It’s a repository of memories.”
Jack’s, owned by the Rosenstein family, is celebrating its 100th year in business in downtown Albany. At then corner of State Street and Broadway, Jack’s is an Albany institution that has served meals to some of the biggest political figures in the city’s history.
The restaurant was originally at the corner of Beaver and Green streets, but in 1937 Jack Rosenstein moved a couple of blocks north to the foot of State Street Hill.
Jack, whose long history of shucking oysters was chronicled in a 1985 Esquire Magazine article by Albany’s William Kennedy, continued to work at the restaurant until 1984. His two sons, Arnold and Marvin, had succeeded him a bit earlier, and it is now Jack’s grandson, Brad, who runs the operation.
“My grandfather’s parents were originally from Detroit and then moved to Albany,” said Rosenstein, a standout tennis player at Albany Academy and a graduate of Cornell University. “Then, his father left home and his mother told him at 8 years old, ‘go out and bring home some money.’ So he got a job selling newspapers.”
Rosenstein soon got into the restaurant business, shucking oysters at Keeler’s, a popular Albany dining spot owned by William “Sheriff Bill” Keeler. Rosenstein eventually decided to start up his own restaurant.
“People would walk in off the street; it was like a diner or a soda fountain place, and he would have you sit down in the front of the store and take your order,” said Kennedy, who also mentioned the restaurant in his 1983 book, “O Albany!”
“Then he’d call through the window to the back, ‘Oyster stew!’ and then he’d go back and make it.”
Kennedy started showing up at Jack’s soon after it moved to its new spot in 1937.
“There were three great restaurants on State Street back then; Jack’s, Keeler’s and O’Connor’s,” remembered Kennedy. “Jack’s has kept on going. It continues in the fashion of Delmonico’s in New York City, a great old restaurant which is a big part of American culture. It’s been a favorite place of mine for 50 to 60 years now.”
While the business has remained in the family for 100 years, there was a time when its future was up in the air.
“There were many grandchildren, and I had always assumed one of them would want to take over the business,” said Brad Rosenstein. “I started doing dishes and pots, then I was promoted to bus boy, and then I got accepted to Cornell. I had always loved the idea of the hotel industry, and I was working down in Boca Raton after school when my father called me. He said, ‘we’re either going to sell this place, or you’re going to come back and run it.’ The other grandchildren weren’t interested so I came back.”
Built in 1875
The gray stone building at 42 State St. was built in 1875 by Stephen Van Rensselaer Gray. It was originally a bookstore and then a Chinese Restaurant before Rosenstein and his wife, Jane, took over.
The second and third floors have been used as banquet rooms, and that’s where McEneny and his first wife had their wedding reception in 1968.
“It’s a very dignified building that could very easily be in a place like Montreal as much as Albany,” said McEneny. “It’s a real rags-to-riches story of a time when banks would invest in people. When Jack moved into the building it was during the Depression, and nobody had a lot of money. But they were hometown banks and they invested in the person. It has remained a special place, where you might go after a wedding, a funeral, a reunion, a birthday, whatever. It has great memories for me and a lot of other people.”
Making people feel at home is a key to Jack’s long success, according to Rosenstein. As for the menu, Rosenstein has had to remind the public that they serve more than just oysters.
“That has been a challenge for us,” said Rosenstein, who hired Larry Schepici as his head chef three years ago.
“One year we put up a sign on 787 with a picture of a huge filet mignon on it. The sign said, ‘Jack’s, we’re not just seafood.’ We also have great chicken and vegetarian dishes. We have many different items.”
There’s also the service. When McEneny met his second wife, Jan Baillargeon, he didn’t have to introduce her to Jack’s. Her family went there often when she was a child, including one memorable Thanksgiving Day dinner, and Jan hasn’t stopped going since.
“I went there with a girlfriend once and at the time we were both college students without a lot of money,” remembered Baillargeon. “We ordered our meal and we put out our cigarettes — we had neatly crushed them so we could smoke them later — and put them in the ashtray. The waiter came along and removed the ashtray and then returned it clean with our unlit cigarettes. That’s the kind of service that keeps you coming back.”
The Baillargeons and their nine children weren’t the only families to enjoy Jack’s on a holiday. Since longer than Rosenstein can remember, the place has been open 365 days a year.
“We’re open from 11:30 to 10 every day of the year, and Christmas is one of our busiest days of the year,” said Rosenstein. “I think people like to go out and they don’t want to clean up on a holiday, so we get a lot of families.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or firstname.lastname@example.org.