If Norm Peterson, a fixture who stopped in regularly to raise a pint on the popular television series “Cheers,” were a real person, odds are he’d feel right at home bellying up to the bar at in Jamesport.
Cliff’s Elbow Room, a mainstay in the community since 1958, is, as the old “Cheers” theme song goes, a restaurant where everybody knows your name. On a recent Monday afternoon, longtime patrons stop in for lunch or a cocktail at the bar, where bartender Karen Trimper greets them all by name.
Regulars shoot the breeze with owner Cliff Saunders, who, like his father and his grandfather before him, has created an eatery known not only for its signature marinated steak and clam chowder so popular that it snagged a trophy for best Manhattan clam chowder at the annual , but for staffers, some of whom have been working at the business for more than 40 years.
“I’ve been coming here for 18 years,” said Joe Cappello, a Middle Island resident who keeps his boat at a nearby marina. “For the food, and the people.”
Port Jefferson resident Joe Russo agreed. “It’s a friendly atmosphere - and the food is great.”
In 1946, Saunders' grandfather, Cliff, Sr. and his grandmother Helen, bought their first their first restaurant -- , named for its cozy but comfortable eating space. Located in Laurel, the restaurant was originally called the Laurel Inn, where serving up fresh fare has been a hallmark of the family-owned business.
“Talk about local,” Saunders said. “My grandfather was an avid fisherman and whatever he caught was the fish of the day.”
In 1958, Saunders parents, Cliff and Joan, bought Cliff’s Elbow Room on Main Road in Jamesport and later, added its sister location, Cliff’s Rendezvous on East Main Street in Riverhead in 1976. “That’s the latest edition,” Saunders said.
For 54 years, the family-run restaurants have been infused with the personal touch that have made the establishments a taste of home for many generations of loyal patrons. Saunders’ mother Joan, now 85, still works at both restaurants and cooks her famous baked clams and chowder.
Favorites on the menu include the marinated steak, which patrons rave about, and a full slate of other menu items including roast duck and ahi tuna. The restaurants have been crowd pleasers since the days when shrimp cocktails cost 75 cents and broiled lobster tails, $4.25, according to a framed 1965 menu adorning the wall, which is covered with awards and accolades for the longtime favorite eatery.
Cliff’s Elbow Room Too was sold in 1998 and the restaurants are no longer related; the name of the Laurel establishment is now the Elbow Room.
Saunders, who grew up in Mattituck, now lives in Baiting Hollow. “My wife says now I have a commute,” he said. Saunders and his wife Christina have five children, Cliff IV, Eric, Angel, Michaela, Sam, Nicole, and Kyle, and a bevy of cats.
A family business, the restaurant has been a part of his children’s lives; Saunders himself has vivid memories of watching his father build the sign outside when he was six years old. As a little boy, Saunders colored a picture that his mother hung on the kitchen door of the restaurant. “It stayed there for years, until it fell off,” Saunders said.
Saunders’ childhood memories include the days when there was a pool table and a jukebox, and he was given whole stacks of records to keep.
Other families have made the restaurants a part of their collective menu full of memories, Saunders said. “The customers are great,” Saunders. “So many people come for their anniversaries. Either they met here, or were proposed to here. They bring their kids, and then their kids come -- let’s hope they bring their kids. I think the a lot of people come because they do feel comfortable here.”
Losing his father, Saunders said, was a blow. His father died suddenly ten years ago at 74. “He was like the ambassador,” Saunders said. “Everybody loved my father.”
Even today, Saunders said, judges from the courts in Riverhead who dine at Cliff’s Rendezvous still remember and talk about his father fondly.
Carrying on in his father’s stead, Saunders said, isn’t always easy. “I still walk in his shadows,” he said. “But I’m trying to do the right thing -- for him, and for the family.”
Looking around at his customers, laughing and sharing stories, Saunders said the restaurant does evoke a sense of familiarity and comfort conjured up on the sitcom “Cheers.” “I have a customer here who reminds me of Norm,” Saunders jokes. “Now if he’d only pay his tab.”