Another long established and much loved restaurant is soon to change hands and this time it is The Club House on Port Washington Boulevard. The Club House has enjoyed 35 years of continuous ownership and is renowned for its superb Angus steaks, friendly atmosphere and of course the sing-alongs around the grand piano. Rumor was that Bryant & Cooper had made an offer but the deal did not go through, and it is a private individual, Jim Contino, who is taking over. The current owner Deirdre Rabago, known to all as Dee, is very sad to be leaving but has found it increasingly difficult to run the business since her husband, Larry, died in 1998. With the loyal support from her staff she has kept the restaurant open but the dramatic increases in rent and maintenance have finally become too much.
Sadly when Dee leaves at the end of March the piano will be leaving too, presumably to be replaced by the generic sound of the jukebox found in virtually every bar. Fred McMorrow of The New York Times, who has often written about the musical aspect of the Club House in his About Long Island column, once described it as "the most companionable piano bar I know on the Island." The popularity of the piano bar may have waned and businesses do have to keep up with the times but it is sad to know that this bastion of live music will be lost to modern trends.
Established in the 1950s and originally named The Alibi, the restaurant underwent two name changes before becoming The Club House in 1963 under the ownership of Richard and Maureen McKee. In the same year Larry Rabago started working in the restaurant as a part time waiter, supplementing his income from his day job with the Long Island Telephone Company. In 1968 when the time came for the McKees to sell, they asked Mr. Rabago if he would like to buy it and he made the transition from waiter to owner with ease.
When Larry Rabago married Deirdre Dunne from Sea Cliff the perfect partnership was created. In the early days Larry would cook on the weekends and Dee would serve drinks to the piano crowd who were numerous and very thirsty. Dee describes Larry as a gentleman and immaculate dresser and remembers how he charmed all the customers even those a little worse for wear. She recalled one night, when the barman indicated to Larry that a customer had had enough to drink and Larry persuaded the gentleman it was time to leave and led him to the front door. A short while later a figure appeared at the back door and upon seeing Larry said, " What? You own this place too?" Larry calmly agreed, gave him a drink and then drove him safely home. Dee says that was the Larry everyone knew, charming, generous and kind-hearted.
There is an air of tradition about the Club House, which the Rabago's maintained during their 35 years of ownership. They made improvements such as the wood rail partition and the installation of air-conditioning but at the same time they kept the piano, the open grill and the elegant serpentine bar, which were popular features with the customers. A dominant feature of the dining room is the stunning mural depicting another famous restaurant in Port Washington, Bradley's, which has long since burnt down. Dee still has the photograph from which the artist, Taglieri, drew his inspiration. After completing the mural at the Club House in the early 1960s, Dee says Taglieri went on to paint a mural at the White House for the Kennedys. On the opposite side of the restaurant, set at the far end of the dining room is the impressive grill that has always been on view to the diners. It is here that chef Hector Luciano, has been cooking the popular steaks, burgers and other entrees for more than 30 years. Dee said, "only soup and potatoes are cooked inside."
One of the most popular components of the Club House was the Baldwin piano, which has padding all around the edge to ensure crooners and listeners alike can lean in close and catch the tune. The Club House and resident pianist Vin Roddie have drawn quite a crowd of talented musicians in the past and at times jam sessions would include professional musicians such as Artie Manners on clarinet and Mel Davis, the musical director of Sesame Street. Vin Roddie is more than just a lounge pianist having been a professional musician since he was 18 years old back in the big band era. He has written and produced his own music and Dee says he has never missed a day at the Club House. The music used to play all week but as times have changed so has the Club House and since the late '90s when stricter drink driving laws began to be enforced, the piano has only been heard on Friday and Saturday nights. Dee is sad that the new owner will not be keeping the piano and that Vin will be leaving after more than 30 years of music making at the Club House. Vin will not however be retiring; in his ninth decade and still teaching piano as well as performing live, Vin is busy sending out his resume to all interested parties.
Standing out against the otherwise old world charm of the restaurant's décor is an array of sporting memorabilia; a reminder of Larry Rabago's longtime love affair with football and hockey. He always had season tickets to the Jets and the Islanders and with four tickets available he would often invite friends, customers and particularly young sporting fans to enjoy the game with him. In fact he was such an avid supporter, the sportsmen started to return the visits and became regulars at the Club House with Jets players doubling as bouncers on busy Halloween nights. Dee recalls another night when she was pleased to see Jets linebacker Dan Alexander. She said, "A man started choking on a piece of steak and his wife was getting hysterical. I begged Dan to help but he was so big he was scared he might "kill the guy." Eventually he grabbed the man and performed a very successful Heimlich maneuver.
On shelves along the back wall, lined up incongruously above a row of china plates are several football helmets, all gifts from Jets players to the Rabagos. Two very treasured gifts are a helmet from Joe Namath, the outspoken quarterback who played for the Jets and a football signed by the Jets team; both are from the 1969 Super Bowl game when the Jets won against Baltimore. Larry went every week to the Jets training camp at Hofstra University and when a customer and family friend invited Larry and Dee to her grandson's birthday party, Larry made the boy's day by bringing not one but three Jets players to the party. Dee said this was one of the joys of knowing Larry, you never knew what he would come up with next.
The Club House was more than just a business for the Rabagos. It was a home away from home with the staff and customers creating an extended family. Holidays and family celebrations were spent in the expansive dining room; Dee remembers after closing on Christmas Day, the dining room being rearranged and the family sitting down together opening presents and grandchildren excitedly riding their new bikes up and down the space. On these occasions, the family would make their own musical entertainment with one of Dee's sisters playing the piano and another the violin. The staff at the Club House are like family, in fact Dee's daughter, Patti, is one of them and has been bartending and managing the Club House for 12 years. Grace Halloran, who waitresses and does the books, is another Club House veteran with 30 plus years of service under her belt. Dee cannot say enough in praise of the staff and recognizes that their hard work and dedicated service have over the years enabled her and Larry to enjoy many worry free vacations. She said, "they run the place so well, I always said we should go away more often." It was also this team of experienced staff who made it possible for Dee to keep the Club House going after Larry's death.
Dee is very sad to be leaving the Club House and more than once her eyes filled with tears remembering all the good times she spent there with Larry, her family, the staff and customers. Although Dee says the sale is a way of letting Larry finally rest, it is clear she is far from happy at leaving behind something that has been such an important part of her life. Dee's last day will be March 31, but she will not be having a sending away party. The last big bash with Dee at the helm was Paddy's Day. Dee was very clear about what she wanted to say about the sale. "I want to thank all the people of Port Washington for their support and for making all these years at the Club House so great."