The year 1913 was marked by some memorable events. Thirteen years into the new century, Henry Ford opened his ﬁrst assembly line automobile factory, permanently reshaping how the world would live and conduct business. It was the year when fathers across America were given their own national holiday and the 16th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratiﬁed, giving the federal government the power to tax personal income.
Albert Schweitzer opened his hospital in the French Congo in 1913, and Charlie Chaplin starred in his ﬁrst Hollywood movie, “Keystone Comedies.” Americans for the ﬁrst time would get to indulge their sweet tooth on Peppermint Life Savers and Oreo cookies.
And in Albany, N.Y., Jack Rosenstein, a former oyster shucker at the then-popular Keeler’s Restaurant, opened Jack’s Oyster House at the corner of Beaver and Green streets. A cup of coﬀee at the new restaurant cost a couple of pennies, while most of the more expensive dishes were priced around 35 cents.
Now into its 10th decade, Jack’s Oyster House has rung in a lot of changes. For example, it no longer resides at its original downtown address. In 1937 Rosenstein shifted the restaurant several blocks north to its present location at the foot of State Street, a short walk down the hill from the New York State Capitol Building—easily accessible to locals and lawmakers alike.
The restaurant’s culinary direction has been shifted a bit, too. In August 2011 Chef Larry Schepici, joined Jack’s as executive chef. Schepici has introduced a more internationalized palette of ingredients and preparations, as well as adding back many of Jack’s traditional favorites from its original menu.
What has remained constant, however, is Jack’s ownership. For three generations a member of the Rosenstein family has been greeting guests at the door. These days the 150-seat restaurant is run by Jack’s grandson, Brad Rosenstein, a Cornell graduate who has managed to navigate a careful course that preserves the restaurant’s longstanding traditions while introducing more 21st-century tastes and flourishes to a new generation of guests.
“We try to retain a link with the past,” Brad Rosenstein explains, noting that the wood paneling in the dining room is original, and the photographs decorating the walls reflect an Albany of an earlier era.
Few restaurants in America can lay claim to anything approaching Jack’s long, unbroken heritage, and fewer still can say they have been under the ownership of a single family for that span of time.
“Jack’s has been around for more than 90 years, and to survive that long in our business is laudable,” says Tim Ryan, president of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “On top of that they continue to innovate and improve. Jack’s, to me, is Albany’s version of The 21 Club”, he says, referring to the New York City establishment. “It’s comfortable and clubby, and it’s Albany’s hot spot. It’s where the politicos and the famous go in Albany.”
William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Ironweed” and a native Albanian, has been going to Jack’s since he was a child. “It’s one of my favorite places in the world,” he says. “It’s a continuation of the great American restaurants, like Delmonico’s.”
Kennedy, who has chronicled the life and times of New York’s capital city in his best-selling “Albany Cycle” of novels and popular historical volume, “O Albany!” recollects that Jack’s Oyster House also made a marked ﬁrst impression on Civil War historian and novelist Shelby Foote.
Kennedy says he invited Foote, who was in town for a speaking engagement, to join him for lunch at Jack’s. “He ordered the oyster stew and a dozen oysters,” Kennedy recalls. “The next day I asked him where he’d like to go for lunch, and he said, ‘Let’s go back to Jack’s and have oyster stew and a dozen oysters.’ So we did. The same meal. Again.”
Kennedy laughs. “I think that if he ever were to return to Albany, he’d probably go back to Jack’s and order the oyster stew and oysters all over again. He was hooked.”
But while generations of Albany residents and visitors have gotten hooked on Jack’s since it opened its doors Jan. 24, 1913, its passage has not always been an easy one. When Jack Rosenstein resigned his job as an oyster shucker at Keeler’s, his plan was to share responsibilities at the new restaurant with a business partner.
Soon after opening, however, his partner declared that he wanted out of the venture, and Rosenstein found himself operating the clam and oyster bar by himself.
He would continue to supervise both the cooking and the service until he married at which point his wife, Jane, took over the front-of-the-house, leaving him to run the kitchen.
Nevertheless, business remained a struggle in the early days. “During the Depression downtown Albany was a really bad area, and most people were afraid to come down,” Brad Rosenstein says. “We were open seven days a week and the only place that was open after 5 p.m. The family had to ﬁnd a way to bring people down here, so they calculated what the break-even point was, adjusted the prices accordingly and then worked to make it up in volume.”
While business in downtown Albany began to recover as the Depression eased, it proved to be only a temporary window of relief. By the 1960s the area was suﬀering once again and this time a casualty of inner-city turmoil and the wholesale flight of businesses to the outlying suburbs. By that time Brad Rosenstein’s father, Arnold, and his uncle Marvin were running the restaurant, and many neighboring retailers like John. G. Myer’s and Whitney’s were either joining the exodus or closing up permanently.
“I came back here in the early ’60s, and downtown Albany was a disaster,” Kennedy remembers. “It looked bombed out. The streets were empty.”
Even Jack Rosenstein’s original inspiration, Keeler’s, was forced to close in 1969. The Rosenstein family soldiered on, though, and gradually the area once again clawed its way back to viability, anchored by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s sprawling Empire State Plaza project. During that period the restaurant’s strategy was to oﬀer good value and remain consistent, Rosenstein says.
“People wanted large portions at reasonable prices, and we gave them that,” he explains. “But our forte was creating great service for each guest. We did everything we could do to personalize the experience.”
An emphasis on service—Kennedy characterizes the Rosensteins as being “supreme hosts”—long has been a central element at the restaurant. “Usually, either I am or my father is in the front to greet guests,” Rosenstein says.
“The ﬁrst impression a guest gets is critical.”
As Jack’s Oyster House progresses toward its 100th anniversary, the Rosensteins and Schepici continue to ﬁnetune operations. But one thing not likely to change is the restaurant’s seven-days-a-week policy, introduced when founder Jack Rosenstein still was shucking oysters in the kitchen.
“We’re still open every day of the year,” Brad Rosenstein says. “It’s almost like a religious thing. If we close the restaurant, it’s like we’re saying that we’re more important than our guests.”
Rosenstein did acknowledge closing the restaurant on one occasion, however. “We closed for a day in 1987 for my grandfather’s funeral,” he says but then adds, “And I think he probably would have been really upset about it, too.”