The half-dozen, half-shelled oysters perch on the periphery of an ice-filled serving dish, itself shaped like a scallop shell. Horseradish and cocktail sauce, shallot vinegar and lemon wedges wait in the middle, but the first taste really should be of the oyster unbridled because it offers a subtle, complicated flavor: sea-fresh and salty, of course, but imparting a quick kiss of something that bypasses the usual palate sensors, a flavor inseparable from the slithery texture of the beast.
This is what Albany’s diners demanded as the 20th century dawned, and those demands were met in quick supply by the oyster-shuckers at Keeler’s, the city’s most commanding dining spot back then. Among those splitting the bivalves was an ambitious preteen named Jack Rosenstein who, in 1913, moved his craft into an eatery of his own, a place that boasted four tables and an oyster bar.
“Downtown Albany was an extremely vibrant, exciting place back then,” says Brad Rosenstein. “My grandfather got his start in business selling newspapers at the age of 8, because his father had died and he needed to make money for the family. William Keeler, who bought a newspaper from him every day, took a liking to him and asked if he wanted a better job.”
Jack’s Oyster House moved to its present State Street location in 1937. “A banker who was a customer of his recommended it—it was a foreclosure—and helped him get the property.” Jack’s sons Arnold and Marvin were brought into the business, and it’s Arnold’s son Brad who is likely to greet you at the door today. “Welcome back,” he’ll say. If you’ve been there before, he’ll remember you. “Personalized service,” he tells me. “That’s what it takes. We’re part of a community. The most successful restaurateurs the ones who genuinely enjoy pleasing others. We’re like actors on a stage: When the curtain opens, you’re being judged every minute.”
With a hundred-year history, isn’t is possible to see a place like Jack’s as outdated? “Absolutely,” says Brad. “That’s why it’s so important to have a great chef.” We’re joined by Larry Schepici, who brought his considerable reputation to the kitchen here two years ago. “He’s keeping us up to date with whatever the latest trends are. Our guests are always looking for innovations.”
“We put a little bit of my flavor into the menu,” says Larry, “while maintaining the classic dishes. We’ve added some of my regional Italian specialties, some new versions of French dishes, and we offer many features.” Not to mention an eagerness to create—or re-create—anything not on the menu that a customer might desire. “People ask for lobster thermidor, lobster newburg, coquilles St. Jacques—and we make it,” says Larry. “You have to have a culinary team that’s trained to do it and that understands that even if we’re busy, that person loves that dish and it’s our job to provide it.”
Adds Brad, “A guest might come in and say, ‘I had shrimp André here 20 years ago and it was the best dinner I ever had in my life and I’d like to have it again.’ The server is trained to say, ‘Absolutely, it would be my pleasure,’ and then goes back to tell the chef—and we either figure out how to make it or try to come up with something better. And nine times out of ten, the guest will say, ‘This is even better.’
“At this point, we’re almost immune to any possible type of request. As we always say here, the answer must always be ‘yes.’”
As happened on a Sunday when Bruce Springsteen was in town for a concert at the Times Union Center, recalls Brad. “I got a call from his manager saying that Springsteen’s wife had a craving for caviar. Everybody was closed, but there used to be a specialty food store called Daleah’s where you could get things like that, so I got in touch with the owner and he was willing to go and open the building—so I got the caviar for Mrs. Springsteen. And I got a pass for the concert, where I sat with Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.”
To name the celebrities who’ve visited is almost superfluous, there have been so many, but some of the names mentioned are Colin Powell (“He said it was the best cheesecake he ever had”), Al Gore (“A fundraiser when he was running for the presidency”), Hillary Clinton, Albany native Andy Rooney (“Many times!”), Sugar Ray Leonard, Johnny Bench, Rajon Rondo—“And,” adds Larry, “every senator and governor you could ever think of.”
Robert Goulet visited several times, notes Brad, “And we had a regular customer who was an opera singer. One afternoon she and Goulet burst into ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ together. That was wonderful.
“When Spitzer had his inauguration, Jimmy Fallon came in. He said, ‘I always wanted to come to Jack’s but I was just a poor kid’—he was going to Saint Rose, answering phones at Metroland—‘and I could never afford to come here.’ I said, ‘Come on, Jimmy, we were never that expensive,’ and he said, ‘Anything would have been expensive back then!’”
As Jack’s continues to embrace new ideas in cuisine, it holds on to classic menu items—the calves’ liver will always be there—and a standard of service that’s faultless. “We have a professional staff,” says Larry. “This is what they do for a living. It’s not like they’re going to college and are doing this on the side.”
What makes it all work? “My passion is the restaurant business,” Brad explains. “And it’s a very challenging business. So many areas can go wrong, so it keeps you on your toes. So we try to give it the sacrifice, dedication, and hard work that’s required. But, as they say, if you enjoy what you do, you really don’t work a day in your life.”