Five decades of hard work, amazing service, and great food is a tough endeavor for many, but not for Leslie Barnes, owner and operator of London Lennie’s seafood restaurant, whose childhood enabled him to develop a love for fish that has saturated all aspects of his life. Along with his father Leonard “Lennie” Barnes, Leslie has built an establishment based on family values and quality fish, serving the Queens community for an astonishing fifty years.
After emigrating to New York City in 1959, the Barnes family settled in Rego Park, Queens where they purchased a small fish store for a mere $6,000, just five blocks from the family’s apartment. Lennie and his son Leslie, then a small child, spent many of their mornings at the Fulton Fish Market, choosing the highest quality fish to sell and serve at their shop, “Rego Park Seafood.” Some of Les’ favorite memories are returning from the fish market, long before his two sisters awoke, to play the menacing brother by leaving fishy “surprises” on their pillows to greet them. Today, the family’s once small fish n’ chips shop is a bustling 225 seat, full service restaurant named London Lennie’s. The restaurant now takes up half of its block on Woodhaven Boulevard, and hosts a full bar, vast wine list, wide range of eclectic seafood dishes and the area’s finest raw bar.
Leslie Takes the Reins
Leslie’s father Lennie ran a tight ship. Leslie spent most of his childhood with his father and fish while his mother worked as a a reservationist for BOAC, now British Airways. Instead of hanging out with his friends after school, Leslie would head to the restaurant, do his homework, and then help his father by bussing tables and washing dishes. After spending many years working side-by-side with his son, Leslie’s father turned the keys to the restaurant over to him in 1977. Leslie was 22 years old and a recent graduate of Florida International University, with a degree in hospitality management. “There can only be one captain of this ship,” Lennie told Leslie. He asked Leslie to do one thing as London Lennie’s new owner, and that was to always buy the best quality of fish, no matter what. Looking back, Leslie recognizes that this advice has played a big part in keeping his family’s restaurant in business for 50 years. “You need to be a master of your trade, no matter what it is. In the restaurant business, there is no substitute for living, eating and breathing your specialty. Working side by side with my father from the time that I was 5 years old, I made seafood my specialty,” said Leslie. “I learned how to tell the difference between a fresh fish and a day-old fish just by looking at it. I even know what each type of fish smells like because I used to smell exactly like them leaving the market each morning!” London Lennies’ patrons keep coming back because they know exactly what they are going to get – quality.
A Part of the Family
As a family restaurant, family values have also played a big role in London Lennies’ success. More often than not, patrons will find Leslie, his mother Joan, his wife and daughters at the restaurant, but they’ve also come to recognize the staff as an extension of the Barnes’ family. “We have always invested in our staff,” said Leslie. “We keep them motivated by educating them and immersing them in all aspects of the running of London Lennie’s.” Wait staff meet the winemakers featured on the restaurant’s wine list, even visit the fish market where Leslie and his buyer purchase their fish each morning. “Our staff’s experience doesn’t begin and end inside the walls of our restaurant because nothing we do here does,” said Leslie. “Our investment has really paid off. We have staffers, like our sous-chef Domingo Arevalo, that have been with us for 30 years.” Domingo started as a pot washer and now works side by side with London Lennies’ CIA trained, nationally recognized executive chef, Jeffrey Baruch.
Over the years, running this family business has not always been smooth sailing. Leslie and his founding father, Lennie, have both encountered rough waters, including a fire that engulfed the entire restaurant, Lennie’s passing in March of 1986 and the recent recession. When the recession hit in September of last year, Leslie’s first instinct was not to think of the restaurant’s bottom line, but to think of his customers. “How are we going to save money?” became “How are we going to save our customers money?” “It is so important to stay relevant to your customers, especially during hard times,” reflects Leslie. “Some restaurants abandon their client base during tough times in an attempt to find new ones who fit their business aspirations. Not us.” Rather, Leslie invited his customers in for a $25 prix fix seafood menu called Seafood on a Shoestring, later introducing an accompanying lunch menu for just $18. His customers found value at the restaurant during tough times and the restaurant has stayed afloat along with them.
A New York Institution
As London Lennies’ golden anniversary in April draws closer, Leslie’s mother, Joan Barnes, or “Mrs. London Lennie’s” as she likes to call herself, remains a fixture at the family restaurant, greeting guests new and old and upholding the restaurant’s effervescent personality. As Leslie’s “first mate,” Joan will celebrate her 80th birthday alongside the restaurant’s 50th, and she could not be more proud of the business her family has built. London Lennie’s has not only survived, but thrived for five decades, changing with the tides of time while remaining steady as a beacon of small business success. The Barnes family is eager to pay homage to the “New York institution” that they have built, which they hope will continue to shape their lives and the Queens community for decades to come.