In 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, Alaska and Hawaii were granted statehood, the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series, and Leonard Barnes and his wife Joan founded what would become “one of New York City’s premiere seafood restaurants” – London Lennie’s.
Leslie Barnes, commonly known as Les, took over ownership of the restaurant from his parents in 1977 and is primarily responsible for turning his father’s original vision into reality. It is under his guidance that London Lennie’s became one of the most successful eateries in New York City. Les has accomplished this feat by devoting most of his time and effort to overseeing the expansion of the restaurant and by establishing London Lennie’s as a truly unique and unforgettable dining experience.
In short, Les Barnes is a restaurateur extraordinaire, who credits much of his success to the hard work and loyalty of his employees, like his General Manager, Mark, and Chef, Jeff, as well as the sous chefs, waiters, waitresses, bartenders, hostesses, and all the others who contribute to giving the ambiance of London Lennie’s what Les likes to call “that friendly family feeling.” And they all respect him, and genuinely like him as a person. Diane, for instance, the daytime bartender, said that he’s “awesome.” And Esther, a hostess, said that Les is “kind and generous and thought provoking, and likes it when people come to work for him and later move on to become successful”.
Leslie “Les” Barnes was born in Toronto, Canada. Les and his family moved to Queens in the 1950s, and grew up in Middle Village, where he attended P.S. 49 and P.S. 119. He graduated from Forest Hills High School in 1973. He attended Pratt Institute for two years as a Food Science major then decided to transfer to Florida International University to take advantage of the school’s renowned hospitality courses. Les currently lives in Rye, New York, is married to Elizabeth and has four daughters named Teagan, Greer, Fiona, and Shaye. He also has a cat named Merlin.
Q: Why was the restaurant named London Lennie’s?
A; My father was what they call a Cockney from London, and his name was Leonard. So when he took over the business, he called it London Lennie’s.
But how the name came to be is actually pretty funny. We used to have two neon signs in the front window in the early days. One neon sign said London Fish and Chips, in pink, and the other one underneath in blue, said Lenny’s Clam Bar. And if you were standing across the street you would see:
London Fish and Chips (red)
Lenny’s Clam Bar (blue)
So, he decided to combine the names and call it London Lennie’s. Before that it was known as Rego Park Seafood. We changed the name in either 1969 or ’70.
Q: What was the genesis of London Lennie’s? How did it evolve?
A: Well, we started as a retail fish store, and in the early days, we only cooked fish on Fridays, because if you were Catholic you ate only fish and didn’t eat meat, and the two busiest stores back then on Woodhaven Blvd. on a Friday were our little retail fish store and the pizza place down the street.
Now, my dad had what they called chip shops in London. So he knew about fish and he knew about frying fish. Well, his fried fish was so good that people began asking, “Why don’t you try frying fish every day?” So we started frying fish every day. Back then we only had one table for two and two stools at the counter, but over time as our place got larger and larger, we decided it was time to stop retailing fish and just focus on the restaurant, which we did, I think in 1971. I mean we do some retailing of fish today, but very little of it and just as an ode to our early days.
I understand that you recently opened a second restaurant?
Yes, I have a new restaurant in the town of Port Chester call Saltaire, which is on the Greenwich, Connecticut border. It’s also a seafood restaurant, and we just received an excellent review in the New York Times.
Describe a typical day in the life of Les Barnes at London Lennie’s?
Considering that I have two restaurants now, my day has changed quite a bit. First, I’ll stop by Saltaire at about 8:30 in the morning, and check with the pastry girl, and then the chef or sous chef and go over what fish we will be serving that day and then we pick what will be on the menu for the day, depending on what fish is in the market. And then I go to London Lennie’s where I try to spend three to five hours every day, and I basically try to keep up-to-date with what we’re doing in the kitchen, and then I’ll check in with the chef or sous chef, and then with my daughter Teagan, who is the bar manager. After that, I’ll head back to Saltaire, where I will usually spend the evening. Now if I spend the evening at Saltaire, I’ll try to do the reverse the next day, and spend the evening at London Lennie’s. I probably spend about eighteen hours between the two restaurants.
Q: What do you find most rewarding?
A: When my customers call me over to the table and tell me how good their dinner was and how much they loved the service and my staff and the restaurant. You want to establish that friendly family feeling with the customers. You want the restaurant to have a personality as well. Diane, for instance, who has been tending bar for the last twelve years for five days a week for lunch, has customers come in because they enjoy her personality and service. She was a waitress before becoming a bartender, and a hostess before that, and people like to come in because she talks to them, and cares about them and knows what they like, and as soon as they sit down, she knows what type of drink to give them. And that’s what we’ve established here. A restaurant where our customers not only enjoy the food, but also get that friendly family feeling as soon as they walk in.
What is the key to running a successful restaurant like London Lennie’s?
You have to be dedicated to good customer service in addition to the excellent cuisine.
Q: What fish do most customers order?
A: Salmon, Tuna, Red Snapper.
Q: What do you eat at London Lennie’s? What is your favorite dish?
A: Fried lemon sole and French fries in malt vinegar, a fish and chips kind of a thing. But it’s really a toss-up between that and Nantucket bay scallops, when they’re around. That’s the best thing out of the water.
Q: Who was your role model growing up?
A: My Dad. He was a hard-working man with three kids at home, who bought a small retail fish store with the two hundred dollars he had saved when he was thirty years old and made a success out of it. He taught me that hard work never killed anybody, and that the business always came first. And all his life, he was a hard-working man dedicated to providing the best customer service.
Q: There is a rumor going around that you’re selling London Lennie’s. Care to comment on this?
A: It’s simply not true. There have always been rumors about London Lennie’s being sold. If the customers don’t see me or my mother in the restaurant for a few weeks, they think we sold out. Social media help makes these rumors fly.
Q: You said before we started this interview, that you enjoy reading the Juniper Berry Magazine. Why do you like it?
A: I love The Juniper Berry Magazine. It’s awesome and a great magazine for the community. And whenever we get copies, they disappear almost immediately. I don’t think there is one employee here that doesn’t pick one up and read all the different articles.
Q: What accomplishment are you proudest of?
A: I’m certainly proud of what we’ve done here at London Lennie’s and how we’ve been able to keep the family business going successfully as long as we have and how we have continued to make it better and better.
And I’m also proud of how involved we have been with the community and how we’ve supported so many community functions, because the community has always been there to support us.
But I am also a Dad, and I’m proud of how I raised my four daughters with my second wife, Beth.
Q: And what would our readers be surprised to learn about Les Barnes?
A: That I don’t eat as much fish as people think I do.
Thank you, Les.