They were a part of Americana, similar to the freestanding diner, where patrons sat on a stool in front of a counter, sat elbow to elbow with other patrons, and exchanged banter with the owners and staff. It was also a go-to spot for newspapers, magazines, candy, and cigarettes.
One popular spot was B&L Luncheonette at 75-47 Main Street in Kew Gardens Hills, which was nicknamed Willie’s Candy Store.
“It was a very friendly neighborhood candy store,” said Arlene Bly Ross, who was raised in Kew Gardens Hills and now lives in Old Bethpage. “People loved dropping in to purchase a meal, ice cream, cigarettes, newspapers, magazines, comic books or just for a quick hello,”
B&L Luncheonette was in operation from 1956 to 1973. The “B&L” referred to the last names of Ross’ father Willie Bly and her uncle Dave Lefkowitz, who co-owned the business.
Ross believes the decision to open a luncheonette at the spot was because it was on a well-trafficked corner near the post office.
Additionally, Kew Gardens Hills was a growing residential community of garden apartments and rowhouses and featured a diverse mix of businesses, including Main Street Playhouse and Queens County Savings Bank, which was modeled after Independence Hall.
“Everyone loved Willie,” Ross said of the clientele, which consisted primarily of neighborhood residents. “Everyone was fed, whether they could afford to pay or not. In fact, I recently learned from a local family with five kids that my father provided their daily meals at no cost.”
Bly was nicknamed “The Mayor of Main Street.”
“My father knew the name of everyone who came into his store,” Ross recalled. “Everyone became his friend and loved him for his generosity, he was larger than life. I would have to say I acquired his quick wit and sense of humor.”
Another well-known face was Harry the chef, and the luncheonette employed several neighborhood kids.
“September was their busy time, which was when back to school supplies were sold,” Ross said. “At that time of year, my mom would lend a hand.”
The luncheonette served everything from burgers and fries to meatloaf and Lime Rickeys. Blossom Brand Chocolate Drink and Breyers ice cream were among the popular items sold next to magazines like Mad, Look, and LIFE.
B&L Luncheonette even attracted a celebrity clientele, including Paul Stanley of KISS, Judge Moses Weinstein, and Jackie Mason.
“First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stopped in for an egg cream and loved it so much my father gave her a quart to go,” said Ross.
Paul Simon, who lived nearby at 137-62 70th Road, and Art Garfunkel, who lived at 136-58 72nd Avenue, were regular customers.
“They would eat there quite often and purchase magazines and candy,” said Ross.
Ross’ uncle Abe Colman, a professional wrestler known as The Jewish Tarzan, would stop by. As would Steve Parish, a longtime crew member of the Grateful Dead and co-author of the book “Home Before Daylight: My Life on the Road with the Grateful Dead.”
“The book actually includes my dad and the store,” said Ross.