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Beloved seafood house celebrates 50 years of fish and chips

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Sitting before the dish that started it all, fish and chips, Les Barnes took a look around his restaurant — a staple in Rego Park for decades — and marveled at the evolution of the place now celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Once a tiny shop opened by an Englishman — Leonard “Lennie” Barnes — who had run away from home at the age of about 13 to work in the British fishing industry, London Lennie’s has become a 225-seat restaurant at 63-88 Woodhaven Blvd. that offers a far more extensive menu than the original choice of fish and chips.

While the owners still use the same recipe for their fish and chips batter, they now offer a raw fish bar and more than 140 wines from all over the world.

“It’s pretty amazing. Now you’ll see three generations of London Lennie’s eaters at the same table,” said Les Barnes, who took over the restaurant from his father in the late 1970s. “We’ve built relationships with our customers. It becomes a ‘how are your kids?’ relationship. You remember when they were young and single, when they got married, when they had kids.”

The restaurant is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an invite-only dinner this month for hundreds of people, and for the general public it is rolling back the price of its fish and chips dish to what it was 50 years ago — $1.50. From 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. April 13, customers will be able to purchase the $1.50 meal.

The restaurant will also offer a 20 percent discount off items from its classic menu, which includes broiled scrod, salmon, New Bedford sea scallops and jumbo fried shrimp. The discount will be offered April 12-15.

Lenny Barnes, who grew up in London’s East End and would often boast of his Cockney heritage, moved to Rego Park with his family in the late 1950s. He had owned four fish and chip places in London and decided to remain in the business. He opened London Lennie’s in 1960.

“My father knew fish,” Les Barnes said of Lenny, who died in 1986. “He’d run away to sea as a youngster and worked on trollers in the North Sea.”

Word of the fish and chips dish, which came in the traditional style of being wrapped in newspaper and sprinkled with malt vinegar, spread quickly around the Rego Park community, and customers soon asked the owner to expand the shop that started off with one small round table, two chairs and a counter top with a couple of stools.

By 1967, London Lennie’s had expanded into a dining room with 35 seats for the diverse neighborhood that included people from Ireland, Germany and Eastern Europe.

Over the years, Les Barnes cultivated a love of seafood akin to his father’s, and he spent many summers going to the Fulton Street fish market in Manhattan with his father. Les Barnes, who has traveled from Maryland to the West Coast to learn about fish from those in the industry, still goes to the city’s only fish market, now in the Bronx, to pick out fresh fish.

London Lennie’s’ menu changes daily depending on what is found at the market, Les Barnes said.

“The market has changed,” he lamented. “Today’s market doesn’t have the same ambiance as it used to, when it was bigger and outside, but the cast of characters are the same.”

Joan Barnes, Leonard’s wife, who met the restaurant’s founder when she was working in a Bermuda hotel and he was working for a cruise ship, said the people who have entered her life through the restaurant have provided her with more stories than she could ever tell.

“Looking back, it can make you feel sad remembering all the really good friends who came here who have died,” Joan Barnes said. “It’s been a good place.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 5:49 pm, October 10, 2011
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