Deciding to visit Shelter Island is in many ways booking passage to the past.
Things are noticeably slower here, especially this time of year, and a small-town feel from simpler times is apparent from the tiny, white-painted Justice Hall to small groups of people in front of the post office catching up on news and gossip with neighbors.
One of the most welcoming ports of call of a time gone by is the Shelter Island Heights Pharmacy, not just for a spot to buy sunblock, a newspaper or magazine or get a good deal now on beach chairs and T-Shirts, but also for visit to the lunch counter.
Once an integral part of any drugstore, lunch counters are now history, except on Shelter Island.
The Pharmacy’s lunch counter isn’t retro, because it’s never gone away in nearly a hundred years of serving up breakfast and lunch.
Getting there is easy. Disembarking from a North Ferry boat, the only street to take is a narrow and winding road up to Grand Avenue in Shelter Island Heights. Look for the sign, high on a crisp Gothic Revival building: SODA — DRUGS.
Up a set of steep steps, just past the extensive newspaper and magazine section and to your right is the place for simple and delicious food.
Greg Ofrias, who has owned the Pharmacy for a quarter-century with his partner Suzanne Fujita, remembers when they first bought the place and a consultant specializing in pharmacy management and layout suggested they remove the lunch counter to free up more retail space.
It wasn’t a hard decision for Ofrias. “I’m looking at a father, son and grandfather having milkshakes at the counter,” he said. “ I couldn’t close it. This a big part of the community.”
Open 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8:30 to 12:30 Sunday, the counter is open for business every day except Christmas.
Egg, ham or sausage and cheese sandwich is the favorite of breakfast denizens and the grilled cheese sandwich is a lunchtime special every day, said cook Bennett Karnis, who has been filling short orders for more than 20 years.
Ofrias pointed out the elegant and ancient “goose neck” seltzer dispensers at the counter, as he whipped up one of the house specialties, an egg cream from the old school.
For those who haven’t had an egg cream encounter, the first thing to know is it has neither eggs nor cream. The concoction is simply chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer, but done right, there’s nothing simple about the cold, sweet fizzy pleasure the drink produces.
Ofrias noted that the chocolate syrup used at the Pharmacy comes from Brooklyn — the champagne region of egg creams — Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup. One other secret of the best egg cream on the East End is those goosenecks. They have two speeds, and when the “jest stream,” mode, as Ofrias described it, is used to spritz the top of the egg cream, it creates an eggy, creamy foam.
Waiting for a customer to taste it, Ofrias isn’t surprised at the expression the first taste brings: a smile of pure pleasure.
“That’s good, right?” he smiles back.
Shelter Island Heights Pharmacy is located a 19 Grand Ave. in Shelter Island Heights.