This is part three in Katie Robbins series looking at the life and times of the city’s small ethnic restaurants. Part one is here, part two, here.
Descriptions of The Islands, a Jamaican restaurant that inhabits a diminutive storefront just off Eastern Parkway, tend around a similar theme.
Many of the restaurant’s returning customers refer to it as a home away from home. “It’s like being in your own kitchen,” is a common refrain. One frequenter prefers to think of it as his personal lounge.
The owners of The Islands concur, but they push the metaphor further.
“It’s Washington Avenue’s Peyton Place,” Marilyn, who prefers that I not use her last name, tells me, laughing as she packs UP an order of jerk chicken to go.
Her partner Siobhan calls it “The Cheers of the Caribbean in New York City.”
Like Cheers or Peyton Place, The Islands has a cast of regulars. There is the home health nurse who comes in each day to pick up food for her 90-year-old charge, an elderly woman who loves the macaroni and cheese and chicken with no rice.
“Will she eat some roti?” asks Marilyn as she puts the order together.
There are two little boys who come by each day after school. Jordan, the younger one, and the restaurant have grown up together. As an infant, he came in the arms of a babysitter who liked to hang out at the then brand new restaurant’s four-seat counter and chat; now as a fourth grader Jordan stops by to visit on afternoons when he doesn’t have basketball practice. Marilyn calls him “her best little friend.” Fifth grader Omar, the son of the restaurant’s landlord, takes pride in helping out, carrying heaping plates of Jamaican specialties one by one up to the tiny dining room just above the restaurant’s even tinier open kitchen.
There are the parents with their small children, many of who throw intimate birthday parties in the upstairs room at the insistence of their tots. There is the local celebrity whose regular appearances in commercials are compared and discussed. Then there is Sean Scarborough, who owns the pharmacy on the corner, but who says that he spends more time at The Islands then he does at his own establishment. He misses it when he’s away for longer than a few days. “As soon as I got back from Aruba,” he tells me of a recent trip home to visit family, “I put my bags down in the house in Canarsie and came straight here.”
The stars of this show, however, are Marilyn and Siobhan, whom Scarborough describes as “two crazy Jamaican broads.”
The two women have been friends since kindergarten in St. Ann, Jamaica, remaining close even after Marilyn moved to New York in 1975 to study criminal justice at John Jay College. Although she found her new city cold and a bit lonely at first, Marilyn quickly settled in Brooklyn and established a community for herself, going on to receive a Master’s in public administration before immersing herself in a career in what she not so nostalgically refers to as “corporate America.”
Siobhan stayed in Jamaica and after marrying an executive chef, she says she entered the restaurant business “by default,” partnering with her husband on a number of restaurants on the island.
Over the years though the two women regularly bounced around the idea of opening their own restaurant someday in a big city. Marilyn, who had learned to cook from her mother and a series of housekeepers, loved hosting dinner parties for her friends, whom Siobhan says she used as “guinea pigs for her culinary experiments.” If they felt like lab rats, they didn’t let on however, and in fact they regularly encouraged Marilyn to open a restaurant of her own.