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Heights Pharmacy’s lunch counter, a place to meet and eat

The Shelter Island Heights Pharmacy is the first business visitors see when they get off the North Ferry. Many who pass by probably assume it’s just a pharmacy, but a closer look will reveal another function. On the Queen Ann-style structure on Grand Avenue the sign reads: “SODA — DRUGS.”

Once an integral part of any drugstore, lunch counters are now history, except on Shelter Island. The Pharmacy’s counter isn’t retro, because it’s never gone away in more than 100 years of serving up breakfast and lunch. According to the Shelter Island Historical Society, the building pre-dates 1883, and it seems it was always a drugstore. The first pharmacist on the Island, C. Wesley Smith, set up shop here and there have been several owners since.

If the sign wasn’t enough, opening the front door tells you something delicious is going on, with the smell of bacon flowing from the kitchen. Upon entering, customers can see Greg Ofrias, the co-owner of the Pharmacy, talking to folks who’ve come by to pick up their meals. Instantly, a sense of happiness and community is felt throughout, not only at the lunch counter, but the entire store.

The Soda Fountain — to give it its proper name — or the lunch counter, which is what everyone calls it, is an institution for many, the perfect spot to stop by to grab breakfast or lunch and meet people and have some conversation. There’s a wide variety of food options to choose from, including some daily specials, such as the chicken cutlet, which Mr. Ofrias said is a popular item these days. Some other choices available are French toast and Philly cheese steaks, to name just a couple of popular items.

On a recent visit one late morning, customers at the lunch counter were taking it to go, since sitting inside is not available at the moment. Donald Fraser had ordered a BLT with an egg over easy, a once-a-week treat, he said. John Colby got the chicken salad melt and an unsweetened iced tea for lunch, saying he goes three to four times a week to the lunch counter. Matt BeltCappellino had the Italian hero, and said you can find him here at least twice a week.

The egg sandwiches with cheese and bacon are the most popular item on the menu for takeout, Mr. Ofrias said.

The three Islanders had a similar response when asked about their favorite part, besides the food, of visits to the lunch counter. They all said it was the human encounters in a friendly, easygoing atmosphere.

Mr. Ofrias said the lunch counter has been busy with take-out orders, a service started during the pandemic. Downsides for him are few, he said, but admitted it’s been difficult to work with a mask on all day, especially in the kitchen over a hot stove for most of a shift. He said the lunch counter is busiest from 8:30 a.m. when they open, to 10:30 a.m. Asked about his favorite part of the lunch counter, Mr. Ofrias was quick to answer — “The customers.” He said he’s been able to get to know different people and families over the years and has had the pleasure of watching children grow up and go off to college and then stop by for a visit when they’re home.

The Reporter ordered a grilled cheese on white bread with American cheese and a BLT on wholewheat bread, toasted. Both orders were made to perfection. The grilled cheese was perfectly crisped and golden brown, with cheese melting at the edges. The bacon on the BLT was expertly cooked, adding a nice crunch to the sandwich, which had an even distribution of bacon, lettuce, and tomato. The pickles and potato chips were quickly devoured.

Who’s hungry? The Reporter opted for the lunch counter’s classic BLT. (Credit: Maddie Pedone)

While customers can’t eat inside at the lunch counter yet, there are tables available out front with umbrellas, which have a view down to Dering Harbor. Breakfast and lunch may be ordered by calling 631-276-4596, or in person. The lunch counter is open from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and from 8:30 a.m. to noon on Sunday.