The Little Chowder House That Became an Empire

Robert Gosman, who founded Gosman's Dock with his wife, Mary Gosman Family Photo

“I remember Gosman’s when it was a small shack,” Teresa Sarno told a visitor to her house in Montauk on Saturday. “We used to be up at the crack of dawn and cook breakfast for the fishermen that were all docked in front.” 

Mrs. Sarno, 94, a younger sister of the late Mary Gosman, arrived in the United States from Ireland in about 1950, and was soon helping her sister and brother-in-law, Robert Gosman, at their modest chowder house on Montauk Harbor. Montauk, she said, “was a wilderness. It was beautiful.” 

“Rob built a little shack,” Emmett Gosman, 82, remembered of his father. “It had shutters you pulled open and tied with a string. Mary had clams, hot dogs, hamburgers, chowder.”

In time, “Mary’s little chowder house became quite notorious for its lobster rolls,” said her son, John Gosman Sr., 84, “and you could get a lobster dinner for $6. That was the genesis of the whole thing.” 

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Gosman’s Dock, the complex of restaurants, wholesale and retail fish markets, and shops along the west side of Montauk Harbor. Its world-renowned restaurants and clam bar have served seafood to presidents and other heads of state, celebrities from the worlds of music, film, literature, and sports, and innumerable tourists from around the globe. In the process, Gosman’s has employed thousands through the years, allowing a college education, and a backlog of memories, for countless American and foreign-born youth. 

When the season’s first concert happens on the outdoor stage at Gosman’s on Sunday, echoes of musical giants including Lee Konitz, Ruth Brown, Richie Havens, and the Heath Brothers may be heard. Those gathered onstage and on the lawn will continue a nearly 50-year tradition of the communal celebration of summer there: good food, cold drinks, and music commingling under a brilliant, late-afternoon sun. 

Though the complex has been on the market, formally or informally, for several years, opinion is divided among the family. None of those interviewed for this article would confirm rumors of an impending sale. Four members of the family’s older generation and seven of its younger work there in one capacity or another.

“My father was a local,” Emmett said of Robert, called Rob or Robbie by his descendants. “His father was from the Horton family. They were from Wading River.” 

“They were Tuthills and Hortons,” John said of his paternal ancestors. “My grandfather moved to Amagansett because he was a mailman on the railroad. He married my grandmother, Elizabeth Horton. They had four children. Rob’s father died after being on the Long Island Rail Road for 30-some-odd years.” 

The former Mary Ellen Harrington left Cloonkerin, in Mantua, County Roscommon, Ireland, in 1927, at age 17. She was at sea for 10 days and was sick for eight of them, she told The Star in the 1960s. After arriving in New York, she worked as a housemaid in West Orange, N.J. 

“The family used to summer in East Hampton,” John said. “She met Rob there. Rob’s first wife,” the former Amy Ford, a teacher at the Amagansett School, “died of influenza in 1929. He met Mary at a dance in East Hampton.” The couple married in 1932 and lived on Abram’s Landing Road in Amagansett, where all six of their children were born. 

“Rob was the youngest of four children,” said John. “He didn’t like school, so he quit, went down to Montauk, and worked for Jake Wells, and with old Bill Vorpahl.” 

“He did some carpentry, some fishing,” said Emmett. “And he was selling cars for Dan Lester. He was a star salesman, got two or three pins from General Motors for selling cars. . . . And then he got in the fish business, drumming fish.” 

“Rob leased the place from Charles Bonner,” John said of his parents’ initial venture. “He took it over in November 1943 and leased it on a year-to year basis. Any improvements he put into the place, he was not reimbursed for. That went along until 1959, when Bonner decided to sell it to my parents. They borrowed $5,000 for the down payment.” Around a decade earlier, the couple had had the foresight to purchase adjacent land from the Montauk Beach Development Company; now, they owned a larger piece of the waterfront. 

Some summers, the Gosmans rented the houses they owned in Amagansett and lived in the harbormaster’s house, the round house built by Carl Fisher in 1928 that is now home to Summer Stock, a clothing store. “There were eight of us in that little house,” Emmett remembered. 

At the time, a road ran along the harbor. “There were seven open boats here, and three or four private boats,” said Emmett. “They stayed here about five or six years. The whole gang had moved from Fort Pond — the railroad dock — down to Lake Montauk, and we had seven of them here.” Mary Gosman, he said, “was taking care of the mates, making them dinners, and selling to the guys on the headboats. They’d carry up to 35, 40 people. In March, in ’52, ’53, ’54, in the middle of the week there could be 150 people in those six or seven boats going out.” 

The elder Mr. Gosman suffered from heart disease and phlebitis, however. “I don’t think he felt like working anymore,” said John. “He said to Emmett and me, ‘Go ahead and take it. Do what you can. If you get going on something, just take care of me.’ ” 

In 1962, the Oriental, a fishing boat from North Carolina, tied up at the dock. “They had 3,000 pounds of lobsters and wanted to know if we’d buy them,” John said. “I said to Emmett, ‘Let’s do it. We’ve got nothing to lose.’ ” The brothers sold the lobsters, and those subsequently brought to the dock by the vessel. The Oriental’s owner sent another boat he owned, “and we had these two guys lobstering for us until early summer,” said John. “We made enough money to take care of the mortgages for the rest of the year.” 

The following year, he said, an old icehouse was torn down and tanks to accommodate live lobsters installed in an adjacent building. “We started doing well,” he said, “and we got three more boats. We started making money,” paying off loans with the whole season still to come, “and the boats lasted almost until August, until they had to go back to shrimping. That started the ball rolling.” 

The original Gosman’s Restaurant, he said, was a model house his parents had bought from Ed Pospisil Sr. “Eventually, I closed the road off — my mother was hysterical about it. I got, I think, nine watertight barrels, stained them a deep walnut, went to the lumber yard and got four sheets of plywood, got two tabletops out of each sheet, and put them on top. And the next year we added the awning and more tables. The place started doing very well. So the next thing we built was a kitchen for the restaurant. That was in 1964 or ’65.” 

Montauk was still relatively undiscovered, but at the docks, the growing business was earning a reputation for the freshest seafood around. The family, including John and Emmett’s sister, the late Roberta Gosman Donovan, brothers William and Richard, and Mrs. Sarno, their aunt, worked tirelessly, building and expanding to accommodate demand. Late in 1967, “we ripped the whole kit and kaboodle down and built this place,” Emmett said of the restaurant. With two cousins and under the aegis of Dave Webb, a builder, construction began in November. “By the first of February, we were pretty well done with the place,” said John. 

The new and much larger Gosman’s Restaurant opened for the season in April 1968, “and started doing famously,” said John. “We didn’t think we would ever fill it up,” said Emmett, “and the first day, John and I were sitting at the end of the bar having a casino and a couple of beers after working, and they came around the corner, and they never stopped for about 20 years.” 

By the early 1970s, “we were doing 1,200 meals a day on weekends, and close to that during the week,” said John. “We paid for the place in no time.” 

“When we opened this place with the lobsters and seafood, boy, they came from all over,” said Emmett. “Up to 6, 7 at night, it was kids, fried foods. About 7:30, they’d come around the corner with a tie and jacket on, coming from a cocktail party in East Hampton or wherever. Then it was two-pound lobsters and bottles of Pouilly-Fuissé.” 

“We did everything year to year,” said John. 

Gosman’s Clam Bar opened in 1969. More shops followed, and a fish processing plant and wholesale and retail fish market were constructed in 1980. The 1980s saw the opening of Topside, a rooftop restaurant atop the Clam Bar and lobster house that offers unparalleled views of the harbor and Block Island Sound. Beneath it, at dockside, the Inlet Cafe, opened in the late 1980s, offers the same menu as well as a sushi bar. 

On July 9, 1972, the Lee Konitz Quintet performed on a patio, a makeshift stage across a walkway from the harbormaster’s house. “I knew Lee Konitz,” said John. “I said, ‘Why don’t you bring a group out and do a concert?’ I gave him $300, fed him and the band, and put them up for the night. I got encouraged by that.” He inquired of Pat DeRosa, a retired music teacher from Huntington who was well acquainted with the jazz world, as to who else might be available to perform. Mr. DeRosa, a saxophonist who still performs at 96, said, “ ‘I might be able to get Thad Jones and Mel Lewis,’ which he did,” John said. “We had Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Pepper Adams on baritone sax, George Mraz on bass, and Roland Hanna on piano, a real bunch of all-stars.” That concert took place later in the summer of 1972. “From that point on, we used to do them every other week, starting the first weekend after the Fourth of July.”

A proper stage was built, and would soon be graced by the likes of Toots Thielemans, Ruth Brown, Dick Hyman, Eddie Daniels, Maxine Sullivan, Helen Humes, David (Fathead) Newman, Joe Farrell, Charles McPherson, and the Heath Brothers, among many others.

Perhaps the most memorable concert of all happened a few years later. “Richie Havens was in the bar once,” said John. “I said, ‘Would you consider doing a concert for us? I can give you $500.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, I can do it.’ ” 

There was a complication, though: A concert for the New York City Parks Department, scheduled for the previous day in Brooklyn, was rained out. The rain date coincided with his gig at Gosman’s. 

“By that time, I had put a little ad in The Star: ‘Richie Havens.’ Well, by 10 a.m. the place was full. When he called me and said, ‘I can’t make it,’ I said, ‘You’ve got to come, we’ve got thousands of kids here now. They’ll wreck the place.’ By the time he went on, which was 4, there must have been 5,000 kids there. The cars were backed up all the way to North Farragut Road,” more than a mile up Flamingo Avenue from Gosman’s. 

After the concert, “It was so mobbed that he couldn’t get out, so we took him by boat over to the airport, paid for his plane fare, and they flew him to Flushing. It was really a hectic day.” 

Rob Gosman, who had retired to Florida, died in 1983. “He was a very nice man, he really was,” Mrs. Sarno said. “He was a good man,” said John Gosman. His mother, he said, “was a great personality, but Robbie was decisive about things.” 

“Mary got along real well with the public,” Mrs. Sarno said of her sister. “She would talk to everybody. Richard Nixon used to come out to Montauk and visit his friends here, and he always came over to Gosman’s. He loved going to the Clam Bar. Mary would see him over there, she’d take her apron off and go over and introduce herself and have a chat with him.” 

Mary Gosman was 87 when she died in 1997. Her presence is still felt at Gosman’s Dock, in the flowerbeds she tended into her 80s, in the clam chowder and lobster rolls served daily, and, for many years, in the brogue of hundreds of Irish students who came to Montauk to work for the business she co-founded. 

Rita Gosman, John Gosman Sr.’s wife, died in 2003. Roberta Gosman Donovan died in May. “To this day I miss Rita,” Mrs. Sarno said. “Rita was a wonderful, wonderful person, she truly was. Everybody loved her. She and Roberta got along so well.” 

Roberta “was unfailingly gracious to the public,” her family said in an obituary in The Star. “She was equally sensitive and supportive to the large work force that staffed Gosman’s Restaurant year after year.”

Many of Rob and Mary Gosman’s grandchildren started working at the family business when they were children, and many continue to work at the place that has become synonymous with Montauk. Young people from around the world have worked alongside them, as they do today. “Gosman’s provided a lot of summer jobs for a lot of college students for a good many years, and still does,” said Brian McKernan, a brother of Rita Gosman. Mr. McKernan worked at the Clam Bar for its first five seasons and another two at the main restaurant, where his sister greeted customers for many years. “It was a great place to work, with a great group of people, whether it was in the restaurants, the fish house, or elsewhere.” 

“Everyone worked hard,” he said, “but nobody worked harder than the Gosmans themselves. We’d be cleaning up the clam bar at 10 p.m. back in the 1970s and Mary would come in with a big bucket of suds and a mop, and she’d scrub the entire kitchen floor, which was a tough job for anyone, especially if they’re in their mid-60s, as Mary was.” 

“I watched that business grow from nothing to what it is today,” Mrs. Sarno said. “Nobody knows better than I do how hard they worked. In the summertime, when all their friends would be on the beach, swimming and having fun, what were they doing? Working, working, working. Unloading fishing boats and doing all of that. They never had a summer off. Well, like my father and mother always told us when we were growing up in Ireland, the devil finds work for idle hands. You must work, work, work.”

The original Gosman’s Restaurant, seen here in 1962, was a modest operation. Gosman Family Photo
A general store at Gosman’s Dock was moved many years ago and later demolished. Gosman Family Photo
Capt. Jim Sarno, the late husband of Mary Gosman’s sister Teresa Sarno of Montauk Gosman Family Photo
From Mary Gosman’s long-ago lobster rolls to the present day, Gosman’s has long been synonymous with lobsters, and with Montauk itself. At right, Robert and Mary Gosman, founders of the now-sprawling complex on Montauk Harbor. Gosman Family Photos
A postcard circa 1965 depicts a growing Gosman’s Dock. Gosman Family Photo
Gosman’s Dock as it is today, with multiple restaurants, shops, and wholesale and retail seafood markets. Anthony Salerno, Aerial Pros