View from the River Cafe: 40 years of feasts and firsts

Michael O’Keeffe (better known as Buzzy), owns the River Cafe in Dumbo, Brooklyn.
Michael O’Keeffe (better known as Buzzy), owns the River Cafe in Dumbo, Brooklyn. PHOTO: COLE WILSON FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

Owned by an Irish-American perfectionist named Michael O’Keeffe, the Michelin-starred cafe has weathered storms, recessions and other perils of a fickle town and a flood-prone setting

(THE NEW YORK TIMES) – Dining at a coveted window seat in the luminous River Cafe, which rests on a former coffee barge in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, even the most jaundiced New Yorkers have to concede that the magic endures.

The beloved nautical institution – it is not really floating, but sits atop an underwater pier – was conceived in one of New York City’s bleakest hours, and its startling success infused life and hope into a decaying waterfront bereft of both. In the years since, it has weathered storms, recessions and other perils of a fickle town and a flood-prone setting.

This summer, the River Cafe turns 40. For any restaurant in the city to achieve middle age is no small triumph. Yet, the cafe, with its mesmerising views of the churning East River and Lower Manhattan, is noteworthy on other fronts.

Owned by an Irish-American perfectionist named Michael O’Keeffe (better known as Buzzy), the restaurant has employed just six chefs, all of whom arrived virtually unknown and went on to national prominence: Larry Forgione, Charlie Palmer, David Burke, Rick Moonen, Rick Laakkonen and the current chef of 17 years, Brad Steelman.

The cafe holds a Michelin star and has sustained a high quality of food and service the entire time. Many employees have been there for decades: Mr Dom Salvador, its Brazilian pianist, serenaded the first customers; wine director Joseph Delissio was on the job shortly after that.

The restaurant has a mesmerising view of the Brooklyn Bridge. PHOTO: COLE WILSON FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

In a city dedicated to change, it is easy to forget mileposts of the past. The current generation of epicures may be largely unaware that the cafe was decades ahead of the
farm-to-table movement. As early as the late 1970s, shortly after Alice Waters opened the locavore Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, the River Cafe’s first chefs, particularly Forgione, were rooting around the Hudson Valley and beyond for vegetables, poultry, eggs, beef, buffalo, quail and seafood. The label “free-range chicken” was hatched in his kitchen.

“Codfish cheeks,” Mr O’Keeffe added to the list. “I’m a fisherman and I knew how good they were way back then.” The cafe was among the first major restaurants in the United States to promote varietal wines from leading California producers such as Opus One, Jordan Wine Estate, Dominus Estate and others. Its California collection remains vast.

The cafe’s early success also ignited a commercial revival in a nearly deserted neighbourhood that is known today as Dumbo – a seductive flame to waves of entrepreneurial moths.

After lunching at the cafe one afternoon in the late 1970s, Mr David Walentas, one of the city’s most prominent developers, took a stroll around the area. “It was desolate, but not dangerous,” he recalled. “I said to myself, what a great neighbourhood.” He bought 2 million sq ft of commercial and residential property, for $6 a sq ft. Today, he said, he owns “several thousand” apartments in Dumbo.

The dining room was rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy destroyed it in 2012. PHOTO: DANIEL KRIEGER FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES 

If not for the canine persistence of Mr O’Keeffe, the cafe would never have made an East River beachhead.

“I have a letter here from City Hall saying, sorry, Mr O’Keeffe, it can’t be done,” the owner recounted over lunch at La Grenouille, a landlocked restaurant on the other side of the river that he admires for its sumptuous setting and fidelity to the rituals of civilised dining. (Mr O’Keeffe first visited the restaurant in the 1950s, using money he earned as a waiter at a Schrafft’s on Fifth Avenue.) After graduation from Fordham University and a hitch as an army intelligence specialist in Massachusetts and South Carolina (“I spent my time watching the Russians”), Mr O’Keeffe seized the opportunity to buy an undistinguished bar on the Upper East Side for $10,000. Rechristened Pudding’s, it opened on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1966 and was an instant success.

In the mid 1960s, as New York’s commercial port was haemorrhaging business to more economical and modern rivals on the East Coast, the Brooklyn waterfront was in steady decline. The seed for a waterside restaurant was planted one day while Mr O’Keeffe was riding in a car along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. As it reached the Brooklyn Bridge, he looked down and exclaimed: “Oh, my God!"

“We took the exit down to the shoreline,” he said. “It was perfect for building.” the city-owned parcel was not, however, perfect for financing. “Every bank in New York turned me down,” Mr O’Keeffe said. Undeterred, he sought money elsewhere, finding it at a New Jersey bank.

Executive chef David Burke (right) in 1988 with sous-chef Rick Laakkonen, who became executive chef in 1994. PHOTO: BARTON SILVERMAN/THE NEW YORK TIMES 

That turned out to be the easy part. He now had to navigate the shoals of bureaucracy for permits, a process that took 12 years. To sustain himself during this period, he opened seven other restaurants in Manhattan and a nightclub in East Hampton, New York. (He sold them all before opening the cafe. Today, he owns the Water Club on the East River at 30th Street; Pershing Square, across 42nd Street from Grand Central Terminal; and the Liberty Warehouse, an event space in Red Hook, Brooklyn.) Perhaps as compensation for his monk-like patience, the city leased Mr O’Keeffe the land at a “rock-bottom” price, he said – so low, in fact, that he insisted it be tripled. “I was concerned there might be political problems at some point about me getting a favour,” he said. Construction of the cafe began in 1976 and cost less than US$1 million.

If you spend an hour in Mr O’Keeffe’s presence, it becomes evident why he put such time and effort into creating the cafe. He is enamoured of all things maritime, going back to his childhood in the Silver Beach neighbourhood of the Bronx, a thumb-shape peninsula where the East River meets Long Island Sound.

He sits on the board of the Waterfront Alliance, a private harbour advocacy and education organisation. Late-night diners at the cafe may spot him standing on a deck, casting for striped bass.

From the outset, Mr O’Keeffe wanted the cafe to be “a fine American restaurant with professional service that was not uptight”.

Mr Michael O’Keeffe at the restaurant in 1980. PHOTO: RONNIE DENNIS 

This may not seem a revolutionary concept until you put it in context. In the mid 1970s, fine dining in New York, with few exceptions, meant French dining. The cafe was, and is, a reflection of the owner’s cultivated tastes: a handcrafted mahogany topped bar, custom-made mirrors from a local artisan, Georgian antiques, crimson velvet-and-leather banquettes and bronze portholes punctuating one wall.

Tall, spare and urbane, Mr O’Keeffe, who said he is in his late 70s, wears handsomely tailored suits, custom-made shirts, tasteful silk ties, horn-rimmed glasses and the impish expression of someone holding back a humorous anecdote for the perfect moment (and there are plenty of them).

He is not a finger-snapping, larger-than-life owner host. Every evening, he makes the rounds in the dining room, so quietly and inconspicuously that many guests may mistake him for the sommelier.

Mr O’Keeffe maintains that fine dining is a compact of mutual respect. If a gentleman arrives without a suit jacket, one is provided. If a guest’s comportment is deemed inappropriate, it is noticed.

The cafe is a special-occasion restaurant that does not feel like a special-occasion restaurant. Mr Javier Rodriguez, who has worked there for 17 years, mostly overseeing the dining room, pointed out that on any given night, six to 10 couples become engaged there. The number of birthday and anniversary dinners is incalculable.

The restaurant’s site in 1975. PHOTO: MICHAEL O'KEEFFE

“But you are not aware of any of this,” Mr Rodriguez pointed out. “There is no singing Happy Birthday or anything like that.” On the restaurant’s menus over the years, Mr O’Keeffe has remained generally faithful to the American theme. At the same time, he remains unburdened by culinary dogmas that would constrain his chefs. Above all, the River Cafe is about ingredients.

“Other restaurant owners are all about food costs,” said Steelman, the current chef. “With Buzzy it is no holds barred; we always get the best.” Almost daily, there are blind tastings of food products: eggs, fowl, beef, fish, berries, even snails. Mr O’Keeffe is passionate about coffee, sampling up to two dozen varieties a month.

When Forgione took over the kitchen in 1979, he cast a wide net in pursuit of superior American products: Peconic Bay scallops, Michigan morels, New Jersey tomatoes, Belon oysters from Maine and New York state venison. Owing to Mr O’Keeffe’s acquaintanceship with the Rockefellers, the cafe had first dibs whenever the deer population was thinned out at the estate in Westchester County. When Mr O’Keeffe decided to feature fresh Florida stone crabs, he initiated a search for a reliable supplier.

“We wound up hiring the fisherman who was the least drunk,” he deadpanned.

Chefs who hold diplomas from the cafe regard their tenures as transformative experiences. “For a young American chef, it was a wonderful place to be,” said Palmer, the second chef, who owns 18 restaurants nationwide.

Mr Michael O’Keeffe regularly fishes in the East River off the dining room of his restaurant. PHOTO: COLE WILSON FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES 

David Burke, who worked under Palmer and served as chef for four years, has an extensive portfolio that includes the recently opened Tavern 62 by David Burke, on the Upper East Side. Burke lauded the cafe as “one of the most important, if not the most important, restaurant in the history of American cuisine.

“We were these young renegade chefs who had all kinds of ideas about what we wanted to do,” he added, “and Buzzy created the environment for us to do it.” On Burke’s menu in the late 1980s were startling “American” conflations such as cinnamon-smoked quail with apple ravioli, pecan-black-pepper consomme and quail eggs; and sea bream with asparagus saffron broth garnished with lotus chips. He was given full licence to experiment, which, in his case, was like handing a teenager the keys to a Ferrari showroom.

“At one point, I had 24 desserts on the menu,” he said with a laugh.

While Steelman’s food doesn’t have the dramatic flair of Burke’s, it remains creative and often surprising, somewhat global, and focused on American provender. The current menu carries items such as a chargrilled Niman Ranch strip steak with bone marrow duchess potato and red wine mushroom marmalade; and grilled Pacific Chinook salmon with Meyer lemon, aromatic jasmine rice and shiitake-miso consomme. (The cafe’s prix fixe menu is US$125 (S$170) a person; a six-course tasting menu is US$155.) As ever, the main attraction – and sometimes, the biggest challenge – is the river.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy laid waste to the restaurant. The kitchen was knee-deep in water; thousand-dollar bottles of wine were destroyed or drifted toward Scandinavia. Prompt Steelman and he will show his iPhone video of a fish swimming in the dining room.

Mr O’Keeffe describes himself as a wary Irishman mindful that the next knock on the door could be the bad one. Thus, he carried insurance that covered most of the reconstruction. But there is no policy for heartache. During the arduous 15-month rebuilding, he continued to pay several dozen of his core staff members, including Mr Salvador, the piano player.

While the cafe has been restored to its nuptial-inducing charm, one still ponders its future in this age of rising seas.

“You can only prepare so much,” Mr O’Keeffe mused one evening as an oil tanker slipped under the bridge. “The sea is unpredictable.” Mr O’Keeffe, who is single and has a sister who is not involved in the business, said retirement was not on his mind; neither is a plan of succession for the day he abandons the wheelhouse.

“But whoever has it next,” he predicted, “will make it better."