A Watershed Moment at The River Café

The Brooklyn institution recovers from Sandy.

After vengeful Sandy had her way with the East River last October, the River Café looked like a muddled giant mess of flotsam, a junkyard of piano parts, broken red banquettes, jumbled pieces of wood, cutlery, dishes and appliances, wrecked tables and chairs.

Silt and mud covered floors and walls. Thousands of dollars worth of food and wine had to be thrown out.

As Michael O’Keeffe, the River Café’s founder and owner, surveyed the millions of dollars of damage to his flagship restaurant, he vowed that Mother Nature’s fury would not destroy the dream he fought so long and hard to maintain. He promised to rebuild. “I have a lot of people that have to work,” he said.

Michael “Buzzy” O’Keeffe’s career as a restaurateur began 50 years ago at Pudding’s, a dingy bar on Lexington Avenue in Yorktown Heights with a few regulars who had never seen better days. Buzzy bought the place in 1966, spiffed up the interior, exposed the brick along one wall and coaxed the old hangers-on to find another place to nurse their shots of whiskey. He told us that when we came in for drinks and sandwiches, to come “dressed.”

We were all in our early 20s then, and Buzzy’s classmates from Fordham University (prep and college), my husband, Jack, among them, would go en masse to Pudding’s so it would look full to the passing parade outside its window.

We had very little money and I remember sharing a Tom Collins on a warm night with one of the other wives in our group, using paper straws. Mike Campbell, another classmate, was working the bar, and when someone ordered a Bloody Mary, he collared Jack to race to a grocery store for cans of tomato juice.

That was just the beginning for Buzzy. A decade later he was searching for a place to open his dream restaurant on the East River; nothing quite lit his imagination until a friend drove him to a spot in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. In that vacant lot, which he later described as “a place that priests and rabbis came to pray,” he had a vision. Soon after, he had an old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad barge towed to the lot and a restaurant built on it. Despite the naysayers who predicted that no one from Manhattan would cross the East River for dinner, and despite the municipal fathers who said the barge would sink before he opened, the restaurant would become one of the best in New York: the River Café.

Brooklyn in 1977 was not the culinary capital it is today. But the young restaurant offered cinematic river views outside its massive windows, spectacular sunsets bathing the Statue of Liberty in a giant persimmon halo, and a tableau of Manhattan skyscrapers that shimmered in the night. The maître d’ was always a bit stiff, but the pianist was totally at ease, playing the top 40 of easy-listening show tunes near the entrance to the main dining room.

Early on, the food was a mixed bag, mostly Italian-American dishes that aimed to please everybody. But Buzzy decided to aim higher. He was determined the River Café could be the best American restaurant in New York. So in 1979, he lured a young chef by the name of Larry Forgione to head up his kitchen staff and revamp the menu.

Forgione was a gifted CIA graduate with a highly developed palate who had earned every pleat in his toque working in restaurants at the Connaught in London and at Regine’s in New York before he wielded his whisk at the River Café. When Forgione presented his new boss with a menu grounded in French cuisine, Buzzy famously tossed it aside and told him, “I hired you to cook American.” So Forgione did. Beginning with a chicken.

Forgione was a crusader, his Holy Grail a chicken that had a depth of flavor almost impossible to find in America then. Back then, serious chefs eschewed chicken, because the only birds available were the mainstream product of mass production. But Forgione confronted his dilemma with passionate pursuit. He would order chicken from multiple purveyors, in search of real flavor, only to end up using the tasteless poultry in soups for staff. Then one day an upstate farmer named Paul Kaiser came in with a basket of fresh eggs gathered from chickens that spent days out in the field “scratching and pecking for insects in the grass.” Compared to the factory-farm flavors, it was a revelation. Forgione had his answer—which, back then, was unheard of: Get a small farmer to raise a chicken outside and it would be plump and juicy. Within a year, Forgione had chickens with flavor he remembered from cooking in France. To describe what was different about the birds, he coined the phrase “free range.”

In an era of fancy chefs obsessed with imports, he applied the same scrutiny to other American ingredients, giving pride of place to homegrown wonders: tiny scallops from the Peconic Bay, morel mushrooms and wild huckleberries from Michigan, fresh shrimp from Key West, Belon oysters and periwinkles from Maine. Critic John Mariani would soon dub Forgione “the Godfather of American cuisine.”

Sommelier Joseph “Joey D” DeLissio, who began his tenure at the Café in his 20s, also blazed an American trail, stocking the cellar with Napa wines at a time when everyone’s wine list was French territory.

The sourcing obsessions must have driven Buzzy nuts, but in the end Master Commander O’Keeffe, who knew how to pilot his ship against all odds, wanted the same thing: the best American cuisine made from the best ingredients from small American producers. Thirty years later, it would be Brooklyn’s mantra.

The kitchen itself became a launch pad for star chefs: Charlie Palmer, Rick Laakonen, Dan Budd, David Burke, Rick Moonen, Rick Stephan, Aaron Bashy (Brad Steelman is the current executive chef). In one of his columns for the New York Times in which he traced the trajectory of these men’s careers, Bryan Miller referred to the River Café as “the Harvard Business School of the culinary world.”

There was much to celebrate at the restaurant’s glamorous 30th birthday on June 28, 2006. With one hand clutching a Champagne flute and the other balancing a plate of savory hors d’oeuvres, I spied an empty chair. “Sure, sit down,” said the friendly gent next to it. We talked about how Brooklyn had changed over the decades, especially Park Slope, where, in the ’60s, Jack and I had rented a six-room apartment in a Victorian brownstone on Prospect Park West—for $70 a month. Only later did I learn who I’d been chatting with: borough president Marty Markowitz.

As the sun set behind the velvety Manhattan skyline, food writer Fred Ferretti hailed the River Café as an early “American gastronomic outpost, the first to [serve] stone crabs from Florida…and foie gras from the Hudson Valley.” He joked about the shenanigans of its star chefs, then we got down to serious business: eating our way through dozens of dishes.

Jack and I were seated with another couple. “I’m André Soltner,” the gentleman chef introduced himself. “My wife, Simone.” Thus began a memorable evening with the fabled Manhattan chef. We discussed new ingredients (there was no extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar or arugula in the States when he first cooked here), the Slow Food movement and the education of American chefs. At the evening’s end, we drove the couple to their Upper East Side home near their now sadly shuttered Lutèce.

We ate at the River Café many times over the years, and Buzzy never failed to join us at our table. When our daughter, Amy, was eight years old, we took her and a friend there “just to see.” Sitting on the terrace, gazing across the river to the Lady in the Harbor, the girls were blasé, until they were served their drinks. “Wow,” Amy said, “this Coke costs $3!” Years later, this past July, we brought our 14-year-old twin granddaughters, Sophia and Zélie—young women who have traveled a good deal, lived in Asia, eaten in every conceivable restaurant and at every street food fair their father chanced upon in Vietnam and are exceptionally good cooks (their business cards say so).

“This food is tasty,” said Zélie, “really tasty.” She ate every last bit of the crisp duck breast with its glaze of white truffle honey and fennel pollen. When her sister, Sophia, was served the iconic chocolate marquise cake replica of the Brooklyn Bridge, with its pastry-engineered suspension cables, she could barely bring herself to eat it: “The presentation is flawless,” she said, as she hesitantly cut a piece with her spoon.

Hers aren’t the only compliments. River Café didn’t just usher in the locavore revolution, it also put Brooklyn on the culinary map, and 35 years later its kitchen still wins accolades: It landed a star from the Michelin Guide in 2009 and 2010 and was selected by the French restaurant guide the Gault Millau as one of the five best restaurants in New York. Ferran Adrià of Barcelona’s El Bulli, probably the most famous chef on earth, has dined at the River Café three times and reportedly told the maitre d’ it was “the best food in America.” River Café brought Manhattanites to a place my Westchester father joked “was in another country.” There were no chocolatiers creating single-origin bars back then nor young couples coddling microgreens on rooftops.

Buzzy, Jack and I have come a long way since we cheered at basketball games on the Fordham campus. While the rest of us settled into lives filled with children and PTAs and dog walking, Buzzy was busy dreaming up buildings, waterfronts and restaurants. He was a Bronx kid, as fearless in his business ventures in his 20s as he was in his teen years plying the waters on his small skiff in the shadow of the Throgs Neck Bridge. It seemed a natural to us that after his army service he would open gastronomic havens like the café in Grand Central Terminal (now closed because of the building’s renovation), the Water Club on the East River at 32nd Street, and Pershing Square on 42nd Street. The star, of course, would always be the River Café, under the hum of cars on another bridge in another borough on another waterway—but in the same country.

Sandy brought that to a stop. But like a Phoenix rising from watery ashes, the River Café will soon be rebuilt and the kitchen will hum again. Weddings and celebrations will take place there. And Buzzy won’t have to tell us: We’ll come dressed to the nines for the party.

Photo credit: Vicky Wasik and Andre Maier. 

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