Most nights, the River Cafe's location on the East River, just beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, is its greatest asset. The old Fulton Ferry Landing affords it a deeply romantic view of the lower Manhattan skyline, which has made it one of the city's premier destinations for engagements, anniversary dinners and high power business meetings. But on Monday, as Hurricane Sandy swept storm surges of more than 10 feet into New York Harbor, that same location turned into a nightmare for owner Michael "Buzzy" O'Keefe.
"I built this place. I've been here since the beginning in 1977," O'Keefe said. "I've seen lots of storms -- but there's never been anything like this."
Click through the slideshow below to see pictures from the River Cafe taken the day after Hurricane Sandy flooded the restaurant's interior:
Few of New York's 24,000 restaurants were spared completely by the devastating hurricane. Many eateries in downtown Manhattan still have no power and will be forced to remain closed until electricity is restored.
Four of David Chang's famously trendy Momofuku restaurants are located within the dark zone in downtown Manhattan and were forced to close after dinner service Sunday. Yet EunJean Song, director of operations for the company, said the company avoided big losses by moving all the ingredients stored in the East Village locations to a large walk-in cooler the company had waiting in Williamsburg across the river, which had not lost power. She said that some Momofuku staff would have trouble getting to work while the subways remain closed, and that some of her purveyors are not yet able to deliver food to the restaurants, but that she hoped to have the restaurants open in the next few days.
"We want to move as quickly as possible, even if that means serving an abbreviated menu in some cases," Song said.
Joe Bastianich, who co-owns eight New York restaurants with Mario Batali, wasn't quite so lucky. He said the power outage had shut down all six of the pair's restaurants below 29th Street, including their three most famous, Del Posto, Eataly, and Babbo. He hadn't done much to prepare for the storm, he said, so most of those restaurants had coolers stocked full of food when the outage hit. All that food will go bad by tomorrow and need to be thrown out -- costing him, in the case of Del Posto alone, between $50,000 and $70,000.
"We had no idea how bad it would be," Bastianich told The Huffington Post. "This is so much worse than any of us expected."
But few restaurants were hit as hard as the River Cafe, which was founded in 1977 and holds three stars from The New York Times and one star from the Michelin Guide.
The restaurant was open for dinner on Sunday night. After all the guests left, O'Keefe and his staff, heeding the storm predictions, moved all the furniture into the terrace room, as far as possible from the river, then went home for the night. Water first started knocking on the River Cafe's doorstep at high tide around 8 a.m. Monday morning, but it didn't do too much damage before receding a bit.
But that evening, when the storm's center made landfall in New Jersey just before the second high tide of the day, water rose up all the way onto the restaurant's riverside observation terrace -- and then in through the glass doors in the main dining room. Water rushed in until it was three or four feet deep throughout the dining rooms and kitchen.
O'Keefe was on the restaurant premises for part of the evening Monday; he also spent time tending to his restaurant in Manhattan, the Water Club, which he said was hit at least at hard by the storm. At the height of the hurricane, the wind was so strong that he couldn't stand up straight during gusts. Eventually he was forced to seek shelter at his apartment a few blocks away in Brooklyn Heights.
When he came back to the River Cafe the next day, he found mayhem. Water had ruined the floors and pushed askew the iconic red leather banquets in the main dining room. Mud and silt covered the floors. The worst damage was in the kitchen: huge refrigerators had been knocked out of place and had banged around the room, destroying every kitchen appliance except for the range. A valuable Steinway piano made expressly for the restaurant was another casualty of the flood.
"It caused millions of dollars worth of damage," O'Keefe said. "We won't be able to open for a long time. Probably not for weeks or months. I had regulars calling me yesterday asking if we would be open -- I said 'no,' so they asked if I would be open tomorrow or the next day. I didn't quite know how to respond."
It wasn't all tears in DUMBO, though. On Tuesday afternoon, O'Keefe munched on pepperoni pizza from nearby Grimaldi's, surrounded by friends and well-wishers, while employees pumped water out into the river and took pictures of the damage for the insurance company. At one point, he gestured toward a tree in the largely intact garden between the restaurant and the street.
"There are a pair of mockingbirds that live in that tree. And even though the water was up to here at one point," he said, indicating his chest, "They never left. When I got here this morning, I saw them flying into the tree to rebuild their nest."