The most new restaurants in recent memory have opened in the past year on Fire Island, a side dish of the coronavirus pandemic sizzling the food industry.
Three new eateries opened in Ocean Beach, one of Kismet’s two restaurants was sold and Ocean Bay Park saw one of its three bars relaunch last year—a rare amount of turnover on a barrier beach that typically sees one of the about two dozen establishments in the 17 communities change hands every few years.
“It’s not very often that stuff like this happens,” said Ocean Beach’s biggest restaurateur, Jon Randazzo, who is involved in all three new restaurants in the village.
The sea change in the island’s restaurant scene comes after restrictions meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 forced many local small businesses across Long Island and beyond to go under. The hospitality industry was among the hardest-hit sectors nationwide. But on Fire Island, where there is an extremely limited amount of space to open a new restaurant, the closures of several local eateries created a coveted opportunity for others to serve up something new.
When Bocce Beach closed last year after three decades in business, Randazzo—who owns Castaway Bar & Grill, The Landing at Ocean Beach, Bay Walk Cafe, Scoops, and Beaches and Cream—purchased the property, moved Castaway to the larger location on the opposite side of the downtown, and opened a new eatery called Taco Beach where Castaway previously stood. Since Castaway is normally open in the off season, it needed the expanded space, he said, adding that he was careful to give it a fresh new look in the process.
“We had to bring what was successful there down the black and then add some more,” he said, adding that Joe Bonocore and Mitch Diamond became his first-ever partners in the Castaway and Taco Beach ventures. “It’s a whole new era.”
Taco Beach, he said, was inspired by the fact that taco Tuesday was the most popular menu at Castaway. It’s also the first Mexican restaurant in town.
“People are excited to try a different style of food and a new concept,” he said. “Each of these places have their own identity. I don’t want to be in competition with myself, which is why I try to come up with different concepts.”
And right next door to Taco Beach, Randazzo also struck a deal to have another new restaurant, Fira’s Falafel and Frites, open in space shared with Bay Walk Cafe. Fira’s was founded by Ira Ira Zahler and his wife, Caroline Andrew, a couple from Corneille Estates who opened the restaurant this spring after Zahler, a caterer in New York City, saw business take a hit when large events were postponed due to the virus restrictions. The family was among those who decamped from the city to flee the coronavirus, but instead of just moving to the island, they decided to open up shop here after meeting with Randazzo.
“When life gives you lemons, make hummus,” joked Andrew, who handles the administrative and marketing duties while Zahler runs the day-to-day operations.
“He thought this was the opportunity to do something different,” Andrew said of her husband. “Being in a shared location made things easier…there’s been challenges but it also has been fun.”
In Fire Island’s westernmost community of Kismet, Surf’s Out shut down after about a decade in business. The locale was bought by Frank Bragaglia, owner of The Brixton in Babylon, who turned Surf’s Out into Dive, a retro-themed bar. The new owners were not immediately available for comment.
“We are doing an elevated bar food menu with a raw bar and bringing back the sushi that [Surf’s Out] did,” Bragaglia told Greater Bay Shore. “We’re going to also be doing poke bowls and sandwiches.”
Back east in Ocean Bay Park, a fifth restaurant reopening was held last summer when the Fire Island Hotel was bought and renamed Fire Island Beach House. Its restaurant, Hurricanes, was renamed Canes, whose website boasts a “beachside elevated menu will include a new, sustainable menu featuring locally sourced products and recipes.”
Despite all the restaurant flipping on FI, one of the biggest names in the business, Flynn’s Fire Island, has not been sold after being put on the market with the asking price of $14.5 million in 2019. The restaurant has been in the Flynn family for nearly a century.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the survivors. Hardships the pandemic has heaped onto local restaurants include difficulties securing supplies, increased difficulty hiring staffers and shortage of staff housing for employees. But local real estate agents who’ve been busier than ever with the pandemic-induced turnover in the island’s residential and commercial properties see a silver lining in the fresh infusion of energy into the local economy after the chaos 2020 cooked up.
Tara Schein Fishman, a sales agent at Luxury Fire Island Homes, said: “It feels like a Renaissance.”