The storm devastated large parts of the Northeast; now restaurateurs, wine retailers and wineries are assessing damages and serving their customers as best they can
By Mitch Frank and James Molesworth
Days after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, people from Virginia to Rhode Island are trying to put their lives back together, but it is not proving easy. Large swaths of the region are still without electricity. On New Jersey’s shoreline, the damage is devastating, and it will take years to rebuild several ocean-front communities. The story was the same in parts of Staten Island and in the Far Rockaways, in New York’s borough of Queens. In less impacted areas, residents struggled to deal with no power, no water, limited mass transit and long lines for gas. As of Friday, the death toll in the United States and Canada stood at 95, 40 of them in New York City.
Restaurant owners are confronting many of the same problems as their customers. Top restaurants from Delaware to Rhode Island took heavy damage, including severe flooding. Some Jersey Shore restaurants were left buried in sand dunes when the waters retreated, while others were washed out to sea.
At Fort Defiance, a popular spot for dinner, cocktails and great coffee in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, owner St. John Frizell reported that he found six inches of water in his dining room and a completely flooded basement. A few neighborhoods away, at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, River Cafe has been a favorite dining spot since 1977. It’s also known for great wine, holding a Best of Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator. Monday night the storm surge came flooding in, filling the dining room and kitchen with four feet of water.
On the other side of the river, restaurants and retailers in lower Manhattan faced similar flooding. Pasanella and Son, a wine store near South Street Seaport, withstood six feet of water, owner Marco Pasanella reported on the store’s Facebook page. The staff had moved much of the inventory upstairs, but the damage is still substantial.
Bernie Sun, wine director for the Jean-Georges restaurant group, has three restaurants downtown, all currently without power: ABC Kitchen, Mercer Kitchen and Perry Street. “I’m not too worried about the wine at Mercer Kitchen or ABC Kitchen. There’s some water in there, but luckily not too much wine in the basements. I’ve got to cross my fingers that the water didn’t get into the basement at Perry Street, though. That’s in the worst shape, as it is on the West Side Highway,” said Sun. “But still, without power at this time of year, the restaurants are cold, and they’re in the dark, so in that regard, the wine is safe. And the bottles are sealed, so if they do go under water, it’s like the deep-sea storage you hear about. Fingers crossed, though.”
Grand Award winner Tribeca Grill seems to have escaped major damage in its wine cellar. “We keep everything in three cellars below the restaurant, and so it can be affected by storms,” said wine director David Gordon. “But we took some precautions before Sandy hit, like raising everything out of the bottom bins. It looks like we got lucky there. The grill is closed, though, and can’t reopen until power is restored.”
On higher ground in Manhattan, the big obstacle was a lack of electricity. As of Friday, most neighborhoods below 29th Street were still without power. The Consolidated Edison utility company hopes to restore power in Manhattan sometime Saturday, while areas outside the borough could be without power for another week.
Andrew Carmellini, the chef at the Dutch in SoHo and Locanda Verde in Tribeca, had been gearing up for his annual Trufflepalooza festival at the latter with $16,000 worth of truffles. As of Friday, he was concerned they would spoil before he could serve them. David Chang, chef at Momofuku and three other downtown hotspots, saw the power problems coming and moved his supplies to a refrigerated facility in Williamsburg. But as the days went by without restored power, time was running out to use the food. Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali were not even that lucky. Several of their restaurants, including Grand Award winner Del Posto, as well as Babbo and the market/eatery Eataly, were powerless, and tens of thousands of dollars worth of food had to be thrown out.
Even during catastrophe, however, people need to eat. Restless and hungry, New Yorkers began looking for places to dine (and possibly recharge their cellphones) by Tuesday. Downtown, dozens of venues opened their doors despite the lack of electricity. Some relied on generators, while others put out candles and served what they could. Outside the Old Homestead Steakhouse, an Award of Excellence winner, cooks prepared steaks on charcoal grills on the curb at Ninth Avenue. The city health department warned restaurateurs that despite the emergency conditions, food needed to be safe. Local media reported that a few chefs were searching all over town for dry ice to keep food chilled.
Food trucks also headed downtown, in many case offering free food for emergency responders and others. By Friday, officials in the waterfront town of Hoboken, N.J., were asking the trucks to come across the Hudson River.
Even in Atlantic City, N.J., not far from where the eye of the storm came ashore, places were trying to get back in business. The Borgata hotel and casino planned to reopen Friday night. A publicist said the Borgata’s five fine-dining restaurants had suffered little damage; one would open Friday and the remainder on Saturday.
Thankfully, area wine regions seemed to suffer minimal damage. Winemakers on Long Island’s East End report that harvest finished before Sandy’s arrival and that storm damage is minimal. “The North Fork is in pretty good shape,” said Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars. “All grapes were picked about a week before, so it was all in the tanks. We just lost power for about four hours.” Most of New Jersey’s wineries are located inland and were spared the worst of the storm. But with electricity out, it’s not clear if winemaking was impacted. The Garden State Winegrowers Association website advised potential visitors that many wineries were closed.
By week’s end, chefs were looking for bigger ways to help the storm’s victims. Chang and his team were cooking a six-course dinner at Cafe Boulud on the Upper East Side on Friday night for $495 a person, with all proceeds to go to the Red Cross. In Williamsburg, the staff at The Brooklyn Kitchen was collecting supplies to take to those in need in the Rockaways.
Sadly, the recovery will be long and costly. According to an early estimate from the economists at Moody’s Analytics, losses could approach $50 billion. While $30 billion of that is from storm damage, another $20 billion is from lost economic activity for restaurants, airlines and hotels. For now, chefs and sommeliers across the region were keeping their heads down and just trying to make it through each day.