Fire Island Restaurants Adapt to New Challenges

By Joey Macellaro  / Photos by Robert Sherman ~ Fire Island restaurateurs have always had to work a little harder than most to operate in a town where patrons and provisions arrive by ferry. In the age of COVID-19, their problems have been compounded even further.“We are changing the menu daily because getting food from purveyors is not as easy as it was in the past,” said Jon Randazzo, owner of several Ocean Beach food-service businesses including Castaway Bar and Grill and The Landing. “There have been many food and supply shortages throughout this ordeal and we have been able to keep people interested by doing this.”Like most business owners on Fire Island, Randazzo has endured months of challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the nation and forced the full or partial closure of many restaurants and bars. As mandated by the New York State Pause program, food service on Fire Island was restricted to pickup and delivery only until June 10, when outdoor dining was allowed. As COVID-19 cases in the region continue to decline, Phase III of the state’s reopening plan should bring full-service dining and drink service in bars and restaurants by late June, albeit with requirements for reduced occupancy levels.Restaurants and grocery stores were deemed essential throughout the pandemic, and Fire Island’s only two year-round food-related businesses continued to serve locals in March and April. Dockside Pizza operates as a food market and deli in the off-season and offered delivery and pickup services until it began firing up its pizza oven in May. CJ’s Restaurant and Bar, home of the famous Rocket Fuel cocktail, kept its kitchen open throughout the off-season. Both businesses are located in Ocean Beach.“We’ve adjusted to curbside pickup for the local community that we serve all year,” said CJ’s Co-owner Laura Mercogliano. She adds that although the restaurant’s classic lobster roll has continued to be a top seller during the pandemic, the restaurant has added daily specials that often feature comfort food, prepared by Chef Brendan Derry. Outdoor seating has been added along the street and to the west of the restaurant.“Our hope is that this experience will pave the way for welcoming bistro-style dining,” said Mercogliano. “Ocean Beach is perfect for al fresco dining given that it’s a pedestrian community.”Randazzo’s two full-service restaurants are among several in Ocean Beach that have implemented online ordering systems, many for the first time. Castaway Bar and Grill, The Landing, Rachel’s Restaurant and Bakery, Maguire’s, Island Mermaid, Dockside Pizza, and Matthew’s Seafood are all currently taking orders through their websites.In some of our neighbor island communities, Fair Harbor’s Le Dock Restaurant began taking online orders on May 13, and is now providing full-service al fresco dining. Further west, Kismet Inn also opened gradually – at first their marina on May 15, followed by curbside pickup from their bar and restaurant on May 22, and limited outdoor one Phase II began on June 10.“The delivery and ordering online has really helped business,” said Randazzo, whose staff has been delivering as far as Corneille Estates and Ocean Bay Park. “Since there were no day-trippers early in the season, we were serving homeowners on the island, and it was important to us to keep them happy and coming back for more.” He added that like CJ’s and Maguire’s, he has been offering heat-and-serve family-style food trays as a new option for patrons. Through an arrangement with the village, Randazzo began seating and serving customers on the village green across the street from his Castaway establishment — an odd site for locals, but one that was well received.Island Mermaid Owner Scott Hirsch did not expect his establishment’s 30th anniversary season to kick off amidst a pandemic, but thankfully his bayside deck affords plenty of outdoor seating — with rain protection if necessary. After making arrangements to import fresh produce from several local farms, he began hosting a farmer’s market on Thursdays and Sundays, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., at The Pantry, his market and deli on the west end of town. The Pantry also began featuring new Bad Boy Burritos for the first time this year, taking grocery and prepared food orders from curbside windows along the front of the store.Maguire’s Bayfront Restaurant is celebrating its 25th anniversary under the management of Jim Betz and Andrew Becker, and its 85th season overall, having opened for the season on May 7. Like CJ’s and The Landing, Maguire’s offered all-inclusive family-style dinners for Mother’s Day and continues to provide contactless delivery from Summer Club to Point O’ Woods. Although the prospect of summer sunsets on the deck seemed bleak a few months ago, Betz and Becker are excited to once again be providing full-service dining.Since reopening for the season, Matthew’s Seafood Restaurant has been providing waiter service to patrons on their private dock on the bay. The family-owned business also features a full-service seafood market, complete with lobsters sold by the pound. Down the block, Houser’s Bar and Hideaway Restaurant are both fully operational, serving cocktails and meals with bayside views. Rachel’s Restaurant and Bakery also is open and ready to serve patrons as one of Fire Island’s go-to breakfast spots, now serving a full menu of lunch and dinner specialties and a broad range of beer and wine on their deck and on the village green.“I am looking forward to Phase III,” said Randazzo. While his businesses are slowly coming back to life, some have delayed their openings. Looking forward to the rest of the 2020 summer season, restaurateurs remain hopeful. The scheduled launching of Phase III for Long Island restaurants on Wednesday, June 24, will allow indoor dining once again, with occupancy capped at 50 percent of capacity. However New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo stresses continued responsible behavior in hand washing, wearing masks in public, and following social distancing protocols to keep Long Island on track.