August 28, 2013 | Short Order

Buzzy O’Keeffe plans to celebrate Sandy Anniversary Oct 29 with party at refortified River Café


          With reservation phones ringing non-stop and dreams of reopening the hurricane-devastated River Café in August dashed by construction jitters and flubs, perfection-obsessed Michael “Buzzy” O’Keeffe refuses to commit to an opening day. But he’s making plans to mark Sandy’s anniversary, October 29, with a by-invitation-only party for friends. That means friends of the house. 

          Meanwhile it’s raining again. The kitchen equipment is lined up waiting to be rolled into place. Three hundred feet of electrical wiring has yet to be lugged in and connected. He’s trying to sweet talk crews into working overtime and weekends. Even so, O’Keeffe contemplated a quick trip to Dublin for the 100th birthday of his brother-in-law’s uncle. 

          “All I know is there’s a lunch booked for September 22 and a special birthday dinner that I promised a friend,” he said.

          By then The River Café will be back framing the Manhattan skyline -- lashed, varnished, retiled, its kitchen rebuilt, its floor restored, and a brand new Steinway replacing the grand piano that got whipped and warped by Sandy. “We didn’t raise it high enough,” says Michael Buzzy O’Keeffe who took all four of his rotating pianists to the showroom so they could agree on a choice. 

          It took O’Keeffe 12 years to collect all the permissions and permits to open on a barge under the Williamsburg Bridge in 1977 with chef Larry Forgione insisting he finance a farmer to raise something called “free-range chicken.” Quickly romantics were vying for window seats on the spectacular view, and a settlement called Brooklyn became a destination for well-heeled tourists.

          Even as he and his crew mourned the great bottles of vintage treasures beached in the mud in a warehouse nearby, left by waters they never imagined would rise that high, O’Keeffe’s brain was counting the cost. “I have good insurance but I wasn't willing to wait,” he says. He would rebuild with his own money. “When times are good, you have to bank it for emergencies. Sooner or later they will come. I kept my savings in cash.”

          Last Christmas he opened the adjoining Terrace Room. “Someone insisted they wouldn’t go anywhere else for their wedding.” It had been hurricane proof and had its own kitchen. Meanwhile, in the devastated cafe itself, the mold needed to be tackled, walls replaced, a new restaurant kitchen built.

Star chef alumni of The River Café line up to say "cheese" with Buzzy 

          There would be no more sheetrock. No foam under the floor. Fiberglass was stronger and heavier, Spray on insulation would leave no space for mold. A crew casted bronze bases for lamps. The napkins would now be a peachy pink. “It reflects so nice on ladies’ faces,” says the notorious fussbudget. “It even makes guys look good too.”

          At dinner two weeks ago in the Pool Room of the Four Seasons, he invokes Josef Hoffman, 20s and 30s deco, and confides his admiration for Paul Rudolph. He admires the constant ripple of the chain metal curtains. “Do you think Philip Johnson knew they would do that?” he asks.  He has been reading Ayn Rand’s “The Fourtainhead” again, he confides. “I like the philosophy.”

          “I hope you don’t plan to blow up any buildings?” I say.

          “I’ve put more money into my bathroom than most people put into their restaurants these days,” he confides. “I’m putting in higher toilets to accommodate the disabled, although I’m not required to. The walls are nickel plated. Everything’s white marble. We’re using marine quality varnish on the floor tiles, five coats.” Everything has stopped that day because the best tile company had sent the wrong size tiles. ”It’s quarry tile, blue gray. An eight of an inch too small. It takes so long to lay a floor,” he laments. The hotter it is, the longer it takes the varnish to dry between coats.”

          The wines stored nearby were a total loss, but the storage facility in Manhattan was unscathed. “I’m not delivering the wine till the last minute because of the heat,” he confides. The chef Brad Steelman was cooking. Most of the dining room crew would be back. He was working on the devastated Water Club too on the other side of the East River, reopened now only for special events. “I have to see that we bring back all the pretty boys and girls who work there.”

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Patina Restaurant Group