As the day approaches when Brooklyn’s famed River Café reopens, sometime in late June, the saga of its rebirth is a testament to the man many call a “waterfront wizard” for the transformational role his restaurant has played in Brooklyn.
On the night Hurricane Sandy created storm surges that destroyed or shut down parts of New York.
City, the frantic movements of Michael (Buzz) O’Keeffe would have made film footage fit for a disaster thriller. As founder of world-class restaurants River Café and the Water Club, he felt like a parent watching two children about to drown.
Around 9 p.m. on Oct. 29, when Sandy tides were peaking and made worse by high winds, Buzz attempted to batten down the hatches and see his employees to a safe retreat at River Café, located at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Storm-driven water had already breached the barge that sits atop pilings and housed one of the best-loved – and perhaps most glamorously appointed – waterfront restaurants in the world. The damage that would come, Buzz knew, would wipe out his attached, land-based kitchens and reception spaces too.
Realizing that tidal flow gave him just a few minutes (high tide is 38 minutes later at the Water Club) to get across the East River to the Water Club at E. 32nd Street, he raced to his car and drove north.
“I was probably the last car over the bridge,” he recalled in a recent sit-down with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
He drove up Third Avenue because the FDR was closed and cut across E. 34th Street to the water’s edge. Maneuvering around police blockades, he found a high point along the empty FDR to park.
He rushed on foot toward the Water Club, where his worst fears were realized: Raging waters meant his second “child” was equally in peril.
By around 10 p.m. at tidal peak, the winds had become so powerful that a person on foot could be blown around like an empty paper cup. Struggling to walk in water along the road under the FDR, Buzz was knocked to the ground hard and injured his knee.
He and Water Club employees who were evacuating clung to the top of a fire hydrant and parts of the FDR access ramp until the wind dropped below 50MPH.
“We had no choice but to stay put, hang on for dear life,” Buzz recalled, “until the peak gusts died down.”
The sky was chartreuse from the blown Con Ed transformer; he could smell electrical equipment burning at the Waterside Complex. He and his workers waited four and a half hours for the flooding to recede enough so they could go back to assess the damage.
The next day, the River Café was a scene of ugly devastation.
He’d had the dining room doors thrown open during the night, hoping to lessen damage from the storm surge. But the fierce waters ripped banquettes from their moorings, tossed massive refrigerators around the kitchen like toys, ruined $10,000 bottles of Petrus and destroyed a Steinway piano made especially for the restaurant.
“If we had left the piano in place on its raised platform, it might have fared better,” he said. “But we thought it was better to put it by the phone desk – but the water was as high as the keys.”
His devotion to the waterfront made him a triple storm victim: His Red Hook catering hall, Liberty Warehouse, also suffered flood damage. The Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory was also destroyed. But Buzz said he has no misgivings about returning to the shoreline.
“Only a weak person wouldn’t rebuild,” he said.
Though he wouldn’t dream of abandoning his Fulton Ferry Landing location for some landlocked restaurant site, he acknowledges the River Café renovation process has been long and wearying.
“It’s stressful,” he said. “I probably blew through $3 million, and we’re not finished yet.”
He has “good insurance,” he said, but collecting takes time. The restaurant opened 36 years ago when the site was a wilderness of abandoned cars and tall weeds.
He comes honestly by his love for all things aquatic, which began during his childhood in the waterfront Bronx community of Silver Beach.
As a kid he went striped bass fishing five or six days a week. He turned down a chance to attend West Point because he didn’t want to forsake the waters of Long Island Sound or be without his 21-foot ocean skiff.
“I went to Fordham and got to keep my boat,” he recalled.
The River Café rebuild has been slowed in part by his exacting standards.
“We do things at a higher level,” he said.
Solid cherry-wood paneling was made at a shop in Pennsylvania, step by slow step. Marble and slate tiles had to be hand cut for the lobby floor. Georgian antiques that could be salvaged required painstaking repairs.
He had to replace the custom-made Steinway – and replenish his stock of pricey wines. His losses on the vino could have been worse. Because there was nowhere to build a wine cellar, many expensive vintages were stored off-site in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Walls and wood flooring had to be torn up and replaced. Boilers and heaters had to be raised on platforms and electric panels moved several feet higher to thwart damage if there’s future flooding.
“Being a perfectionist is a burden,” he said. “I’ve been like this since I was a kid.”
His juvenile self wouldn’t hand in term papers until they were just right – and had his grades lowered for lateness. His adult self is so careful about taste-testing suppliers’ offerings that he once called a major dairy vendor about a slightly fishy taste to the butter – and told the supplier to make his butter from farmers who did not feed fish meal fortifier to their cows.
As his iconic restaurant’s reopening nears, he’s got its Terrace Room up and running for private events. Mockingbirds that nested outside the River Café for 30 years and made it through the hurricane are cheerful companions for workers putting the finishing touches on the café restoration. One of them dive-bombs the restaurant’s good-natured black cat, Mogli, and bites his tail.
Meanwhile, Buzz continues to work on storm-proofing the Water Club, which he hopes to reopen by July.
He is back in business at Liberty Warehouse – where floodwaters pushed a bar inside the space 200 feet from its original spot. Still, the pre-Civil War era Conover Street venue was easier to repair than his beloved barge.
Buzz – whose first restaurant was an Upper East Side joint called Pudding’s that he swanked up by telling friends to dress nicely and come in for drinks – reminisced about the travails of launching the River Café in 1977.
That February, during the coldest winter on record, he and his buddies were trying to drag his barge out of the water and onto pilings so the restaurant could finally be built. The rope towing the barge accidentally snapped him diving into the ice-filled water. The temperature was 12 degrees.
Nearly simultaneously he thought, “What an adventure, diving into ice water” and “How am I going to get the hell out of here?” Slime from an oil spill a week before coated the ropes and pilings and then his hands and he slipped out of a rescuer’s grasp.
By the time he was hauled to safety, he was going numb – and the beard he sported in those days was covered with ice. A friend tried to take photos of him, but with a wind-chill factor around 35 degrees below zero, the Nikon didn’t work.
In its early years, the River Café became a draw for celebs and Manhattanites who otherwise refused to set foot in Brooklyn. It became a haven and hangout for Heights residents. Working there launched the careers of now-famous chefs including Larry Forgione and Charlie Palmer, David Burke and now Brad Steelman, to name a few.
Buzz’s fans are counting the days now until they can return for fine dining and fine views of tugboats and the lights of Lower Manhattan skycrapers.
After all the Sturm und Drang, he promises the River Café will be ready for them.