View From the River Café: 40 Years of Feasts and Firsts

If not for the canine persistence of Mr. O’Keeffe, the cafe would never have made an East River beachhead.

“I have a letter here from City Hall saying, sorry, Mr. O’Keeffe, it can’t be done,” the owner recounted over lunch at La Grenouille, a landlocked restaurant on the other side of the river that he admires for its sumptuous setting and fidelity to the rituals of civilized dining. (Mr. O’Keeffe first visited the restaurant in the 1950s, using money he earned as a waiter at the original Schrafft’s, on Fifth Avenue.)

After graduation from Fordham University and a hitch as an Army intelligence specialist in Massachusetts and South Carolina (“I spent my time watching the Russians”), Mr. O’Keeffe seized the opportunity to purchase an undistinguished bar on the Upper East Side for $10,000. Rechristened Pudding’s, it opened on St. Patrick’s Day in 1966, and was an instant success.

In the mid-1960s, as New York’s commercial port was hemorrhaging business to more economical and modern rivals on the East Coast, the Brooklyn waterfront was in steady decline. The seed for a waterside restaurant was planted one day while Mr. O’Keeffe was riding in a car along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. As it reached the Brooklyn Bridge, he looked down and exclaimed, “Oh, my God!’”

“We took the exit down to the shoreline,” he said. “It was perfect for building.”

The city-owned parcel was not, however, perfect for financing. “Every bank in New York turned me down,” Mr. O’Keeffe said. Undeterred, he sought money elsewhere, finding it at a New Jersey bank.

Photo

In 1988, David Burke, right, the executive chef, in the kitchen with his sous-chef, Rick Laakkonen, who became executive chef in 1994.

Credit
Barton Silverman/The New York Times

That turned out to be the easy part. He now had to navigate the shoals…

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