Stuff it, Sandy! Chefs persevere, cook in dark after storm

Nov. 1, 2012 at 4:12 PM ET

Justin Lane / EPA /
Food is served in the dark at the Mee Sun Cafe in Chinatown on Tuesday as power to most of lower Manhattan was lost after Superstorm Sandy hit in New York. Mee Sun was one of a number of cafes, restaurants and bars that managed to serve customers this week in harrowing conditions.

In times of crisis, people often seek sustenance and solace by coming together to eat, drink, warm up and talk. That can be tricky to do, however, when the power is out, refrigeration is shot, ovens aren’t working and everything is enveloped in an inhospitable blanket of cold, inky darkness.

But seriously, now: Did you think that would stop the big-hearted restaurant owners, chefs and bartenders in areas of downtown New York City, Brooklyn and New Jersey that have been hardest-hit by Superstorm Sandy’s wrath? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Throughout the region, stories are emerging of restaurant and bar staffs fighting exhaustion while finding ways to prepare food and drinks — and, in some cases, give food and drinks away. Consider the comforting reception 83-year-old Bill Bredal received at Pantagis Diner in Edison, N.J., the morning after the storm hit.

A Pantagis regular, Bredal said he usually stops by the diner three or four times a week, occasionally for lunch, but usually for a blueberry pancake breakfast. On Tuesday, Bredal awoke to a neighborhood without power but relatively intact otherwise. He drove around the city and stopped by the diner. He found the inside dark, but the doors wide open.

Courtesy Simmy Bredal-Bell /
Bill Bredal was grateful for the generous service he received at Pantagis Diner after Superstorm Sandy left him, and the restaurant, without power. (He's pictured here before the storm struck.)

Bredal went in and saw a handful of other patrons inside. He was soon greeted by the diner’s owner, Nick Pantagis.

“He asks if I like hot chocolate, and he gives me a tall glass of hot chocolate,” Bredal said. “I could see he was giving hot chocolate and coffee to the other people, too. And I could tell by his manner, they also were regular customers.”

Despite the lack of electricity, the owner managed to personally cook up a plate of scrambled eggs for Bredal. He then refused to take payment for the order.

Amid Sandy's aftermath, acts of kindness abound

“It gave me a boost, I tell you that,” he said Thursday, recalling the visit. “None of his cooks were there, so he made the eggs. He was in his normal whites — he had on his usual white apron. I told him, ‘You know, you’re a good politician in this area. You know how to impress your customers!’”

'Not about making money'

Elsewhere on the battered East Coast, residents weren’t just hunkered down at home with peanut butter sandwiches and bottles of wine — they were going out to eat, especially in the city that never sleeps. In downtown Manhattan, a small number of restaurants managed to re-open for business quite quickly after Sandy hit, and determined chefs found themselves cooking in the dark.

“Power, no. Paella, yes!” chef Seamus Mullen tweeted from Tertulia, his Spanish restaurant in New York’s West Village. And, living true to its name, the café/bar Fort Defiance threw a communal cookout on Wednesday, despite major flooding in its Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn., a takeout ordering website, reported that about 30 percent to 40 percent of its restaurants were open by Tuesday, and wait times were about doubled during the storm. “Any restaurant that chose to stay open during last 48 hours shows lot of grit and desire not just for capitalistic reasons but to serve New York City,” said Seamless chief executive officer Jonathan Zabusky.

In New Jersey, there are restaurants on the barrier islands that no one can even get to, let alone open, said Marilou Halversen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association. She noted that it’s hard to say how many places near the shore areas are open because cell-phone towers are down and email is sporadic at best. Thanks to the laws of supply and demand, those that are open are packed to the gills. At Jose Tejas in Iselin, N.J., one of the few restaurants open in the central Jersey coastal area, diners are reporting two-hour waits. 

Just a block from the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn, a crowd of 20-somethings in skinny jeans and vintage jackets spilled onto the sidewalk and around the corner on Wednesday while waiting to eat at Pies and Thighs, a restaurant that serves classic comfort food like fried chicken, biscuits and gravy and macaroni and cheese.

Over in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, Bar Sepia co-owner Delissa Reynolds and her husband told their staff to stay home and stay safe while the couple ran the bar and cooked a little food for their neighborhood locals. They remained open throughout the worst of the storm all day and all evening Monday, finally closing at 1 a.m. Tuesday. Business on Monday remained steady but not insanely busy, Reynolds said.

“It’s not about making money,” she said. “It’s just about being available and accommodating people. Folks definitely wanted to feel a sense of community.”

On Manhattan’s Upper East Side, EJ’s Luncheonette also remained open during the storm on Monday, and the message there was the same. “For 20 years now, we’ve been dedicated to serving the community,” manager Oliver West said. E.J.’s ran on a local crew and housed some workers in apartments above the restaurant. Customers ordered up comfort foods — pancakes, bacon and eggs — and were appreciative of the staff, tipping out well, he says. The restaurant has been able to remain open this week by modifying its menu around the changing inventory, West said.

During this storm, wine is fine

For those stranded from out of town, many hotel restaurants remained in operation, such as Blue Fin in the W Hotel in Times Square. Brett Reichler, corporate executive chef for B.R. Guest restaurants, including Blue Fin, has been running on three hours of sleep per night. “Just enough to regroup,” Reichler said. “We are loaded right now. There’s nothing to do downtown — everybody’s uptown, it’s incredible.”

Some smaller shops haven’t had as much luck maintaining inventory — especially when customers had stockpiling on their minds. That’s what happened on Sunday at the Brooklyn Barrell wine shop in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. “Oh, it was out of control,” Frank Betances, Brooklyn Barrell’s manager said Tuesday. “The store is kind of empty. I actually just opened because I’m hoping for deliveries.”

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board reported a 63 percent increase in wine sales on Sunday. Interestingly, spirits sales surpassed wine sales during last year’s preparations for Hurricane Irene, but because Sandy hit later in the year, wine sales topped spirits this time around, noted liquor control board analyst Larz Kegerreis. “It was hot and sticky, so hurricane cocktails were really popular for Irene,” Kegerreis said. “Wine was more favored for Sandy.” 

And folks were virtually sharing their bottles of wine. Twitter confirmed a spike in the number of wine mentions alone during the storm, peaking at about 76,457 “significant” mentions on Sunday, compared to typically daily averages of 10,000 to 15,000. 

Eun Kyung Kim and Laura T. Coffey contributed to this report.

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