Restaurant Row thrives post-Hurricane Sandy – The Blueprint
Frank Amato stood under the black awning of Elegante, a pizzeria and Italian restaurant in the Rockaways, excitedly showing off the different restaurants in front of him. Smiling, he pointed out Kemo’s, a quick-service eatery serving Mediterranean food, Rockaway Roasters, a gourmet coffee shop with a chalkboard advertising avocado toast and Best Caribbean, a restaurant that used to be a laundromat.
“This street is absolutely more vibrant than before.” Amato said. “And I encourage it.”
Amato has owned Elegante, located on the corner of Rockaway Beach Boulevard and Beach 92nd Street, for 38 years, but he said he’s never seen a diverse “restaurant row” like this in the area. It’s a change from seeing the street at its worst, Amato said, when flood waters from Hurricane Sandy destroyed the community — his restaurant, other small businesses, the homes in the area — seven years ago.
He spent $500,000 in repairs after the hurricane, saying he saw it as a responsibility and important to morale to reopen and reinvest in the neighborhood.
“It was disheartening. Anything that could’ve been saved was stolen,” Amato said. “But there wasn’t going to be any stopping.”
Now, there are 13 different eateries — ranging from Caribbean cuisine to Japanese ramen — between Beach 91st and 93rd street, almost all built in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
One restauranteur who opened a new place in the wake of the storm is Mike Adil. He has owned restaurants in the Rockaways for 19 years and opened Kemo’s four months ago. He said ongoing construction on the peninsula is proof of a new, more diverse Rockaways and growing population that extends beyond the food scene.
“Before we only had houses,” Adil said. “Now we have apartments. There’s lots of hipsters and that’s the future.”
Thirty-six percent of the Rockaway population is between 18 and 40 years old and the median age is 34. The overall population has reached pre-Sandy levels, and the Asian, Hispanic and African American population have all increased according to studies done by the Center for Urban Research, the Furman Center and the state comptroller.
A 2018 economic report released by the New York State Comptroller found that the Rockaways had the second highest population growth from 2000 until Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, a growth rate five times faster than New York City. The population declined after the hurricane but bounced back in 2016.
Glenn DiResto, a real estate broker, said that having new people and businesses come into the area is a positive sign of the Rockaway’s future.
“Before the hurricane, there was no Stop & Shop, there was no wine bar,” DiResto said. “But now they see something here. That’s why they’re coming in.”
Rashida Voorhies opened Sayra Wine Bar, the first wine bar in the Rockaways, down the block from Elegante with her partner Patrick Flibotte in 2013. They signed the lease two months before Hurricane Sandy hit and destroyed the space.
But like Amato, she didn’t want to give up the lease and abandon the Rockaways.
“We were in it,” Voorhies said. “We had to see it come to life. We couldn’t just turn around and cheat ourselves.”
Voorhies picked up extra shifts at a restaurant and Flibotte sold paintings to offset the extra $25,000 in renovations. But they also called on their friends to roll up their sleeves and chip in where they could — staining the wood, putting in bolts and building chairs for the wine bar.
“We’d be running in and working with no heat in the rain and the winter,” Voorhies said. “And then running back to the car heating up and running back in to keep going. Sun up to sun down.”
Eight years later, Voorhies, Flibotte and Amato are still in business. Amato still has $350,000 left to repay and Sayra isn’t the only wine bar on the block anymore. But neither owners focus on that.
“It’s just beautiful to see us survive and reblossom.” Voorhies said. “We take pride in that.”