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Buzzy O’Keeffe: The Man Behind Brooklyn's Iconic River Café

September 14, 2018 - by Merrill Lee Girardeau
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The River Café is one of New York City’s preeminent dining institutions. At the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, the restaurant looks onto the Lower Manhattan skyline and the East River from a Brooklyn perspective, attracting diners with undeniable photo opportunities and beautiful views. The fare, from the duck to the chocolate Brooklyn Bridge to the world-class wine, is every bit worthy of the surroundings. The restaurant’s owner and operator Michael “Buzzy” O’Keeffe ensures it stays that way.

River Cafe

In the 1960s, O’Keeffe was seized by the vision of a restaurant under the Brooklyn Bridge in the then-dilapidated industrial area on Brooklyn’s shore. O’Keeffe, who grew up in the Bronx, lobbied to establish a restaurant in that location for 12 years before the city granted him permission. In the meantime, the prolific O’Keeffe opened seven other restaurants, which he sold before beginning the massive undertaking of establishing the River Café. Now in his seventies, O’Keeffe still has a letter from City Hall declining his dogged requests, telling him the build was impossible.

In June 1977, The River Café finally opened and attracted quick acclaim. As O’Keeffe told the New York Times last year, from day one he wanted The River Café to be “a fine American restaurant with professional service that was not uptight.” Its menu boasted not French fare, as with other fine dining restaurants at the time, but American cuisine that prized fine domestic ingredients and creative presentation. In 2013 the ever-candid O’Keeffe told Esquire, “This is an American restaurant, but if the best comes from Norway, then we bring it in from Norway. If the best comes from France, I get it from France. The best wines still come from France. You know?" 

River Cafe inline

The wine program also stood out from the Café’s beginning, as Wine Director Joseph Delissio selected then-unknown California labels and other exceptional wines from around the world. The restaurant has received the Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence and placed among Wine and Spirits magazine’s Wine List Hall of Fame. 

Delissio and other employees, like pianist Dom Salvador, joined O’Keeffe’s vision from the beginning and remain at The River Café 40-plus years later. The restaurant has enjoyed long success as a critical favorite and site of innumerable birthdays and engagements (one employee has said there are six to 10 at dinner each night!), but it has also suffered. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy all but decimated The River Café, with at least one $10,000 bottle of Pétrus floating off to sea, along with other treasures from the wine cellar and the contents of both kitchen and dining room.

Now The River Café is back and better than ever, with Chef Brad Steelman continuing to wow with Maine sea scallops served with pork belly and polenta, seared king salmon with jasmine rice, and Caspian caviar for the true gourmands. For dessert, the perennial favoritethe chocolate Brooklyn Bridgecontinues to prevail for birthdays, anniversaries, and engagements alike. The restaurant has received a coveted Michelin star for its culinary excellence.

The area of DUMBO sprang up around The River Café, which was the only bright spot in an area with nothing going for it in the late '70s. Now a vibrant riverwalk, cafés and luxury apartments characterize the neighborhood and attract even more diners to the restaurant.  

Buzzy O’Keeffe also owns Murray Hill’s The Water Club, another dining room with a stellar view that's ideal for special occasions. The Water Club serves excellent surf and turf, with a butter-soft filet mignon and fresh oysters. 

O’Keeffe additionally founded the first café inside Grand Central Station, which he followed with Pershing Square just outside. Like The River Café, this build was difficult to get permission for, but O’Keeffe prevailed with characteristic persistence. The Municipal Arts Society distinguished the Pershing Square café with its Preservation Award in 1999.

With his decades of experience, O’Keeffe consults for restaurants and serves as a board member of various community organizations in the city. He has been given honors such as a “Heroes of the Harbor” award  from the Manhattan Waterfront Alliance. 

The dapper-dressed O’Keeffe, who has his suits custom-made and doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon, can often be found at The River Café hobnobbing with guests—and sometimes fishing off the dock of the restaurant.

romantic skyline river cafe

The River Café is located on One Water Street in Brooklyn. Call 718-522-5200 or visit rivercafe.com for more information.

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