DUMBO may now be home to luxury lofts and trendy restaurants, to a charming waterfront park and a forthcoming mall in an old tobacco factory, but when the River Cafe (1 Water Street, Brooklyn; 718-522-5200) first opened here in 1977, it couldn’t exactly rely on a steady neighborhood clientele to fill its tables.
Back then, the area was an abandoned warehouse district, an unlikely location for a restaurant with lofty ambitions. It took founder Michael Buzzy O’Keeffe twelve years to secure the permits to build here, but he persisted, and once he opened, he soon found a global audience for his waterfront space. Over the years, Larry Forgione, Charlie Palmer, and David Burke all stood behind the burners; the restaurant claims that Forgione invented the phrase “free range chicken” while working here.
Fast-forward nearly four decades, and you can see the influence the River Cafe has had over its surroundings: the waterfront is now a charming place to stroll, and trendy restaurants are abundant. And as testament to the kind of neighborhood this has become, the River Cafe now fits in so seamlessly, you might actually miss the entrance to the long driveway that leads to the place.
Few restaurants in this city manage to remain relevant for a full year, let alone decades. And even those that do aren’t immune to the changing economic climate. In 2014, we saw a number of Manhattan neighborhood institutions forced out for rising rents, victims of the very wave of gentrification they helped usher in.
Which makes the River Cafe a real gem. With the unadulterated panoramic view of glittering Manhattan across the river, the food would need only to be mediocre to make this place a worthy destination. But the food, too, is worth a stop.
The kitchen is now under Brad Steelman, who took control in 2001. Fourteen years into his tenure, he’s still turning out pristine fare befitting of its price tag. (You’ll either eat a $120 three-course meal comprising your choice of appetizer, entree, and dessert, or you’ll drop $150 for the six-course chef’s tasting, and surrender your choices to the kitchen.)
Start with shells, perhaps, and move through plump, briny oysters sprinkled with roe that pops between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. Try the wild shrimp, plated with sweet crabmeat and painted with tart citrus hollandaise. And don’t miss the halibut — the pungent maitake mushrooms and lightly piquant green peppercorn sauce make it a standout.
This is one of the few dining rooms in Manhattan where jackets are still required for men, and where you’re not really able to dine at the bar, so be aware, when you book your reservation, that you’re going to have to go all in. We think that means you should order a bottle of Champagne, enjoy the live piano player, and really make a night of it.
If you have the means, this is an experience all New Yorkers should have at least once.