Restaurateur getting ‘frisky’ in downtown Riverhead

MICHAEL WHITE PHOTO | Restauranteur Dennis McDermott describes how a half wall and other landscaping will serve to separate and insulate outdoor diners from the streets of downtown.

The man behind Greenport’s Frisky Oyster restaurant never expected to be part of a trend that turned a struggling village into a mecca for foodies. But that’s exactly what’s happened after Dennis McDermott opened his Williamsburg, Brooklyn-style eatery in 2002.

Now he’s hoping to ride into downtown Riverhead on the same kind of tidal shift.

The Southold resident has just signed a lease at the long-empty former Chase bank building on East Main Street, a block away from Atlantis Marine World. He’s planning to remodel the building and by next spring open a hip and casual restaurant complete with bar, lounge area and lots of outdoor seating.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter and Mr. McDermott announced plans for the restaurant, to be called The Riverhead Project, in a press release last Thursday.

“Even in this bad economy we are rebuilding Riverhead store by store and block by block,” Mr. Walter said. “We welcome Dennis McDermott and The Riverhead Project as part of the new wave of change in downtown Riverhead.”

In an interview, Mr. McDermott pointed to similarities between Greenport in 2002 and downtown Riverhead today.

“Greenport looked a lot like Riverhead does now; there were a lot of empty storefronts,” Mr. McDermott said standing inside the bank building, with its teller counters and desks where financial officers once sat. “With the success of the Frisky Oyster, there’s been this whole gentrification of Greenport. But it wasn’t our intention to sort of turn a whole town around; it sort of just happened.

“That demographic — affluent, cosmopolitan — was always there. We just tapped into it.”

The Riverhead Project won’t be just a larger version of the Frisky Oyster, now owned by his former head chef. It will be more friendly to families, for instance, said Mr. McDermott. What he will be replicating is his successful style of running a bar and restaurant.

“We’ll be able to absorb a lot of business from the hotel,” he said, noting that the popular aquarium and its adjoining Hyatt Place hotel, which is under construction, will be hosting catered events but without an actual restaurant on the premises.

“If all this stuff in the works for downtown comes to fruition, we’ll be positioned very nicely here as being ahead of the wave of gentrification. We’ll be riding that wave,” he said.

Here’s Mr. McDermott’s vision for the property, which he has yet to submit to the town as a formal proposal:

On the 4,000-square-foot main floor, he wants to build a 100-seat restaurant and lounge, separated by a large island fireplace. A bar would run along the east wall and the action inside would spill outdoors. In front of the building, which gets plenty of sun, he envisions tables with umbrellas along Main Street, where he’ll serve tapas and drinks. Around the corner on the western, quieter side of the building, customers could sit for dinner.

He wants to put a new main entrance on the western side as well, where he’ll install a massive squared archway like the one at the former bank entrance.

“The overall feel is going to be contemporary with a little Palm Springs,” he said.

In the 4,000-square-foot basement, Mr. McDermott wants install the bank vault — currently upstairs — in what he will call the “Vault Lounge.” A large conference room would be transformed into a place for private parties, such as rehearsal dinners for wedding guests staying at the Hyatt. The rest of the downstairs space would house rooms and offices for management.

Mr. McDermott moved permanently to the North Fork after the World Trade Center attacks forced him and his partner, who ran a high-end catering business, to vacate their lower Manhattan flat. Soon after, they started talking about a different type of Greenport restaurant, one without the “fishing net” decor.

With the Frisky Oyster’s success, he opened the Frisky Oyster Bar on Front Street in 2008. Both successful businesses were sold within two years.

“I’m a very project-driven person. And things were starting to get mundane,” Mr. McDermott of the decision to sell both Greenport restaurants. He’s going at the Riverhead venture alone, without a partner.

With the Hyatt Hotel, The Riverhead Project and a buzzing west end of East Main Street, downtown Riverhead appears to be on the brink of the revitalization and gentrification many locals have been hoping for, according to Mr. McDermott.

“There’s a lot you can do with this building,” said Keith Kraus of Laurel, who worked for Mr. McDermott at the Frisky Oyster and will serve as the restaurant’s general manager. “The Frisky Oyster was pretty much a straight shot; it was a box. You had to just maximize for what you wanted to do. In here, you can create that subtle separation of space.

“But what made the Frisky Oyster so successful,” Mr. Kraus continued, “was the fostering of that relationship with the customers. Building that attraction to the space, as if this is their space, too. If you make it special for people, it goes a long way.”

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