Parpan Column: Is Riverhead a Cracker Barrel kind of town?

09/20/2014 10:00 AM |
The Riverhead Project in downtown Riverhead. (Credit: File Photo)

The Riverhead Project in downtown Riverhead. (Credit: File Photo)

Some of the reaction to the news that The Riverhead Project has closed its doors has really bothered me these past couple of weeks.

I can’t say I’m exactly shocked by the closure. Nor was I surprised at all by the quasi-celebratory reaction from some of our readers. 

But the idea that the upscale dining venue, which was opened in 2011 by restaurateur Dennis McDermott, failed in Riverhead — and a portion of the town’s residents seem to be happy it did — still doesn’t sit well with me.

“Riverhead is not ‘high end,’ ” one commenter wrote on our website.

“Riverhead will never be upscale,” another chimed in.

In one Facebook thread about the restaurant closing, a commenter said Riverhead needs a Cracker Barrel, one of the five most popular suggestions last year when we asked our readers what store or restaurant they’d most like to see come to town.

Trust me, Riverhead does not need a Cracker Barrel.

And while it may not have needed The Riverhead Project either, it certainly could benefit from more entrepreneurs like Mr. McDermott looking to take a chance here.

Yes, Riverhead is a blue-collar town, its roots drenched in salt water and soil. And no, it is not the Hamptons, as some folks made clear in their reaction to the closure.

But this is a town that has been in need of revitalization for decades, and while failed efforts certainly breed cynicism, one must be careful not to lose sight of the need to keep trying to make Riverhead a better place.

The Riverhead Project was a step in the right direction for downtown Riverhead. Saying “I told you so” after it fails accomplishes nothing.

Neither does blaming President Obama, as Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter did when asked if the restaurant’s demise was a sign that revitalization efforts are failing. And while Mr. Walter is correct in saying that one closure is not indicative of an overall problem downtown, the jury is still out on whether other downtown “success stories” like the Suffolk Theater and the Hyatt East End, to name a couple, will see long-term success. It’s also hard to ignore the many empty storefronts and other recent downtown store and restaurant closures.

Until I see Barack Obama holding a giant pair of scissors at the opening of a nail salon in Riverhead, I’ll look to 200 Howell when revitalization efforts fail, not 1600 Pennsylvania. It’s the supervisor, not the president, who has been treating each small success downtown as a personal victory since taking office in 2010. He can’t just pass the blame — nor should he absorb all of it — following each defeat.

Personally, I enjoyed The Riverhead Project, where I always received good service and never left unsatisfied. Sure, I could eat and drink someplace else for less money, but I didn’t mind occasionally paying for the atmosphere. I liked the restaurant, even if it served as little more than a special occasion place for me.

It’s too simple to say The Riverhead Project failed as a result of the national economy or because the people of Riverhead don’t want to support upscale dining. Those are factors, but so is the overdevelopment of Route 58, where Mr. Walter once said “thousands of people will visit … and have the opportunity to see what Riverhead is all about.”

Another major factor in the success of any business is in how well it fits in with its neighbors. A family trip to the aquarium doesn’t exactly scream roast duck and mango salsa. Neither does Gilbert Gottfried at the Suffolk Theater, cardboard boat races, blues festivals and country fairs.

If Riverhead is to see a true revitalization, upscale dining needs to be a part of that effort. Name one successful Suffolk downtown that doesn’t have it.

Downtown Riverhead needs to be fun. Sure, it needs events for families and restaurants that can be supported by those types of events, but it also needs a nightlife. It needs housing and events for young adults. It needs to become a dining destination with even more restaurants.

Patchogue comes alive after 5. Riverhead falls asleep.

Another shuttered restaurant is something nobody should want to see here. Neither is a Cracker Barrel.

The author is the executive editor of Times/Review Newsgroup. He can be reached at [email protected].