The air in downtown Riverhead is still tinged with smoke, one week after a grease fire gutted the Athens Grill, and a week and a half after another small grease fire temporarily shuttered Cliff’s Rendezvous.
My son and I stood outside the door of the charred Athens Grill Saturday morning on our way to breakfast at the Riverhead Grill, gawking with other passersby at the charred tin ceiling tiles ripped down over the bar when firefighters tried to contain the fast-spreading flames. The doors to the restaurant were wide open and a crew was already inside working to put things right.
A long time ago, just after my son was born in 1996, our little ragtag family wandered in to the Main Street Café, the restaurant that had been where The Athens Grill is now, just after visiting the Second Street Post Office to send off the papers to have his birth certificate processed.
Planter boxes, filled with ivy, dotted the white walls. The menu was as good and varied as the menu at the Greek diners out west, and the food was always fresh and simple and priced right. The waitress, Angela, fell in love with our baby.
No matter when you went to the Main Street Café, Angela was working. She was always excited to see you. She made coffee milkshakes when she saw us walk through the door, and always left the chilled stainless steel cup they’d been mixed in at the table. She filled us up on gyros and feta cheese omelettes and she made us promise, always, to come back as soon as possible, mostly so she could talk to the baby.
Those were tough years in Riverhead, as most years in Riverhead are. I moved away to look for work. When I came back, the Main Street Café was gone and Angela was gone and I never even learned her last name.
Cliff’s Rendezvous has also lost more this year than just a few weeks’ business due to a fire.
My drinking buddy and I wandered in to the Rendezvous on a Tuesday this March, looking to catch up with bartender Gary Van Housen. Gary always mumbled something sardonic under his breath when you walked in and he always knew what you were going to order. He was an awful lot of fun to talk to. He always worked either Tuesdays or Thursdays, but we could never remember which day it was, so we would wander in randomly, hoping to catch him. If he wasn’t working at the Rendezvous, he was working at the Elks Lodge, so he was a pretty easy guy to track down.
Gary wasn’t working that Tuesday, and I guess it’s lucky for him that he wasn’t working the Tuesday night of the fire. He lost a long fight with cancer on March 9. He didn’t say much about his past, but there’s a little bit of information about him on Southampton Press’s obituary page.
In addition to being a top-notch bartender, Gary had a degree in business from Buena Vista College in Iowa. He served as a specialist in the U.S. Army in the early 1970s, at the height of the Vietnam War. He had a twin brother who died before him. He was only 64 years old.
We walked back outside after learning that Gary had died. Our taste for happy hour had been destroyed. We looked up at the Rendezvous sign and shook our heads.
“It’s the end of an era,” said my drinking buddy.
“Yep,” I groused.
I guess my point in sharing all this, as those of you who have lost much in fires, floods or hurricanes can probably attest, is that restaurants can be rebuilt, and if you have enough insurance you can make them better. You can make the most of any rotten situation, as lousy as it may feel at the time. But you can never replace the people who’ve gone, especially when you never had a chance to say goodbye.
I miss you Gary and Angela. Main Street isn’t the same without either of you.
theRiverheadProject, across the street from the Rendezvous, is hosting a benefit for The Athens Grill titled “Rebuilding Athens: Neighbors Coming Together,” tomorrow, July 7. The benefit is being organized by a new coalition of Riverhead restaurants known as the Riverhead Restaurant Group. Each member of the group is contributing a dish to the meal, and attendees are being asked to bring their checkbooks to give what they can to help The Athens Grill rebuild.
theRiverheadProject is at 300 East Main Street and the benefit will run from 2 to 5 p.m.