Beloved Red Hook bar Sunny’s reopened on Thursday, 10 long months after Hurricane Sandy soaked the saloon. Legendary barkeep couple Sunny Balzano and Tone (pronounced “tuna”) Johansen are over the moon about the party that marked their return to slinging suds.
“It was quite magical,” said Balzano, who celebrated his birthday — his 78th or 79th, he was not sure which — on the night of the reopening that drew nearly 1,000 fans. “I feel like I had a wonderful dream.”
The crowd crammed into the pub and poured out onto the Conover Street block, which was shut down between Reed and Beard streets for a celebratory night of live music, food, speechifying, and, of course, a ton of drinking.
“It was the party of the century,” Johansen said. “We just about ran out of beer.”
Johansen performed at the bash for the crowd of bar regulars and first-timers, joined onstage by jazz and bluegrass musicians, including Smokey Hormel and the Luna Sisters.
“It was very gratifying to have all these folks come out to show their friendship,” Balzano said.
The party punctuated an outpouring of support that started not long after Sandy struck, flooding the basement and almost drowning Johansen.
The bar did not quality for a disaster assistance loan, so its owners turned to the community for aid. The barkeeps were able to pay for more than $100,000 in major structural and electrical repairs through benefit parties and online fund-raising campaigns. Put it this way: Sunny’s fans are passionate about their preferred pub.
“[Sunny’s Bar is] a community of people who congregate at the last bar at the end of the world,” said bar regular Dean Haspiel, who helped organize a Sunny’s benefit. “It’s a place where the bluegrass music uplifts your soul as you knock back amber gold within eye-shot of the Statue of Liberty.”
“I’m happy to see their front door open again,” he added.
Balzano, whose grandfather opened the watering hole in 1890, said he plans to transform the facade into a blackboard where patrons can sign their names and create a living memorial to the community’s support. The bar reopened with an expanded outdoor area in back.
The pint puller said that the future is bright for him, his family, and the saloon that bears his name — now that the doors are open again.
“We can now begin to make a living,” Balzano said, beaming.