He’s the Steve Jobs of Brooklyn restaurants!
Buzzy O’Keeffe, who opened The River Cafe on the then-bleak end of Fulton St. in what was not yet called “Dumbo,” celebrated the 40th anniversary of his legendary eatery with the obligatory victory lap on Brooklyn Paper Radio with hosts Gersh Kuntzman and Vince DiMiceli.
It was the Brooklyn Paper editor who likened O’Keeffe to the man who created Apple Computer, but the modest restaurateur demurred.
“I just knew Brooklyn would bounce back,” O’Keeffe said. “I knew New York would never give up. Everyone said I was crazy to open a restaurant in such a desolate area, but I knew it would be a success”
That’s when DiMiceli trotted out his iPhone metaphor.
“He saw something that was sitting there right in front of you and no one else saw it,” DiMiceli said. “No one was willing to do anything down there.”
Kuntzman evoked the “Summer of Sam,” when serial killer David Berkowitz was terrorizing lover’s lanes all over town. But O’Keeffe said he never lost faith.
“People said the neighborhood was dangerous,” he said. “But it wasn’t dangerous. It was a void. It wasn’t a jungle, it was a desert. There was no crime because there was nothing to steal.”
In fact, O’Keeffe pointed out that in the 40 years there, his restaurant was never robbed of burglarized — even during the tough times.
“Not once,” he said. “Never.”
The boys were obviously obsessed with O’Keeffe’s vision, but they did drool a bit when O’Keeffe talked about his food — New American classics served in a formal, but never stuffy, atmosphere at the city’s most romantic spot: under the Brooklyn Bridge on the correct side of the span.
But it wouldn’t be an interview with the delightful raconteur without a few digressions. With little fanfare, O’Keeffe also weighed in on these important topics:
• Native Americans: “I don’t even want to talk about what the white European settlers did to the them! Talk about a Holocaust — they just wiped them out. I am a big fan of the American Indian.
• Fracking (which he opposes): “I told an oil man I know, ‘We can live without the oil. We can’t live without clean water.’ ”
• President Trump: “I don’t agree with him on a lot of things. I did the catering on his boat. … He used to come to my earlier restaurant Pear Trees in Manhattan. We had these beautiful women who used to work there. He liked beautiful women.”
• Government dysfunction (which he opposes): “I could go into my restaurant across the street from Grand Central and pick out a team of talented people to run the government. … But I don’t know what’s going on (with the current team). It’s sad.”
• Russia (which he opposes): “I have seen thousands of people a week and I don’t know one who says his vote was influenced by what the Russians did. People didn’t like either candidate. But Russia had no influence.”
• His own career as a spy when he was in the military: “People have been spying on each other since the dawn of civilization. My job in the military was to spy on the Russians.”
• Israel: “If Israel was politically correct, it wouldn’t exist. It has to deal with the world the way it is, not the way we all wish the world would be.”
Kuntzman eventually steered O’Keeffe back to the greatness of the River Cafe, and asked him for a taste of what’s next. But the restaurant legend declined to mention his upcoming plans, even when Kuntzman promised the famous “Brooklyn Paper bounce.”
“You’re very good at what you do,” O’Keeffe said.
“That’s the second time I’ve heard that today,” he said. “And the first time was this morning with my girlfriend!”
This being Brooklyn Paper Radio, the Lennon and McCartney of community journalism discussed many other topics on the show, including:
• Vince’s love of the underappreciated prime rib, but only at the Old Homestead in Manhattan, where the prime rib really is the prime rib.
“At other places, it’s the secondary rib,” Kuntzman mused.
• Gersh’s upcoming Daily News video of him handing out his headshot at pizzerias, dry cleaners, and delis all over Brooklyn.
“Take that, Ernie Anastos!” Kuntzman ranted, before dropping some completely unnecessary F-bombs aimed at one of the most-awesome anchormen ever.
• Kuntzman created a new feature, “Gersh Kuntzman’s Brain Droppings.” In the first installment, Kuntzman wondered why a landlord would keep a storefront vacant for more than a year — as often happens when a landlord raises the rent — instead of just keeping a rent-paying tenant in place, albeit at a slightly lower monthly fee.
“Scalino, a great restaurant on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, has been closed for more than a year! But the place has been vacant ever since!” Kuntzman mused. “That’s $100,000 that the landlord didn’t make last year. How is it possible? Are taxpayers underwriting the landlord’s business ‘loss?’ You bet!”
DiMiceli said he would put a reporter on it.
• Kuntzman ended the show with a histrionic, five-minute rant against “those Wild West, ‘Mad Max’ private garbage truck drivers who killed cyclist Neftaly Ramirez in a hit-and-run crime on July 22.
“People in communities complain about these drivers all the time,” Kuntzman ranted. “Why is no one following this story? It’s important. Why hasn’t the failing New York Times covered this at all? Is it because this is still a driving city? A dead cyclist is just a mosquito that got slapped. And the NYPD is reflexively pro-car. … Why is Gersh Kuntzman angry? Because we’re getting killed out there. People write me hate mail that cyclists are killing people. There’s been one. At the same time, hundreds of pedestrians have been killed by drivers. Cars inflict death. And these rogue ‘Mad Max’ carting drivers are driving like madmen after hours in the wild west. Close the show! Close the show!”
DiMiceli then told listeners — many of whom were driving cars at that very moment — that Kuntzman would be biking home, and was wearing red.
Brooklyn Paper radio is recorded and podcast live every Tuesday at 4:30 pm — for your convenience — from our studio in America’s Downtown and can be found, as always, right here on Brook