On a sunny June afternoon in Freeport, the potted palms at Bracco's Clam & Oyster Bar sway gently in the breeze. In the canal beyond the tables on Bracco's deck, the Freeport Princess party boat motors its way toward the bay. The cruise ship passengers wave at the clam bar's customers; the customers wave in return.
It's good to be back on the Nautical Mile.
A mile-long stretch with 15 restaurants and bars, seafood markets and gift shops, the Nautical Mile runs alongside the Woodcleft Canal and was pretty much wiped out by superstorm Sandy in October. Remarkably, almost every venue reopened by Memorial Day.
On weekends, restaurants are full, indoors and out, with folks ordering generous portions of steamed lobsters, linguine and clam sauce, nut-crusted salmon and dozens of clams on the half shell.
Bret Scesa and his family had come over to Bracco's from Island Park in their new boat "Go With the Flow." After losing their home first to Irene and then to Sandy, they selected a name that reflects the attitude they have been forced to adopt. "A week after we put the boat in the water, we came to the Nautical Mile," Scesa said. "I knew the Mile would come back. This place just has the spirit."
The sense of triumph is echoed by the message scrawled on the blackboard at Bamboo Bar and Grill: "Bamboo is Back! Sandy Who?"
In fact, all but two restaurants -- The Schooner and Bonito Hibachi -- have reopened, and the 2013 season greets three newcomers: the waterside lounges, The Tides and Wet, and the seafood restaurant Hudsons on the Mile, which takes over for Hudson & McCoy.
The loss of the Schooner is a real blow to its longtime fans. In the wake of the storm, the massive, 350-seat restaurant was deemed unsafe. It sits vacant (and for sale) at the southern edge of the canal looking out over the islands of Middle Bay and Long Beach beyond. "I used to take my dad there a few times a year," recalled Darcia Padilla of Garden City. "It was a place where older people felt comfortable, and he loved to watch the boats."
With the Schooner gone, Padilla and her family were dining at Rachel's Waterside Grill, one of the Mile's more ambitious New American spots, which underwent a complete renovation. "We took on about 21/2 feet of water," said owner Ivan Sayles. "We lost everything in the kitchen and in the dining room, so we took the opportunity to remodel."Sayles replaced windows overlooking the water with two enormous glass panels, giving the dining room a sleek, updated look.
A modern update wasn't an option for Otto's Sea Grill. The oldest restaurant on the Nautical Mile was inundated with more than 51/2 feet of water, and both the kitchen and dining room were completely destroyed, according to third-generation owner Ilona Jagnow. "We're rebuilding, but we're keeping true to our 84-year-old legacy," she said. "We want to stay with that old-fashioned nautical look." For now, Otto's is serving a limited menu in the 85 seats on the deck. Jagnow hopes to have the 100-seat indoor dining room ready for July 1, at which point the kitchen will go into high gear, turning out classic seafood dishes, steaks and, pasta.
Another historic eatery that took a beating was the Woodcleft Crabshack. "We had more than 5 feet of water," said Andy Drosinos, who owns the 35-year-old restaurant with his father, George. Not only did they lose all the furniture and equipment, but much of the memorabilia that hung on the walls. "My father used to be a maitre d' in Manhattan, at the Empire Room, the Copacabana. We lost a lot of those old photos."
The pre-Sandy Crabshack was a charming amalgam of nautical and Hellenic kitsch, an old-fashioned decor that went perfectly with the menu of simple seafood classics (including fried Ipswich clams). The refurbished restaurant is still a bit stark. "We wanted it to be a little bit simpler," Drosinos said, "but I have a lot of stuff still to do."
During the seven months the Crabshack was closed, Drosinos kept in touch with his customers via Facebook. "I figured we might change the menu," he said, "so I put it out there that I was tinkering." The response was swift and sure: "'Don't make any changes,' people said. 'Just come back.'"
What's reopened along Freeport's Nautical Mile
E.B. ELLIOT'S, 23 Woodcleft Ave.: E.B. Elliot's offers three stories of water views, plus a canal-side deck.
NAUTILUS CAFE, 46 Woodcleft Ave.: Across the street from the water, and more focused on food than drink, Nautilus is a dependable destination for fish.
WOODCLEFT CRABSHACK,150 Woodcleft Ave.: Established in 1978 by George Drosinos (and now run by George and his son Andy), the Crabshack serves up all the seafood classics, including fried Ipswich clams.
THE BAMBOO BAR AND GRILL, 153 Woodcleft Ave.: Open-air bar with a mini-beach.
RIVER HOUSE GRILLE, 195A Woodcleft Ave.: On Thursdays, River House has a 2-for-1 special: Order a steamed or grilled lobster, or clams or oysters on the half shell, and get a second order free.
JC COVE, 229 Woodcleft Ave.: Waterfront bar-restaurant with seafood menu.
JEREMY'S ALE HOUSE, 239 Woodcleft Ave.:
Venerable waterfront bar with about two dozen beers on tap (and more in bottles).
HURRICANE HARRY'S, 245 Woodcleft Ave.: Casual waterfront restaurant-tiki bar.
OTTO'S SEA GRILL, 271 Woodcleft Ave.: Established in 1929, Otto's is the oldest restaurant on the Nautical Mile. While the interior is undergoing reconstruction, lunch and dinner are served on the expansive desk.
RACHEL'S WATERSIDE GRILL, 281 Woodcleft Ave.: One of the more ambitious restaurants along the Nautical Mile. Lunch and dinner served.
BRACCO'S CLAM & OYSTER BAR, 319 Woodcleft Ave.: A casual waterside seafood bar under the same ownership as Captain Ben's Fish Market just next door.
TROPIX, 395 Woodcleft Ave.: A vast, outdoor lounge with a limited menu and a tropical vibe.
THE TIDES, 43 Woodcleft Ave.: Waterfront bar.
WET WATERFRONT DINING LOUNGE, 103 Woodcleft Ave.: Dining, drinking, music and mingling (emphasis on the latter three) on the water.
HUDSONS ON THE MILE, 340 Woodcleft Ave.: The successor to Hudson & McCoy, this well-appointed seafood restaurant offers indoor and outdoor dining.