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Port Washington catering venue H on the Harbor pivots to restaurant service 

H on the Harbor owner Alan Feinstein talks

H on the Harbor owner Alan Feinstein talks about pivoting his Port Washington catering hall to a restaurant after the coronavirus pandemic dampened large parties. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Alan Feinstein didn’t expect much when, late last year, he turned his Port Washington catering venue, H on the Harbor, into a restaurant. "We were opening a new restaurant in a remote location in the middle of a pandemic," he recalled. "Does that sound like a good idea?"

Apparently, it is. He is only open on Friday and Saturday nights but, since December, he’s been busy, particularly with repeat business. "We have people who make a reservation as soon as they finish dinner," he said. "One couple has a standing table each week."

The sleek, modern space, which used to handle 160 party guests, now accommodates 10 private "cabanas," each enclosed by heavy drapes suspended from the ceiling and equipped with its own air purifier with a HEPA filter and UV light. The restaurant seats 36 people at one time, and each cabana is sprayed down between parties.

Dining here for the second time in late February, Ermo Bonavitacola of Port Washington said "this is my safe space. Before we came for the first time, I hadn’t been out to eat since March. I was petrified, I told my family, ‘if I feel unsafe, we’re turning around.’"

Feinstein said that social media and word-of-mouth have drawn customers to his Main Street location, about a mile west of Port Washington's downtown. His zeal to provide a COVID-safe environment is rooted in his own experience. Currently in remission for cancer, the immunocompromised 65-year-old says he is doing nothing more than "making an environment in which I feel safe."

Like all of the catering industry, H on the Harbor shut down completely in March 2020. In May, Feinstein and executive chef Dan Carey "got on the bandwagon" with takeout, offering meals to go for Mother’s Day, Memorial Day and Father’s Day. That turned out to be a nonstarter: "It wasn’t profitable," he said. "We’re not set up to do trays of pasta."

In the beginning of November, Carey said "why don’t we do a restaurant here?" Initially, Feinstein demurred. Before he bought H on the Harbor in 2006, he’d spent decades in the hospitality industry — director of food and beverage at Fairmont Hotels, director of catering at Ritz Carlton, vice president-general manager of Carlyle on the Green (now Heritage Club at Bethpage) in Farmingdale — and he had avoided the restaurant sector which was seen as more capricious and uncertain.

Now, the tables were turned. Even more surprising than the idea’s success is how much Feinstein has come to enjoy this late-career challenge. "My family told me I was crazy," he recalled, "but it keeps me creative, and that has really helped me this past year."

Once he and Carey hit upon the idea of draped cabanas, their imaginations ran wild. Each has its own character: an intimate cabana for two with a fireplace, a convivial cabana for four with its own video screen. The biggest cabana, accommodating up to 10 people, is only partially draped as it occupies the front of the restaurant, with its west-facing window overlooking (across the street) Manhasset Bay. Diners can adjust their own cabana’s lighting and, to read menus in dimmer light, there are tiny goose-necked reading lights hidden in the flower arrangements.

Compared to the dining room, the kitchen needed very little rejiggering. "Even though we are a caterer, we don’t own any chafing dishes," Feinstein said. "We had always served in the style of a restaurant." That’s selling himself short: The platings at H on the Harbor are among the most creative I’ve seen. On the night I visited, a cast-iron-seared filet mignon was served under a glass dome into which hickory smoke had been pumped; smoke billowed out when it was ceremoniously removed. A grilled cheese sandwich-inspired starter of cheese wontons was accompanied by smoked-tomato bisque served in a repurposed Campbell’s soup container.

Food is wheeled to the table on a butcher block cart lit by tiny pin lights for better Instagram results. Ever the showman, Feinstein will offer to reheat a cooled-down chop with a handheld butane torch. A dish garnished with lemons comes with a lemon squeezer "so people don’t mess up their manicures."

The menu changes every week, but always comprises about 10 starters ($10 to $18) and eight mains ($29 to $42, plus $70 for a 38-ounce Tomahawk prime rib).

On Jan. 29, the state announced that caterers could reopen if they limited their capacity to 50%. For the time being, Feinstein is sticking with the restaurant. "For a guy like me," he said, "reopening as a caterer means 75 people and a lot of headaches."

State guidelines for "In-Person and Catered Events" runs to four pages and requires the caterer to notify the county health department about any event larger than 50 people, to collect contact information from each guest, to ensure that all guests have received a negative COVID test result, to make sure guests sit at their assigned seats and dance only with members of their households — and at least six feet away from other dancing households. Plus dozens of other regulations.

With the exception of a few parties coming up in May and June that were booked last year, Feinstein said, "until we can do parties of 140, 150 people, we’re going to operate as a restaurant." Even after the pandemic subsides, he’s considering making the pivot permanent.His latest idea: Finding a second location for catering and making H on the Harbor 100% restaurant.

H on the Harbor is at 410 Main St., Port Washington, 516-883-0091, hontheharbor.com

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