That it’s crazy to open a restaurant has long been received wisdom, but it’s a minor, manageable kind of crazy. Opening a restaurant during a pandemic, however, demands next-level craziness. You have to be unflappable, resolute, unifocal and, oh yes —
"Obsessed," said Hunter Wells, one of these crazy people. "You have to be obsessed."
For most of his 32 years, chef Wells, a native of Old Westbury, has displayed symptoms of what might be termed "normal" crazy: a desire since childhood to open his own eatery, the careful honing of skills, a tireless work ethic, kitchen apprenticeships, and later the courting of backers and hiring of Locust Valley designers Bentel & Bentel to bring his vision to life. The end result of all the years spent dreaming and laboring and building would be Hunter the Restaurant, and it would open … in February 2020. Womp-womp.
When Hunter the Restaurant met corona the virus, Wells’ only choice, it seemed, was to postpone his life’s work, which he did, but only till last fall, when he was overtaken by the second kind of crazy and decided it was time to "put some skin in the game." While everyone else was talking second waves and dark winters, he installed sanitizers and MERV filters in the ventilation system. He printed disposable menus, found employees willing to submit to temperature checks daily, and fill out questionnaires daily, and be cross-trained so his restaurant could stay open if someone tested positive for COVID. He rented a tent, ventilated the tent, heated the tent.
"I would describe myself as a fire-starter rather than a fire-tender," said Wells, "and I’ve always wanted to take the risk and carve out my own path." In November, the curtain finally went up on his French-inspired upscale bistro in East Norwich.
It turns out he wasn’t the only one who was crazy. So were the diners, who knew the risks but came anyway as word spread of Wells’ straightforward approach to classic dishes like steak frites, bouillabaisse and paella, his careful attention to duck a l’orange. ("The leg really wants to be confited and the breast really wants to be medium-rare.")
The food writer, also crazy, dined in the relative safety of the tent but couldn’t help wandering inside and watching the restaurant’s guests who, notwithstanding the requisite plastic shields, clearly loved the gorgeous tan dining room, with its parenthesis-shaped banquettes, cavelike walnut slatted ceiling and cone-shaped pendant lights floating over the space like escapees from a Japanese lantern festival. He especially appreciated the curvy swank of the onyx stone bar, making a mental note to return for a cocktail there, probably a negroni, when cavorting at bars is possible again. Someday. In the meantime, he and the patrons and Wells would do their level best to pretend, at least for one night, that everything hadn't changed, that no real danger existed. By mutual agreement, they'd decided to speak of his restaurant as Hunter did, as a "challenge," a "pleasure," a "launchpad." All did their part to ensure that someone’s dream could still come true during this most nightmarish of times.
In mid-January, a few employees at the restaurant tested positive for COVID-19, at which time the talk turned to contact tracing, quarantines, deep cleaning, a skeleton crew and finally, closing the doors for a few days. "We’ll be back soon!" read the Facebook post announcing the restaurant’s reopening the following Friday. "We’ll be back soon!" it said after Friday came and went, and the date was pushed back again. Still, no one doubted that the bistro would return, and at the earliest opportunity. Too many of us still believe in Hunter’s dream.
"I’m optimistic that we can reopen safely," said Wells. That didn't sound like a crazy idea at all, not to those who were as crazy as him.
Hunter the Restaurant is at 1053 Oyster Bay Rd. in East Norwich, 516-624-8330, hunterrestaurant.com. Opening hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday from 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Monday.