There’s no denying it: Ours is a golden age for decommissioned Friendly’s. The last few years have seen the ice cream restaurants re-imagined variously as a Brownstones Coffee (East Northport, 2018), Salvatore’s (Hampton Bays, 2019), Slice of Bay Shore (2019-2021), Haunted House of Hamburgers (Farmingdale, 2022), Hilltop Kitchen & Bar (Syosset, TBA) and even a Bank of America (Levittown, 2020).
“We wanted to create a clean look, so we started with a white box with a concrete floor,” said Nicolas Geeraerts, leading a tour of his Tulum Tacos & Tequila, whose bold and beautiful dining room immediately announces it as among the Island’s most exciting recent openings, besides a spectacular second act for the Friendly’s in Mineola. The 85-seat charmer is shot through with splashes of green, blue, yellow and orange, along with a host of eye-catching elements, from its farmhouse-style kitchen door hand-carved in Turkey and several species of tile — including a particularly attractive black and white star-shaped variety at the bar — to its wild, artful use of faux-greenery along one wall, rattan pendant lights, smaller ceramic ones and signs like “exhale stress, inhale tacos” in neon cursive. And then there’s the room-dividing dreamcatcher and jaw-dropping four-foot sugar skull made of bottle caps, both the work of Geeraerts’ wife, Jenique Nijboer, who is also an art teacher in Carle Place. A 45-seat outdoor area will reflect a similar "jungalow-chic aesthetic," as Tulum’s press materials put it, when the patio opens next spring.
“I wanted to do something a little lighter, a little more feminine,” explained Geeraerts, expressly avoiding both the dark, heavy “clay kind of feeling” of some Mexican establishments, and the chaotic “graffiti and street art” of others. Tulum has an assuredness about it, and in Geeraerts’ voice one detects not the self-doubt typical of a 42-year-old first-time restaurateur, which he is, but the confidence of an old pro, which he also is.
You see, Geeraerts grew up on a horse farm in a small town in Belgium, and with a mother whose penchant for “always entertaining people” led her to open first a cafeteria on the premises and then a steakhouse when he was a teenager. Love brought him to Long Island — Nijboer is a native — and he found server gigs at Roosevelt Field and Besito in Huntington, and later managerial jobs in the city, where he worked with such culinary luminaries as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Todd English, and later helped create the Pennsy food hall in midtown. An unabashed multitasker for whom opening a Mexican restaurant is apparently not enough, Geeraerts is also the current VP of operations for JF restaurants (whose portfolio includes North Fork Table & Inn) and is working with another company building a food hall in Montreal.
Back to Tulum, where the fare is as attractive and unique as the décor: From a jicama crudo ($16) dressed with paper-thin shavings of grapefruit, navel orange, little circles of serrano chilies and edible pansy flowers that’s almost too pretty to eat, to a tongue-twirling burrata served in a moat of poblano pesto and topped with pomegranate seeds ($18), to a wonderful chayote milanesa ($18) in which squash pieces are dredged in a buttermilk slurry, quick-fried and finished with avocado and lemon crema. Housemade tortillas set the stage for tequila shrimp tacos drizzled with a scrumptious chipotle cream ($21 for 3), while the pork al pastor is topped with an elegant pineapple pico de gallo ($20). Similarly fresh, bright and simple are the margaritas, including a lime, agave and Cazadores Blanco house version and another flavored with hibiscus syrup steeped in-house (both $16), while watermelon and grapefruit juices join forces with Altos Reposado to produce a fine pink peppercorn paloma ($17).
While Tulum will only be open for dinner and happy hour through the end of the year, Geeraerts hopes to add a takeout window and weekend brunch service in January, followed by lunch in the spring. As launch plans go, it’s as well thought out and confident in its approach as the design, menu and everything else, something not unexpected from a man who has opened no fewer than 15 restaurants in his career. Still, there’s no use pretending this one isn’t special.
“This is my own money, this is my baby, this is down the block from where my son grew up,” Geeraerts said. “This is all us.”
Tulum Tacos & Tequila is at 230 Jericho Tpke. in Mineola, 516-246-9499, tulumta.co. Opening hours are Sunday through Thursday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.