Riverhead Renaissance

Where some might see a defunct bank building, Dennis McDermott sees a path lined with grapevines, a double-sided fireplace, the marble floor he’s always wanted (but couldn’t afford), a bank vault that doubles as a speakeasy-like cocktail bar and private dining room, and crowds of people lounging outdoors, Palm Springs-style, while supping on tapas, oysters and other casual comestibles.

Dennis McDermott sitting in the Riverhead Project

Where some might see a defunct bank building, Dennis McDermott sees a path lined with grapevines, a double-sided fireplace, the marble floor he’s always wanted (but couldn’t afford), a bank vault that doubles as a speakeasy-like cocktail bar and private dining room, and crowds of people lounging outdoors, Palm Springs-style, while supping on tapas, oysters and other casual comestibles.

This is the Riverhead Project on East Main Street in Riverhead, and McDermott (above)—the restaurateur who opened the Frisky Oyster in 2002, and helped spark the food and drink renaissance in Greenport—likes to describe the future he wants to be part of.  He notes in his immediate vicinity: the new five-story Hyatt, a proposed 14-screen Cineplex going into the old Woolworth building and a proposed performing arts theater downtown. (“The hotel is doing weddings,” he says. “I’ll do the rehearsal dinners. Ka-ching.”) Not to mention the “four solid industries” that draw visitors and locals to Riverhead, including the hospital and satellite medical facilities, the courts, the county offices and the mall just west of town.  “The people are out there,” he says. “They just need a place to come.”

safety deposit boxes in the Riverhead Project

In fact, McDermott imagines customers coming from nearby west-of-the-canal towns (Westhampton, Hampton Bays, Quogue), from his North Fork stomping grounds (McDermott lives in Cutchogue and counts many former restaurant customers from Aquebogue to Orient), and weekend warriors from both forks looking for a pit stop on their evening drive from the city.  The Town of Riverhead has welcomed the enthusiasm, helping McDermott with the permitting and building process, introducing him to his neighbors and citing the venture as evidence of the potential for this downtown area that has struggled to keep businesses open. Nearby, Tweed’s Buffalo Bar and its new sister restaurant, Dark Horse, are thriving, as is Suffolk County Community College’s Bakers Café, run by culinary students.

McDermott, who sold the Frisky Oyster after eight years and his second restaurant, Frisky Oyster Bar, after one season, says he “likes the challenge of a new project.”

“This space is bigger,” he says. “The whole concept is a lot bigger.” Naturally, the local wine region that has driven the long-term renaissance of Riverhead figures prominently into the Riverhead Project. Building on “an inspired wine list,” McDermott has carved out a prominent space for a communal table that will host $30 family-style wine dinners every Tuesday. “We’re the entrance to Long Island wine country,” McDermott says. “We’re going to roll up our sleeves and bask in it.”

The Riverhead Project, 300 East Main Street, Riverhead, 631.284.9300

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Brian is the editor in chief of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.