Via The New York Times, written by Liz Robbins:
As the early-evening sun blazed, the old Navy boat gently pushed into the East River and the 32 passengers were mindfully served cocktails, wine in tumblers and beer in cans. Life aboard the Revolution eased to two knots.
“In New York, we’re so fast-paced,” said Erik Gerlach, 37, a Brooklyn architect relaxing with his wife, Josa, in the cabin of the floating restaurant, the Water Table. “This is a way to slow down. When you’re in the moment, you want to make it last longer.”
In New York this summer, the artisanal meets the nautical, as a group of floating restaurants have claimed what had been uncharted territory in New York’s culinary world.
The ventures vary from a modest New England tavern to a French-Caribbean oyster bar to a three-deck lobster shack. But their challenges have been similar: They all had to navigate bureaucracy, bad weather and boat plumbing in an effort to redefine the dinner cruise.
The newest of the boat-restaurants does not actually leave the dock: Grand Banks, an oyster bar on the Sherman Zwicker, a 142-foot schooner tied up at the end of Pier 25 in the shadow of One World Trade Center in TriBeCa, will stay through October before it sails south.
With a capacity of 160 people, Grand Banks is envisioned as the Balthazar of boats, said Alex Pincus, who founded the Atlantic Yachting School on the Upper West Side with his brother, Miles, before selling it and founding Grand Banks with two other partners. Witness the $16 cocktails, the French bistro bar stools, the zinc and mahogany bars and the windswept patrons on a recent weekday afternoon, including the actress Marisa Tomei, ignoring the pitching waves.
The fashionable scene belied the travails below deck. “The challenge was not the idea,” Mr. Pincus said. “The challenge was making it happen.”
First, they had to find the right ship. When they found the Sherman Zwicker in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, the Pincus brothers established their own maritime education foundation to persuade the owner to donate the boat. As a museum, it cannot take passengers cruising, however, and that necessitated the right dock for seasonal mooring.
Because city construction foiled plans for a spot at East River State Park in Williamsburg, the group negotiated with Hudson River Park. The opening was originally scheduled for July 3, but storms delayed it until July 4. On the boat’s second day of operation, it ran out of oysters, and Mr. Pincus furiously called in favors for a rush weekend shipment.
Then, a couple of days later a pipe burst on the 72-year-old boat and there was no running water.
Still, the demand for $3.50 oysters and $17 fluke crudo remained strong.
“This is basically the grown-up version of the Frying Pan,” said Golnar Nassiri, 34, out with her husband on a recent evening. Ms. Nassiri, like others that night, could not help making comparisons to the Frying Pan, the lightship boat permanently docked at Pier 66, infused with a fraternity party vibe.
“I feel like I’m in the Hamptons or something,” said Matthew Glass, 53, drinking wine with his friend Ken Clark, 56, after their rides in spandex biking shorts — a bit underdressed, they acknowledged.
They might have felt more at home aboard the North River Lobster Company’s vessel, a former gambling boat called the Destiny, which is run by New York Cruise Lines, the parent company that also owns the Circle Line.
The idea is to take the usual dockside lobster shack — complete with lobster rolls ($16), peel-and-eat shrimp ($10) and one-and-one-quarter-pound Maine lobsters ($29) served on paper plates — and include free cruises. Mason jar cocktails run $12, and a bucket of beer is $24.
“When we started this thing, we didn’t know what we were going to get,” said Jason Hackett, the chief marketing officer for New York Cruise Lines, who said that because of the harsh winter, the crew had only two months to prepare for the late-April opening. “We were targeting New Yorkers, and thank goodness that’s what we got. People are really digging just being on the water.”
Jamie deRoy, 68, a producer, and her friend Sandra McFarland, 52, working in insurance, took a late lobster lunch. “I got some coupons in the mail and I thought it would be fun to try it,” Ms. McFarland said.
They had an array of raw bar selections, corn on the cob and the Maine attraction.
Like the other patrons, they had ordered their food and drinks on the enclosed second deck (air-conditioned) and taken a wooden buoy with a number. They sat on the top deck with picnic tables and white and red trash cans, as Top 40 radio crackled and Columbia Business School students celebrated the end of exams.
With three long blasts of the horn, the ship backed out of Pier 81 for one of its 35-minute jaunts up the Hudson, turning around at 72nd Street, almost over before it had really begun.
“That’s O.K.,” Ms. deRoy said, her long silver hair flowing in the wind. “It’s the gimmick.”
Of the three, the Water Table has been operating the longest. It opened in December and ran until ice clogged the East River and a ferry walkway collapsed in February at Greenpoint’s India Street Pier, where it had been docking. The boat resumed East River service in April from a seaplane dock at the Skyport on East 23rd Street. Kelli Farwell and Sue Walsh have spent their first year of marriage starting the business, dogged in their dream that began in 2011 on an East River ferry ride.
It was then that Ms. Farwell, a former wine director at Brooklyn’s DuMont, Dressler and Rye, who trained at Gramercy Tavern and Craft, decided to get her captain’s license. That led to the dinner boat idea.
“It would be very simple — just good ingredients, New England tavern food, on the water,” Ms. Farwell added.
In late 2012, the couple launched an Internet campaign, raising $26,956. After the purchase of a tugboat in Michigan fell through, the couple found a 62-foot Navy yard patrol craft, the Revolution, working as a tour boat in Boston in 2013. The ride back through Buzzard’s Bay in May was so rough, Ms. Walsh recalled, she thought they might not make it back for their June wedding.
Today she serves as first mate, filling in as server and deckhand, and designing the website and the menus, in addition to her full-time job as a graphic designer. A photo of Ms. Walsh’s grandfather, a former Navy lieutenant, hangs on the wall, with other vintage artifacts, maps and photos.
Ms. Farwell, 42, learned how to do many of the repairs herself, with help from YouTube. “You’re making changes to the wine list, and then you have to rewire a pump, and then you’re making the salad dressing,” she said.
Because of the 80 hours a week that her wife spends on the boat, Ms. Walsh, 35, has a cocktail named after her: “Captain’s Widow.”
The boat offers two-and-a-half-hour dinner cruises Thursday through Saturday, offering three courses for $75; a two-hour Sunday supper ($50) is just two courses: lobster mac and cheese or panzanella salad, followed by a root beer float.
On a recent Sunday night, a group of friends had booked passage to celebrate Lara Naaman’s 40th birthday. As the boat motored under the Roosevelt Island Bridge, the revelers made their way to the top deck to snap photos of the city skyline, as Stevie Nicks, George Michael and Bruce Springsteen played over the sound system. The Revolution went as far up as the northern tip of Roosevelt Island, until dinner was served, and then it turned back south.
As the boat pulled close to the dock, the Journey song “Don’t Stop Believing” came on. Passengers cheered wildly and honked their birthday horns.
Ms. Walsh smiled and looked for the captain.
“That’s our theme song,” she said.