GOVERNORS ISLAND’S ONLY STANDALONE RESTAURANT SETS THE BAR HIGH…AND RIGHT ON THE WATER
BY CHRISTINE SIRACUSA
Island Oyster, the sprawling, 32,000-square-foot oyster bar on Governors Island, happened almost too quickly.
“The Trust For Governors Island put out a request for bids for someone to do something, anything, on our current site, which at the time was just a parking lot like patch of asphalt,” recalled co-owner Alex Pincus. “We applied on a whim at the end of last January, not thinking we would win. But in February, the trust let us know they wanted us. We worked out a deal by April, started construction in May, and opened at the beginning of July. It was a whirlwind.”
Happily, there was a wealth of waterfront enterprise experience to draw from. Alex and his brother, Miles, own two floating restaurants in New York City and confirm that the process of finding a waterfront space in our burg is typically never this easy. About finding a location for Pilot a bar/restaurant on a vintage boat docked at the Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier Pincus states, “Not long after opening Grand Banks [their other boat sited eatery, this one docked at Hudson River Park’s Pier 25], we approached the team at Brooklyn Bridge Park. They were very receptive to the idea of us bringing a historic ship to the park, but it took a quite a while to figure out the right place… and the right boat. Then we had a few construction delays on the infrastructure side that pushed the project from 2016 to 2017, then from May to August. From our first conversations to opening, it took just over three years, but in the end we could not be happier with how it played out.”
Grand Banks and Pilot are both housed in and on wooden vessels with rich seafaring histories. The former calls Sherman Zwicker home built in 1942 in Nova Scotia and designed to fish the Grand Banks. In the latter’s nearly 100year history, according to the restaurant site, “Pilot has led many lives: as a contender to be the fastest sailboat in the world, as the country’s longest serving pilot ship, as a ferry for soldiers in World War II, and as a research vessel that circumnavigated the world twice.”
While Island Oyster isn’t technically floating, it’s close. The raw experience of the river and the view of Manhattan rising from just beyond the airy footprint is immediate and powerful. There’s no glass…no fence between diners and the urban horizon. In this way, the Pincus brothers have managed to create an immersive dining experience that is devoid of all the typically cringe worthy elements that accompany that phrase. There are no actors wearing period costumes and speaking loudly in newly acquired accents. The seagulls aren’t out of central casting, either, and well may steal your lobster roll if you aren’t vigilant. And the wind is just as likely to blow a sunhat into the water as it is to move locks gently around a sun kissed face. This is real life, not a drinks and dining theme park.
Island Oyster is unique from Pilot and Grand Banks in that one must take a ferry to get there, but to this reviewer, that’s sauce for the goose: New Yorkers live on the water, but very few of us actually feel connected to it. A couple of hours on Governor’s Island is a welcome refresher.
All three of the Pincus brothers’ restaurants fall under the term “seasonal oyster bar,” but their respective menus also offer lobster rolls, chowders, and even hot dogs for the kids. The bars boast Prosecco on tap, rosé by the glass, and seasonally inspired cocktail programs. (One wonders if turnover is ever a problem for these guys because, frankly, they aren’t offering much incentive to leave.)
When talking about seafood, the subject of sustainability is bound to arise an issue that’s close to Executive Chef Kerry Heffernan’s heart.
“It’s absolutely both a passion and a mission,” Kerry said. “We see ourselves as responsible stewards of seafood, and demand the same from our purveyors. At first, there was pushback from some suppliers when we asked questions like ‘Where is that fish from, exactly?’ and ‘How was it caught?’ Now, when we ask those questions, the people we choose to do business with are ready with the answers. It has simply become a smart business practice, as so many more chefs and retail customers demand to know the provenance of seafood.”
In a further effort toward sustainability, Island Oyster has established a partnership with the Billion Oyster Project, a nonprofit created to restore New York Harbor’s oyster reefs.
“We are interested in operating sustainably on all fronts,” Alex said, “from eliminating waste and plastics, to the choices we make in ingredients, to restoring marine environments. The Billion Oyster Project is a natural partner. In fact, we’ve teamed with them since our first season at Grand Banks from providing oyster shells, to hosting fundraisers, to suspending water quality monitoring stations on our vessels.”
All three restaurants are set to reopen in mid-April.
The Ferry Landing, Governor’s Island / 917.268.0200 / islandoyster.com
Pier 6, Brooklyn Bridge Park / 917.810.8550 / pilotbrooklyn.com
Hudson River Park, Pier 25 / grandbanks.nyc
CORRECTION: In a prior version of this posting, a photograph from biteofthebest.com, since removed, was used without crediting the source. We regret the error.