The city’s only “New England tavern that floats” survived a rocky launch, and eyes a profitable horizon

A late afternoon northern wind was fetching up small pieces of paper and sand and whirling them into dust devils at the Skyport Marina terminal at the end of 23rd St. in Manhattan on this early-June Saturday. The gathering breeze was making a meal of the hairdos on a phalanx of impossibly-tight-skirted and high-heeled booze cruise attendees and their dates, waiting in a quivering and gathering line past the old Gulf terminal parking garage to board a blocky, charmless-looking charter boat. A little further north up the chain link fence that guards the river, a woman sporting an almost comically oversized English accent was guiding a very different line of Armani, Dolce&Gabbana, and Zegna-clad passengers onto a four-deck yacht that looked dangerously large for its slip, and just next to them, about a dozen men in work clothes were loading construction equipment onto a barge. This cross-cultural scrum, fascinating to watch, was spiced by a huddled group of about two dozen who seemed to be of some indeterminate, middle type, clustered around a cosmetic boulder, many looking not unpleasantly lost.

“Is this the line for The Water Table?” asked a mid-20s man with shoulder-length hair and beard—beamed, it seems, directly from Grand St. in Williamsburg.

“I’m not sure,” I replied. “All the lines seem to begin around here, but I was told we’d get a shout-out at some point.”

Just a few minutes after 7:30, and as the booze cruise line was dissipating at last, a wiry woman in knee-length green shorts and a Boston Red Sox cap motioned for us all to follow her.

“Things are going to get busy in a hurry, so I won’t have much of an opportunity to chat, but I just wanted to introduce myself. I’m Kelli,” she said to me while mother duckling our group of about 30 up the gangplank to board a vessel poetically unsuited to the mega charter yacht environs.

The Revolution is a 62-foot Yard Patrol boat, originally built for the U.S. Navy in 1944. Used to instruct cadets in seamanship and navigation, it sits squat on the water, and though certainly not large, its 18-foot beam provides remarkable stability. Purchased by Kelli Farwell and her wife Sue Walsh as the seat of an unconventional business, the Revolution is now the city’s only New England style tavern… that floats. Though with an upper-deck section ideal for sightseeing, the heart of the boat is its remarkably capacious saloon section, retrofitted by Farwell and Walsh to be an assembly of light wood-toned dining tables and chairs, along with a custom built bar near the bow.

GP SPREAD

“Kelli has an extensive background in hospitality, and she also has her 100-ton captain’s license,” explained Walsh. “We thought this would be a rare opportunity to start a business that was able to take advantage of that pretty unique skill set.”

Daunted by the prospect of opening a restaurant in traditional city style, and after examining various possibilities of that business type, the two found themselves quickly shifting their gaze to the sea.

Naming their new enterprise The Water Table, the partners were determined to have it embrace a threefold mission: provide a singular city water experience that no party cruise could match, reject the high-volume revenue structure in favor of intimacy and customer interaction, and source their ingredients creatively and locally.

“I would never want to open a restaurant on land in the city, actually, because it’s just impossibly competitive, and it feels as though everything has just really been done,” said Walsh. “I don’t know where entry points would be to do something on land, but this… this is different.”

Originally launching its Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night cruises from the India Street ferry terminal in Greenpoint, the business was forced to relocate temporarily to Manhattan while its Brooklyn docking area is repaired after being damaged in February. And while Walsh admitted that logistics and environmental considerations have weighed heavy (particularly in the form of an opening attempt in winter suspended by “too much ice in the East River,” as she explained), the Manhattan terminal has proved a decent substitute, and capacity crowds are forming now that the weather has taken a gentler turn.

The Water Table’s three-course menu is spare, but interesting. A choice of meat, fish, or vegetarian entrée is offered, as well as a choice between two appetizers, and two or three flavors of ice cream floats for dessert. The bar, too, is an adventure in satisfying minimalism, with all the requisite types on hand, though lacking in the scope and breadth of a typical pub. Crabcakes, potato leek soup, and Italian sausages were available as entrée possibilities in June, but all those choices will have changed by the time summer begins, Walsh explained.

“In July, we’ll have lobster rolls, barbecued chicken with a New England Maple sauce that we are working on right now, and then a traditional panzanella salad for our vegetarian option. For appetizers, there’ll be a chilled cucumber soup and our variation on a wedge salad, though we will continue with ice cream floats for dessert.” Walsh added that the renowned Hancock lobster of Maine will be providing main course fodder, and that meat products are courtesy of Fleischer’s in Park Slope, a distinction she offered with noticeable pride.

The nearly three-hour Saturday cruise was essentially a back-and-forth survey of the East River, as the breeze made open water slightly unsuitable for dining, but with an aged tequila in hand on the al fresco upper deck (the interior sections can get pretty noisy at full capacity), and a sunset to contemplate, there was scarce reason for a sense of monotony to set in.

“You just have to get a picture of that,” offered Jim, a deckhand who was making sure, among other things, that passengers didn’t trip down the vertiginous half stairwell to the dining area. Motioning to a giant, pumpkin-colored moon rising on the eastern Brooklyn skyline, he explained that after an eight-year corporate career, working for a business this unique was an opportunity he felt crazy passing on. “To work on the water…watch people having a ball, and see sights like that. It’s very hard to complain.”

Ultimately, the goal is to operate the business for ten months out of the year, for Farwell to be able to remove herself from the kitchen to take over the captain’s chair full-time, and to return embarking operations to Brooklyn when dock services are restored, but for the moment, the partners are happy with customer interest levels, and content to at least occasionally look upon the new business with self-congratulation.

“We, of course, have all the challenges of a typical restaurant, and then there is a 70-year-old vessel to attend to,” Walsh said, smiling. “It’s beautiful, and rugged, but a wooden hull requires a lot of work, and feeding this number of people out of a small galley is a real task for Kelli and her prep cook, but we are actually making this happen. After a winter that seemed to be without end, we are seeing the sun.”

 

The Water Table
Departs Skyport Marina, 23rd St & FDR Dr. / thewatertablenyc.com