New food and drink spots usher tasty Rockaway revival

The storm surge through Rockaway Beach Boulevard swept away much with it — including local businesses, from the Cuts Color Curl salon to the Beer House. Into the void, some of the coastal enclave’s more entrepreneurial residents have found the year following the storm to be the perfect time to make big investments in their fragile community.

On Rockaway Beach Boulevard near the intersection with Beach 92 Street, not far from MoMA PS1’s dome, Uma’s, a warm Uzbek restaurant with exposed brick walls, opened its doors on July 23.

Two blocks away, Sayra’s Wine Bar, a dark candle-lit bar with handcrafted wood-paneled walls, opened June 21.

Conrad Karl and his wife opened Uma's restaurant in Rockaway Beach, in the wake of superstorm Sandy. Photo: Emmanuel Felton

Conrad Karl and his wife opened Uma’s restaurant in Rockaway Beach, in the wake of superstorm Sandy. Photo: Claire Moses

While the fledgling businesses’ owners had the inspiration before the storm, they say that building the kind of Rockaways they had dreamed of became central to their business plans after the storm passed.

“The storm allowed us to move ahead with this project,” said Conrad Karl, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife Uma, who is Uzbeki, “because a space became available that we really liked.” The storefront previously belonged to a martial arts school.

Two blocks away, Patrick Flibotte, 34, and his partner and Rockaway native Rashida Jackson first secured the space for Sayra’s in August 2012, two months before the storm. “We got together because I’m an artist who can build stuff and she knows how to do all the boring business stuff,” Flibotte said.

Flibotte and Jackson had just starting building their bar when Sandy struck. They were initially worried that the landlord might terminate the lease, but Flibotte said all three were even more inspired after the storm to see the bar come to be.

“The storm almost motivates you to work harder,” said Flibotte. After Sandy, Flibotte built everything — every table, every chair, including those in the establishment’s backyard — that now stands in the bar. He poured the concrete floor that he designed to slope into a drain in the middle of the room and built the chairs, which are numbered because each is crafted for a specific spot of the inclined floor.

The wooden surfboard holder outside Uma’s attests to both businesses’ core audience: surfers. Both Karl and Flibotte were initially drawn to the area by their love of surfing.

“I surfed here through my twenties, gave it up in my thirties, and decided in my early forties to move back,” said Karl who has lived on the peninsula with his wife and their eight year old daughter since 2008.

“I’m a surfer and I wanted to create a place where the surfing community feels comfortable,” said Karl.

“People who grew up here ask us surfers why we are here,” said Flibotte. “It’s the most beautiful place in the world and its 45 minutes from the greatest city in the world, except maybe Paris, and with world-class surfing.”

The Rockaways was a great place before, Filbotte added, but its dining scene was dominated by Irish pubs. “The surfing community was looking for a cool place to hang out with like minded people that care about the earth,” he said.

Karl and Flibotte have both worked hard to build a community vibe, greeting each customer, many of them by their first names. In one instance, Karl ran after a customer to shake his hand and say goodbye.

Karl thinks locals are drawn to Uma’s, which offers a cuisine that many residents are not familiar with, because they “have good food at good prices.” Entrees range from $5 to $9.

Flibotte contends that the storm has made the community stronger. “The people who are still here,” he said, “they are here to stay.”

While both Sayra’s and Uma’s grew out of the surfing community, the owners also hope that their businesses will unite the long-divided peninsula.

“We are trying to bridge the gap between the rich people on that side and the poor people on that side,” said Flibotte, pointing to the east and west ends of the peninsula. “White people on that side and the black people on that side.”

He said he and Jackson hoped Sarya’s would become a meeting place in the middle.

Karl likewise said, “Our goal was to pay attention to the people of the Rockaways from the West End to the East.”

An evening at Uma's. Photo: Emmanuel Felton

An evening at Uma’s. Photo: Claire Moses

During the Sunday dinner rush at Uma’s most of the clientele appeared to come from the whiter west side of the peninsula. Sayra’s crowd was more mixed.

Both owners said they feel confident that they will survive the lull between the summer tourist seasons.

“Ninety percent of our customers are Rockaway residents,” Karl said. He added that they had set a new record, selling 95 shish kebabs in one night during a late October Saturday.

“I think the word is getting out,” said Karl. “We are getting [customers] from Breezy Point, Belle Harbor and all up and down the Rockaways.”

Sayra’s, which opened a month earlier than Uma’s, saw a bump in business during the summer, according to Flibotte. Karl says Uma’s was not as lucky.

“We didn’t get the Williamsburg crowd,” said Karl, pointing to the hip Brooklyn community that delivers beachgoers by the busload. “But maybe next summer.”

In the meantime, he expects to have more company from other establishments soon.

“We got a slightly better deal,” he said of his rent post-Sandy, but “people have seen our success and now prices are creeping up.”

A prior version of this story incorrectly described Rockaway as both an island and a peninsula. 

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