ATLANTIC CITY — For a year and a half, manager Amy Grabel and owner John Murphy worked to open their vision of a family-friendly pub and event space on Atlantic Avenue in Lower Chelsea called Ryfe.
Grabel labored to refinish the original bar, and fashioned a sign out front with a wooden pallet and faux grassy background. Murphy worked out the details of a complicated liquor license transfer from the old Sherlock’s, a legendarily laissez-faire bar and package store perhaps most mourned in its demise by the underage set.
Ryfe’s long-awaited debut: March 14. By March 16, the party was over.
“It was a year-and-a-half in the making,” Grabel said. "We were open for 48 hours and told on the 16th to shut down. It is a bummer. We’re doing what we can do right now. "
That means takeout and delivery, and packaged goods, and one paid employee, the part-time chef, Derrick Walker, formerly of Amada in Philly.
It’s an enormous contraction of the goal for a gathering spot they’d nurtured for so long: a lively bar of regulars, live music, and events, in a space that can fit up to 150 people.
Now it’s takeout burgers, mostly, and six-packs. The rib eyes that sold so well that first heady weekend now seem beyond most people’s budgets.
“A global pandemic, you don’t necessarily plan for,” Murphy said. “That presented initially some emotional challenges for everybody." He had to even let Grabel go, for now, but she’s coming in to run the place on an unpaid basis, anyway. It’s her baby, too.
“It’s sad," she said. “Our hearts were broken on [that] Monday.”
As unlikely as it seems, Ryfe is not the only new restaurant in the area that opened its doors in the midst of a pandemic. It is, after all, the season when Shore restaurants rush to open and shake out the kinks.
Like Ryfe, the North Beach Cafe & Creamery, just down Atlantic Avenue in Ventnor, also managed to open its doors for the first time last month, after spending six months renovating an old liquor store.
But it was five days after restaurants were ordered not to serve in-house.
And so, at the corner of Atlantic and Little Rock Avenues, John Battista and Agnes Debicz, who operated Ventnor’s iconic Mento’s Water Ice for the last nine years, are now open for takeout. Not once have they had a day where anyone could walk into the cafe and sit down with a coffee and homemade strawberry scone.
They got final approvals from Ventnor and opened March 21, which Battista is thankful for. Nobody’s even doing these kinds of permits anymore at City Hall.
“To be honest, my thought was, if we weren’t able to open, to get to a point before all of this really hit, that there wouldn’t be any way to open until it was all over, and with that being unknown, that would be just unsustainable,” he said.
The new wooden chairs and tables sit empty, but, Battista said, they’ve sold more ice cream than you’d imagine (they’re making it all in-house, and the Mento’s water ice, including the black cherry, is the same).
Debicz’s scones are popular, and people seem to really like their turkey club. People walk by (especially since the boardwalk a block over is now closed), or run or bicycle, and take notice.
To be honest, after nine years of dealing with the beloved yet iconically prickly Mento family — who alternately forbid them from using the name, then told them to start again — Battista’s had some practice with complicated situations. The patriarch, Bob Mento, passed away March 22, a day after Debicz and Battista opened under the new name.
Some people just want to stick their heads in. “It does give them something to look at,” said Battista, who also runs Carisbrooke Inn, a nearly empty bed-and-breakfast. “Or pop their heads in and say, ‘Wow, what an awful time to open, but we wish you good luck.’ A lot of people stop in and do that."
Battista also worries about not having any staff on board. What happens when the switch is flipped? “That’s a little bit of a fear: Overnight, we’ll go from nothing to bombarded and not be prepared with proper staffing.”
At Ryfe, owner Murphy says that without any established revenue for 2019, he is not eligible for grants or loans to tide him over. Other similar places, like the popular Vagabond Kitchen & Tap House, nearby on the bay side, have closed their doors entirely during the shutdown.
He says he’s relieved he was able to finally get the place operational, even hobbled this way, because he suspects opening a new restaurant will only become more complicated when this is all over. “I’m thankful we got open," he said. "If we had a crystal ball. ... We didn’t have one. It seemed natural for us to open at the time.”
The odd circumstances have, though, allowed them to iron out some kinks, and it’s brought the whole family into the business, himself included. A business and strategy guy, he never envisioned being hands on, 90 hours a week, working takeout orders. But here he is.