By Patricia Burstein
August 31, 1981 12:00 PM

Seatings are limited, he explains, ‘because no one wants to leave’

When Michael O’Keeffe opened his restaurant on a barge at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge four years ago, most of the smart money around New York figured he was just indulging a fancy that would soon go away. It was, in fact, a fancy for O’Keeffe, who had dreamed of owning just such a restaurant ever since his boyhood days growing up in Silver Beach, a waterfront section of the Bronx.

O’Keeffe’s problem was that hardly anyone else shared his enthusiasm. For 15 years after he had gotten into the restaurant business in New York the banks routinely denied him loans, and the bureaucratic red tape of New York City could not be cut in favor of a commercial establishment on the waterfront. “I was extremely frustrated,” he says, “but I guess I’m just thickheaded. I wasn’t going to give up. When city officials wouldn’t listen to me in the early days, I told them, ‘I’ll be back when you’re gone.’ ” And, because he wanted to build his restaurant in—of all places—Brooklyn, there was even another obstacle: Manhattan chauvinism. “People said I was crazy to open a restaurant like this in Brooklyn,” he recalls. “They told me no one would come over here.”

Today O’Keeffe looks back less in anger than in vindication, after finally getting his way with the banks and the city. His River Café is a roaring success and has transformed a dreary Brooklyn waterfront into one of New York’s top celebrity haunts. His adversaries are in retreat, and even the commissioner of ports and terminals, Linda Seale, says, “The River Café has provided the model for development of the city’s waterfront. We learned a lot from O’Keeffe.” New York has issued him a 25-year lease on the location.

The real secret of the restaurant’s success, which was never a secret to O’Keeffe, is its unique setting. Though the interior decor is subtly elegant and the haute cuisine admirable, the real excitement of being on O’Keeffe’s glassed-in 30-by-90-foot barge (seating capacity: 150) is neither to be fed or be seen, but to see. The café’s windows look out on the most spectacular ground-level view of lower Manhattan available anywhere in the city. Many patrons simply gasp when they enter the dining room for the first time. Celebrity diners like Rudolf Nureyev, Frank Sinatra, Princess Grace and Liza Minnelli think nothing of making the 20-minute ride from mid-town Manhattan for the sheer thrill of looking up at the city’s skyscrapers rising out of the East River just outside the café’s windows. (Another plus for the carriage trade is the café’s own cobblestone parking area adjacent to the front door, a rarity in New York.)

Turn-away crowds pay up to $30 a head for lunch and $40 for dinner, not including drinks. This summer O’Keeffe added a motor launch from the Wall Street area to shuttle patrons across the river from noon to 4 p.m.

The son of an auto repair shop owner, O’Keeffe attended Fordham and City College to prepare for a triple-threat career in real estate, as a builder and as a restaurateur. He owned a series of Manhattan eateries before parlaying their profits into the River Café. Its success has emboldened him to open a second restaurant in another unlikely location—the mezzanine of Grand Central Terminal.

A bearded bachelor, O’Keeffe, 44, exudes nervous energy. “My only hobbies,” he says, “are girls and work.” To O’Keeffe, restaurants are the stage-drops for much of history. “Every important document from the Magna Charta to the Bill of Rights was probably hammered out at some restaurant or saloon. They are everybody’s living room,” he says.

O’Keeffe wants his to be a distinctly American restaurant. To prove the point, he buys only American food products for the River Café: shrimp from the Gulf, caviar from Oregon, Brie from Illinois, Maine sea urchins.

And if that isn’t enough to put a lump in every patriot’s throat, there is always the scene on the water just outside his windows—the Statue of Liberty.