Joe Zwerlein flanked by new owners Martin Picone and Mike Guinnane.
Since its inception, almost 100 years ago, Louie's Shore restaurant has been owned and managed by the Zwerlein family. But times have changed and recently the fourth generation owner Jay Zwerlein reluctantly agreed to sell the family business. The news created a buzz around town and a plethora of rumors have flourished concerning the future of this historical landmark. The main question on people's lips has been "Will Louie's remain a restaurant and if so will it still be called Louie's?" The answer to both these questions, according to the current owner, Mr. Zwerlein and the incoming owners, is a very emphatic yes.
The new owners are a partnership of two Long Island businessmen, Martin Picone, and Mike Guinnane. Theirs was not the only offer on the table once word got around that Louie's was on the market but most of the others involved redeveloping the site as beachfront apartments. The attraction of their offer was the intention to keep the restaurant going in the tradition maintained by the Zwerlein family for nearly 100 years. The name on the partners' lips for the restaurant is Louie's Oyster Bar and Grill, but at this early stage, as so much else in this project, it is a work in progress. Picone said, "We haven't settled on the final name yet but Louie's will figure as the center piece, we don't want to change that."
Picone has been in the restaurant business for more than 17 years and currently owns two other restaurants, Flaming Embers in Manhattan and Bay Breeze restaurant in Bayside. Picone has been stopping in at Louie's for several years arriving at the restaurant in his powerboat and has always seen the huge potential in the business. "I started speaking to Randy and Jay about the business back in 1997" he said, "but they were not interested in selling. I kept coming back and finally about a year ago Jay agreed to sit down with me and we talked for over a year before reaching an agreement."
Picone's partner, Guinnane, will manage the construction side of the venture and, as the buildings are older than the restaurant, there is a great deal of construction to be done. The two have worked together for eight years on several projects in Queens and Manhattan but they agree that Louie's is the "most ambitious collaboration" they have worked on to date. Their plans include renovating the dock for boats, changing the layout of rooms, redeveloping the parking lot, refurbishing the interior throughout and adding an outdoor seating area. All of this is to be achieved without closing the restaurant.
Working alongside these two is Laura Casale, the interior designer who will be responsible for the overall feel of the "new" Louie's. She has worked with Picone and Guinnane on four or five other projects and believes this will be her most ambitious restaurant design. She searched for some time for the best description of the look the team is aiming to create, eventually settling on "a casually elegant 1940's style tavern." While every inch of space will get a makeover the old Louie's will not be lost entirely as the team intend to "preserve the character of Louie's." Referring to the monumental amount of decorative items, which are so much a part of Louie's, Ms. Casale said, "We will edit and combine some of the current items into the new design, certainly keeping some of the important historical photographs and pieces." Picone drew attention to one of the larger items, a wooden rowboat, as an example of the historical heritage they hope to maintain. The boat, which he believes is called the Bayview Rum Runner, is rumored to have smuggled liquor to Port Washington during the prohibition years.
The exterior of the building will receive equally close attention to detail during the renovation process. Casale said, "The facade will blend in with respect to the historical aspect and characteristic of this property and to lower Main Street." The two houses and parking lot across the road will receive similar treatment. The parking lot will be renovated and defined as belonging to Louie's. Guinnane said, "when someone pulls in they will know they're in Louie's parking lot not someone's side yard." The two houses, one on the parking lot and one next door, have in the past been apartments, often housing staff. These are to be rejuvenated while maintaining their old world charm, but Mr. Picone has yet to decide what their future use will be.
It will be a long time before Louie's customers see all these plans come together. Some urgent work has been completed already such as reinforcing the structure of the kitchen, but more structural work is required; some to reach Town of North Hempstead building requirements and considerably more cosmetic changes to achieve the new layout and feel of Louie's. Picone was keen to point out that while there are plans on paper, no work can or will be undertaken until they have received all the necessary zoning approval from the town. How seriously they take this part of the process is shown by the fact that they have two zoning specialists on their team: John Notoro, an architect with important knowledge of local zoning requirements and Bruce Migatz, an attorney who specializes in zoning applications.
Even when the zoning approval has been passed and they know what they are allowed to do the work will be done in methodical stages to ensure the business stays open and customers are not displaced for anytime now or in the future. Guinnane said, "World War II didn't close Louie's, so we won't either." The first stage will be to relocate the restrooms and refurbish the sunroom, which currently has the best view of the bay. Ultimately it is intended for every room to have a view of the sea front so wherever someone is seated they can enjoy the Bay. The proposed design will have three semiprivate dining rooms, in addition to the main public dining area, which can be used singularly or linked together and will allow people to hold functions accommodating from 40 to 200 guests.
One of the most popular changes, if passed by the town zoning board, will be a new outdoor seating area for diners. While Picone was not prepared to second guess the town's decision, he is hopeful the outdoor seating proposal will be passed, as it had previously been awarded to Jay Zwerlein in 1987, although he did not develop it. Interior Designer Lara Casale feels this will be a very important part of the refurbishment, as it will bring the "ambience and life" of the dock area to the restaurant. Guinnane, on the other hand, believes that with the competition from other restaurants on the bay that already have outdoor seating, it is "an economic necessity, not just aesthetic." Before all of this goes ahead Guinnane hopes to focus on the floating and fixed docks, which need upgrading or in some cases replacing, to ensure Louie's does not lose its popular boating access from the bay, which Picone refers to as "dock & dine."
As anyone who has been involved in buying or selling a house will appreciate, it takes an incredible amount of time for the final contract to be signed, sealed and delivered and in the meantime both sets of owners are working closely in an arena of trust to keep the business up and running and the project moving forward. The new owners with the permission and assistance of Zwerlein have filed for planning permission and zoning approval. Guinnane said, "we need to have our applications in and under consideration now, otherwise we could lose the whole summer."
Picone intends to manage and oversee the day-to-day running of Louie's himself and appeared very keen to get in and "modernize" the menu, a change he sees as including "a larger selection of oysters and all fish being purchased from the market on a daily basis." The overall focus and key to the new Louie's will be "quality: quality service and quality food." He also believes the success of this venture rests on the strength of the team they have put together. In addition to the designer, zoning attorney and architect, the team includes business attorney, Vincent Nicolosi, who Picone says "made the whole process go very smoothly." This is not the first time the team has worked together on a project and all the members are excited to be working on a local historical landmark such as Louie's.
There is an understandable sense of sadness at the end of the Zwerlein ownership of Louie's and as letters to this newspaper have shown many people have fond memories as either employees or customers. The good news is that Louie's has not been lost to a fast food franchise or a private residential development and if the new owners' promises hold true, we will be able to enjoy the food, service and view at Louie's for many years to come.