STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- As we approach the end of 2019, so comes the annual exercises that reflect on the borough’s restaurant scene. At the moment, there are officially 993 restaurants on Staten Island. And, for better or worse, the new ones are the focus for this discussion.
I will preface “the list” with some concerns about the state of the restaurant industry in general.
Gone are new sit-down restaurants -- literally -- where patrons can dine leisurely, We saw the closure of Andella’s in Woodrow and NiNi’s of New Dorp Beach. There are no newcomers to replace the luxurious linen touches these restaurants maintained for as long as they could, and a relative few establishments continue that classic (and costly) tradition.
We are seeing a slew of casual restaurant concepts: Shake Shack at The Empire Outlets in St. George; mom-and-pop Yolpaqui, a taco-centric fast food place that translates to “Be Happy;" Mac’s Public House in Grant City with pub grub, Molla Cafe in Dongan Hills with Albanian eats and rather good espresso, Jelisa’s empanadas and Dominican food, Empanada Kingdom and late-night Crown Chicken, the latter trio in Castleton Corners. The quick stuff with light fare continues with bubble tea places like ViVi in New Dorp, Kung Fu in Bulls Head and Lil M in Castleton Corners.
Local entrepreneurs are gravitating to franchises -- Tropical Smoothie Cafe in Richmond Valley, Bubbakoo’s in Bulls Head and Rocket Fizz of Charleston, to name a few of the brands taking root on Staten Island.
We’re looking at drawn-out openings, from delays with liquor licenses that result in incomplete concepts on more upscale places like Stapleton’s Vice in Urby and Laila of Richmond Valley. Handsome Flour & Oak recently got its permit as well, although the restaurant has been open since the summer. It also has a new chef and partner, Matt Miluk.
To illustrate further the departure from traditional restaurant models we have a different means with which to procure a meal -- using the kiosk option to order at McDonald’s or Shake Shack, working a Korean hot pot at 99 Favor Taste in New Dorp and physically getting hands dirty in seafood steamed and served in a plastic bag at the borough’s second Hook & Reel, new to Graniteville.
Traveling around the Island from business to business, I hear constantly about how costly it is to operate a restaurant these days and how the minimum wage increase has reprogrammed classic approaches to running a professional kitchen. It has made the proprietor completely rethink service and thereby scramble to control what he or she describes as “bleeding." Hence, the contentious addition of credit card usage fees to guest checks, a practice that has become widespread on the Island and that is perfectly legal.
With grand openings far out-numbering the closures, I asked in the spring, “Are there too many restaurants on Staten Island?”
Apparently not, as entrepreneurs continue to establish new eateries. There’s enough desire to open food businesses that owners have planted new restaurants in structures that were not formerly restaurants, a rather expensive way to start in business. Some examples: Mountain Fusion Sushi in Castleton Corners in a former retail store; Sushi Wen in the first floor of a residential home in West Brighton; Corner House Express (now closed and reopened as Kim Cooks & Caters) in Grant City in a former hair salon; Bloom Cafe in Rosebank. At the very least, purchases of new and used kitchen equipment keeps the economy and auctioneers moving along.
Staten Island’s restaurants continue to offer diversity with the addition of Vietnamese sandwich shop Banhnmigos in Great Kills and Shawafel House in Port Richmond. Vegan fare is undoubtedly the most remarkable development this year, with three unique establishments -- Bloom Cafe, Love Earth Cafe in Richmond Valley and TRI Vegan in Concord, which focuses on a salubrious approach to soul food. Bloom and Love Earth also address specific food allergies with strict cooking and sourcing practices.
Sushi Wen opened on Castleton Ave., West Brighton, on Monday, Jan. 7, 2018. (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
It was the first restaurant to open in 2019 and a welcome addition to Castleton Avenue with another sit-down venue near Richmond University Medical Center. Meals are fresh and the environment is a sweet one, like a cozy little hideaway. Wen Huang is the owner, making Sushi Wen one of the few eateries with an owner’s name on it.
Kim Leo found a home for her sweet, medium and hot tomato sauce line, “Clean,” and hearty Italian fare in a tiny place with delivery Island-wide. In January, grab-and-go and quick pick-up will lift off from a steam table station. A liquor license is in the works to accommodate patrons who are enjoying the few tables in the place. Partners in the project include Phil Farinacci, Peter Botros and Doug Bifulco.
Long-time Staten Islanders know this location as Joe & John Toto’s. But if anything is going to replace solid Italian food, it is award-winning brisket, a barbecue concept near the beach with outdoor dining and fun with ice cream on the dessert menu. The brand features Max Chiefari and Vincent Pesevalle as pitmasters. Partners are Andrew Plaitis of Andrew’s Diner fame, Salvatore Basso and Richie Holmes, the latter who brings the Lickety Split edge to the mix.
Fort Wadsworth's DaNoi restaurant is reopened after a 10-month closure. (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
Re-built from scratch after a fire, much credit goes to owner Edward Gomez, who stuck with the project and reconstructed the menu with a few tweaks. While he could have evolved into a more casual concept, he stayed true to the DaNoi brand as a good Italian eatery with linen-cloth dining. It remains a worthy location for business meetings and special occasions.
As the name suggests, this realm focuses on fresh fried doughnuts customized to order. It’s not a chain or franchise, but the brainchild of Staten Islanders Sammy Abdelhaq and the Rubin family, a fun and unique idea for the borough.
Laila Restaurant threw a grand opening party on Sunday, March 31, 2019. It is located at 45 Page Ave., Richmond Valley. (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
Middle Eastern comes to the deep South Shore with Basil Maiyous and Alan Dakhlallah’s brand of home-style, Sryian cooking. The food is distinct and delicious.
- Chef Mike DiLeo is onto the next chapter in his restaurant career -- vegan eats. (Courtesy of Mike DiLeo)
The sit-down cafe sticks rigorously to its vegan business plan with a spirited menu of soups, veggie-based burgers and sandwiches. The bakery is equally exciting with its vow to produce cookies, cupcakes, muffins and cookie dough balls that are gluten-free, peanut-free, soy-free, dairy-free and egg-free. Owners Danielle DiLillo, Renee Raia and Anthony Gerardi recently hired Mike DiLeo of former Rodizio Grill as chef.
- Earth Love Cafe is a vegan-friendly restaurant that caters to various diet regimens because they use no animal products like dairy and eggs. (Staten Island Advance/Pamela Silvestri)
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