A white SUV pulled alongside George O’Neill as he sat next to the lot where his restaurant — O’Neill’s — is rising from the ashes.
“When are you going to open?”
This is what George O’Neill’s life has become.
The co-owner of the eponymous restaurant and bar sits outside the site that has been in his family for more than 80 years as it’s rebuilt ahead of a mid-November reopening date.
The passer-by in the white SUV was just a sample of O’Neill’s daily routine.
“I’m questioned every day. ‘When are you opening? Can we book a party?’” O’Neill said. “Evidently, it’s more important than I realized.”
The Maspeth fixture burned down on May 2, 2011 in a five-alarm blaze that needed more than 200 firefighters to extinguish.
O’Neill, who lives in Atlantic Beach, was staying in Maspeth that night.
“When I walked out I saw all the fire engines, I figured it was just a fire alarm,” said O’Neill who keeps a place in the neighborhood across the street from the restaurant. “And then all of a sudden, boom.”
Nothing was saved in the fire that burned for days.
More than 1,000 customers joined O’Neill outside the neighborhood fixture early that morning as the flames and word spread.
“I was mesmerized. I didn’t know what to think,” O’Neill remembered of his initial reaction to seeing his family’s place in flames. “It hit me a couple of days later. Oh my God, I’m out of a job.”
The bar has been in the family since 1928 when O’Neill’s father opened what was then called the Plateau Tavern.
As years passed, O’Neill began buying up the property surrounding the watering hole: a grocery store, a barber shop, a liquor store, a cleaners, a bakery, a delicatessen.
Following the fire and out of a job for the first time in his life, O’Neill got restless. He visited his daughters, but ended up back at the restaurant, setting up a table and chairs stationed under an umbrella to monitor the progress being made on the bar.
Frequenters will stop by for a coffee or a chat as O’Neill sits in waiting. Talking with the regulars is what he said he missed most about the bar.
Right now, O’Neill is biding his time on permits so the construction can continue.
He’s also waiting for an electric meter, but doesn’t expect one soon with Con Edison workers still locked out.
“It’s one thing after another,” he said. “When I think about it, it makes me sick. We’re in our 15th month since the fire.”
But O’Neill’s eyes light up when he discusses the plans for the reopened restaurant.
He pointed out where the 125-foot bar will stand and the catering space that can fit 300 patrons. And of course he mentions the dining fare.
“A lot of seafood, prime steaks, wings,” he said. “We’ve always had good food.”
November 13 has been set as the target date for the grand re-opening
“I’m looking forward to it tremendously.”