By Thomas McGann
It is hard to miss the obvious pride that the owners of Maguire’s Bay Front Restaurant, Jim Betz and Drew Becker, amply demonstrated over this past winter. One look at their extensive renovations is proof positive.
Maguire’s is one of the oldest restaurants on Fire Island, predated by the Surf Hotel of 1855 (since demolished) and the Perkinson’s Restaurant in Cherry Grove, 1868 (later Duffy’s Hotel, destroyed by fire in 1956). The structure we now know as Maguire’s restaurant was originally headquarters of the Ocean Beach Yacht Club, circa 1926, and membership was men only.
In 1935 a man by the name of Frank Maguire won the Irish Sweepstakes. According to the newspaper The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Maguire knew he had won but did not know how much. “Say that again,” he said. When he was told the amount, $75,250, he said, “That’ll hold me.” The equivalent in today’s money is $1.3 million. With his winnings he hired an LIRR passenger train and took his friends out to Montauk. With the rest of the money he purchased the clubhouse in Ocean Beach and converted it into a public restaurant. The restaurant property had 235 feet of bay front, all fully bulkheaded, divided into 13 slips, two of which could accommodate boats up to 50 feet in length. Frank Maguire ran the restaurant until 1939 when he leased it to John Flynn of Ocean Bay Park for 10 years.
Jack Flynn leased Maguire’s in Ocean Beach in 1939, and gave it to his son, Frank, to run in 1942 after Frank had returned from the war. Frank Flynn did so well that Maguire wanted the restaurant back and refused to renew the lease. Flynn returned to OPB and the family continued to expand their businesses.
In 1949 Frank Maguire took back the restaurant (then named Flynn’s) hoping to ride its swell of success, and changed the name back to Maguire’s. The business suffered, and after he died, his widow Leila got married again to a retired NYC fireman named William Gal. Together they ran the place, but the task proved too difficult. She put the property up for sale in 1966 insisting on $235,000, a $1,000 for each foot of bay front property. There were no buyers.
That same year three recent graduates of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Larry Dallaire, Tom Keeney, and yours truly Tom McGann, started a successful water ski school out of one of the slips behind Maguire’s Restaurant. At the end of the 1966 season, having no buyers for her property, Mrs. Gal extended the offer to Tom, Tom, and Larry. They had no money but they jumped at the opportunity. They signed a 10-year lease with an option to buy and were given until the spring of 1967 to come up with the down payment.
With the Vietnam War in full force, the three joined the Merchant Marine and shipped out to earn the much-needed money. By spring they had the cash, but no experience in the restaurant business except as patrons. With hours of study, hard work, and dedication they managed to turn the once-failing business around and keep it afloat.
The boys shipped out again the following winter, earning extra money by signing up for hazardous duty pay transporting ammunition into the war zone. Shortly after they returned, Mrs. Gal passed away. The boys intended to close the restaurant for a day in memory of Mrs. Gal, but her stepson told them that his mother would not want the restaurant closed. Instead, the restaurant remained opened that day in celebration of her life.
The three sailors, turned restaurateurs, exercised their option to buy the property and decided some physical changes to the building were needed. The wall between the bar and the dining area was removed. The bar was moved to the northeast corner of the dining room and doubled in size. They introduced a lobster tank and when the 1968 season ended they had quadrupled their gross.
In 1969 Maguire’s was the headquarters of, and the caterers for, the production company filming the movie “Last Summer” on Fire Island. It starred Academy Award Nominee Catherine Burns, Barbara Hershey, Richard Thomas, and Bruce Davison. The Academy Award nominated couple Frank and Eleanor Perry were the director and screenwriter respectively.
Marriage plans were in the offing and new business ventures beckoned, so the boys decided to sell the business. Their chef George Bockhart was first choice. George selected a friend Max Schlitter to be his partner. George and Max took over in the summer of 1970, continuing to build on the restaurant’s success. Max ran the front end while George continued to prepare the delicious food for which Maguire’s had become famous.
They purchased the real estate in 1986, and made several renovations to increase the efficiency and appeal of the restaurant. In total, George and Max ran Maguire’s for 25 years, before selling to Jim Betz and Drew Becker in 1995.
These present proprietors infused youthful enthusiasm and continuing efforts to increase the quality of the meals and the service provided. But they did not have it easy. Flooding of the town was a growing threat, and several storms wreaked havoc on Fire Island. While George and Max had to suffer through “The Perfect Storm” (Halloween of ‘91), no one anticipated the damage Hurricane Sandy – the “Frankenstorm” – would inflict, not just on Fire Island but on the entire eastern seaboard.
Jim and Drew not only bounced back from Superstorm Sandy, pumping untold dollars into Maguire’s to restore it, but, again, this winter spent even more money to enhance the look and efficiency of the restaurant. They went so far as to completely redo the lavatories to comply with the American with Disabilities Act. This is the kind of pride demonstrated by the past and present owners of Maguire’s who have gone out of their way to provide a first class restaurant for the community.
And it shows.
Over the years numerous celebrities have dined at Maguire’s. Fanny Brice was a frequent guest in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Other stage and screen celebrities were Mel Brooks and Ann Bancroft, Woody Allen, Tony Randall, Patty Duke, Steve Buscemi, and Tony Roberts; musicians Meatloaf and Alice Cooper; sports figures Joe Namath, middle weight boxing champion Rocky Graziano, Pele, and Frank Gifford; the famous 1960s painter Peter Max and untold others from various professions.
Numerous musical acts have also appeared at Maguire’s. Some of the more notable are Taj Mahal, Ivan Neville, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, George Porter Jr., Cyril Neville, Eric Lindell, Dragon Smoke, the Mojo Rhythm Kings, Tab Benoit, and more.
Such dedication to the community needs to be recognized and applauded.
Editor’s Note: This article is published in memory of Geraldine Bockhart, beloved wife of George, who recently passed on June 5 at the age of 78. Gerri was a lovely lady who will be sorely missed.
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