No need to change: Connaughton's celebrates 40 years

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The black-and-white picture looks a little out of place on a wall of memories just behind the bar at Connaughton’s Riverdale Steak House.

An impeccably dressed young police officer — complete with white gloves — blows a whistle near the intersection of 44th Street and Fifth Avenue.

That officer, wearing Badge No. 8095, is Terry Connaughton at the start of New York City’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 17, 1968. His lone job that day was to get the parade started. And just a decade later, Terry had something else much different to start — his own restaurant on Riverdale Avenue.

It’s actually been 40 years since Terry and wife Anne took over what had been a fledgling business in the heart of North Riverdale. Although always perched on its corner with West 259th Street, the steak house itself was a bit smaller back then, that is until a fire gutted the restaurant and a neighbor television shop.

“It wasn’t pleasant,” Terry said of the 1983 blaze. “Everything had to be renovated from the ground up, and it took three months.”

The television shop was a total loss, so Terry acquired the space, and used the renovation as a chance to expand to the size it enjoys today among a stretch of businesses that haven’t changed a lot like the hardware store on the opposite corner (next to the long-running Vacuum World shop), and his daughter Mary-Anne Conaughton’s gift shop next door, easily accessible through a door behind the bar.

“It pretty much is the same since we bought this place back in ‘79,” Terry said while relaxing at one of his tables. “The clientele has changed over the years, but what you get here now is what you’ve always got here.”

And there’s plenty of memories. Like how actor Robert Mitchum became a Riverdale Steak House regular while filming a television series at the College of Mount Saint Vincent.

“When he would come in with his entourage for lunch, he wouldn’t say hello to anybody,” Terry remembers. “But on his way out, he would shake hands with everybody.”

More recently, the Connaughton’s welcomed a film crew from the HBO series “City on a Hill.”

Although the show itself is set in 1990s Boston, the interior ambiance of Riverdale Steak House was perfect for producers, spending a day or two on a shoot that included “City” series star Kevin Bacon.

Terry himself had a chance to hang his own picture on the wall when John Slattery — best known for his role as Roger Sterling in the series “Mad Men” — was filming a movie called “God’s Pocket” around Yonkers, and decided to shoot some scenes at Riverdale Steak House.

“I was friendly with the people in that production, and the lady says to me, ‘We’ve decided to give you a small role,’” Terry said. “All I had to do was walk into the dining room at the table where the actors were, ask if everything was all right, and then walked away.”

Terry did just that. But when the movie was released in 2014 starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christina Hendricks, Terry’s contribution ended up on the cutting room floor.

But that’s fine with Terry. It still makes for a great story, one of many he shares with customers who visit Riverdale Steak House, while his wife is busy actually running the place.

“I don’t know what I would do without her,” Terry said of Anne. “She is so good at what she does. If it wasn’t for her, I might have sold the business years ago. But she wouldn’t hear of it.”

Terry met Anne in the United States, but both grew up in Ireland.

He was just 19 when he followed his brothers across the Atlantic. He had no money, not many prospects, but he liked his odds much better in the United States than his original home.

He almost immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army, heading to Germany at the tail end of the Korean War in 1955.

When he returned to New York City, he discovered there were limited job options for Irishmen like him. He could join the fire department. He could get a job with Con Edison. Maybe even the New York Telephone Co.

Or he could become a policeman. And the more Terry thought about that, the more he liked it.

Terry would retire as a police officer, watching the city transform in front of him over that 20-year period. Although he would make Inwood his home during that time, he rarely ventured into the Bronx. And if so, it was never this part of Riverdale.

In fact, it wasn’t until after he retired from the police force that he felt his calling for steak.

Rosie O’Grady’s had just opened a couple years before near Times Square, and Terry worked his way up to managing the place. His mind wasn’t even on owning his own place, until he learned about a steak house for sale in Riverdale.

“I thought it was very nice,” Terry said of his first impression of the restaurant and its neighborhood. “And it is still nice.”

Still, Riverdale was a far cry from Times Square, and it probably wouldn’t be easy running a restaurant  outside at the literal edge of New York City.

“There was a bit of risk involved, but there always is,” Terry said. “I must say that from Day One, everything went well. And it continues to go well.”

The entire Connaughton family, more or less, is gathering this weekend to celebrate the steak house’s 40th anniversary. It’s a musical weekend beginning with Tommy Clyne on Friday, Rumor Has It Band on Saturday and Des Murphy on Sunday.

And it’s all just in time for Columbus Day weekend.

Terry has slowed down quite a bit, still making daily trips into his restaurant to check up on things and enjoy a meal. Anne, on the other hand, is almost always there, making sure the steak house retains the high quality its known for.

The restaurant and bar employs more than a dozen people, and regularly welcomes not only many familiar faces, but new ones as well.

“You have to do the best you can,” Terry said. “Everything changes sooner or later. But until it does, you make do with what you’ve got.”

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