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Food is what binds a community together

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It wasn’t Christmas unless it was Christmas with the Connaughtons.

Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, Connaughton’s Riverdale Steak House just off West 259th Street was the place to be on Christmas Eve. The restaurant’s owners, Terry and Anne Connaughton, would spend a month preparing for their biggest night, when the steakhouse was packed to the brim.

“We probably violated every law, every kind of rule there was around capacity … because you just couldn’t move around,” said Terry Connaughton Jr., one of the owners’ five children. “So, there was a line down the street to get into the steakhouse.”

The restaurant has been in the family since 1979 when the elder Terry bought it from two brothers looking to get out of the business. More than four decades later, the now 87-year-old Terry still runs the operation with his wife, but now with the help of their children and grandchildren.

Today, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the steakhouse survives primarily because of the support of customers who’ve pitched in to keep it going through what is likely the most significant obstacles restaurants have ever faced.

“They’re a backbone of the community, they’ve effectively become a centerpiece for residents to gather and dine,” said Gary Wartels, president of Riverdale Main Streets Alliance. “It just provides a true sense of comfort. Family members go back with decades and decades of memories.”

Restaurants like Connaughton’s spent months transforming from takeout and delivery, to pure outdoor dining, to a mix of outdoor and some indoor. And now, at least as of Monday, restaurants are back to being just outdoors after Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down the interior options in New York City.

The news means the steakhouse will have to rely on those willing to brave the cold, or at least be willing to pick up some food and take it home. It also means added expenses to a year where profits are tremendously low as the younger Connaughton looks to install a heating system outside. Paying for it could lead to staffing cuts.

“They’re kicking us while we’re down,” Terry Jr., said. “Not only do we have no business indoors now at all, but we’ve got to spend more money to heat our outdoor unit. And that’s very expensive.”

Fortunately, the family finally launched a system on its website allowing customers to order there, and not have to use third-party apps.

Unfortunately, with the federal government seemingly unwilling to do anything to help, there’s not much city or even state officials can do to lend an economic hand, Wartels said. There is a chance a President Biden could get some relief going, but even that is weeks — if not months — away.

The elder Terry immigrated from Ireland in 1952, after serving in Germany during the Korean War. He joined the New York Police Department in 1957, spending 20 years as a police officer.

Terry managed several bars in Inwood after that, leading to a chance to manage Rosie O’Grady’s in Midtown. It was about that time he became interested in buying his own business.

When he bought his Riverdale Avenue eatery, it didn’t look anything like it does today, Terry Jr., said. His father redecorated the restaurant from the ground up, creating what he describes as an authentic Irish atmosphere. That meant a focus not just on décor, but also by hiring a mostly Irish staff, using his connections to the local Gaelic sports community.

Through the years, Connaughton’s has attracted a handful of loyal customers, Terry Jr., said, celebrating many of their most important life events in the restaurant.

“There have been people in the neighborhood … that have celebrated meeting at the steakhouse, going to the steakhouse the night of their wedding, and then celebrating at the steakhouse with their firstborn child,” he said. “I mean, it was the whole kind of life experience for some people.”

One family has patronized the steakhouse since even before Terry took it over. Stuart Newman’s clan has frequented Connaughton’s on a weekly basis for the past 40 years.

“The wait staff and the bartenders have all become friends on a first name basis,” Newman said. “It’s family. Really.”

Newman said he even once crowded 2,000 people inside to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday — the kind of gatherings that seem like an almost fleeting memory today.

Wartels, who also owns Skyview Wines & Spirits across the street, said local businesses like his own and the steakhouse are losing money from the lack of live events. There’s only so much restaurants can do to survive under the circumstances, and what’s expected to be a frigid winter only makes the situation even worse.

“If you’re an old-world sit-down restaurant, it’s really hard to survive right now,” Wartels said. “You can have some outdoor dining, and that might take you through a nice fall night. But now? Forget it.”

But it doesn’t mean businesses aren’t willing to try. Many have upgraded their outdoor dining in an effort to keep them warmer on chilly days. Connaughton’s has had the help of Derek Woods, executive director of the Riverdale Children’s Theatre, who volunteered to build a new structure on Riverdale Avenue to give the steakhouse a fighting chance.

“It was really that structure that’s outside there right now (that) helped motivate us,” Terry Jr., said “What COVID has certainly done, at a very minimum, is helped us really appreciate our customers.”

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