GROVEWATCH (6/23/09)

After a long and cold New York winter, spring has finally sprung (or sprung a leak it seems – what crummy weather we’ve had so far), and those of us who return to Fire Island each year have by now all made the triumphant voyage across the bay to start yet another season in our own little Brigadoon called Cherry Grove. If you’re like me, after you’ve muttered a bit about the dismal state of the boardwalks, and have gotten your apartment aired out and unpacked, the first question in your mind is: “So what’s up with the bars this year??”

The Cherry Grove bar scene is like a wobbly table in an old diner: it keeps settling on a different leg each year for balance. Places open and close, staffs move from place to place, and the social center of gravity shifts a bit every season. So for chuckles, and so that you won’t have to, I’ll take a stab at setting the metaphorical table a bit for the summer to come.

The first Bar Fact to note is the list of bars that aren’t open. As expected, Sunsets On The Bay remains a deserted skeleton and appears unlikely to re-open any time soon, despite some talk last year of combining it with Island Breeze. Former high-end restaurant/bar Top Of The Bay looks better than it has in years, but unfortunately is not open for business. Rumors fly that there is an ongoing attempt to re-launch it as a “lounge” (which is…what exactly?), but that the permit request process takes eighteen months which, if true, would keep TOTB out of commission for this season and the next.

The wildcard this year seems to be The Tides, which many will continue to think of as “the old Monster.” Although the “Cozy Bar” in the back of the building is open on a hard-to-determine schedule and provides the closest thing Cherry Grove has to an “underground scene,” the second-story tented bar is not yet open, though encouraging signs of life are seen. Twice so far this year, the dance floor in the back of the second floor has been filled with disco lights and blaring music, but not a single soul in sight (DJ included). It’s a Ghost Disco of sorts, but what better place than Cherry Grove to have disco ghosts?

For those bars that are open- Island Breeze, Cherry’s, Jumpin’ Jacks and The Ice Palace – the name of the game this year seems to be “Everybody switch teams!” The normal migration of a bartender here or there has this year become a mass exodus, leaving a seasoned barfly like myself a bit out of sorts.

The staff of the Island Breeze appears to have moved en masse over to the Ice Palace, apparently victims of the strongly held beliefs of Island Breeze’s owner. This freed up space for island vet Diamond Dave (most recently of Jumpin’ Jacks) to take over the bar at the Breeze. I thought that Kenny and his staff had done a great job in years past giving Island Breeze a fun, inviting vibe; it’s too early to tell what Diamond Dave and crew will do with the place, but I can say it has yet to settle into an identifiable scene. A fun new Tiki bar on the front deck of the restaurant gives a kitschy, tropical look to the dock when the ferry comes in, and this new addition is “manned” by Cherry Grove favorite Andi.

Cherry’s continues its renaissance under Jackie and Donna, but runs the risk of being taken for granted after dazzling for the past couple of seasons. Everyone is now used to be it being fun and well run, so in turn we’re not as impressed. But it remains the place to beat in town, and putting Tish behind the bar at the Cherry Pit may finally allow that somewhat hidden venue to stand on its own as a destination.

Jumpin’ Jacks has never been a personal favorite of mine — I file it in my head as an extension of the beach/daytripper scene. But it seems to be doing well when I walk by, if perhaps at a bit of a loss without Diamond Dave anchoring the staff.

That leaves the Ice Palace, always the biggest space in town but, for many of the past seasons, not always the most fun. Although it is still early in the season, I think I’m seeing a bit of a rebirth there. Bar manager John says sales at the bar are up 25% — due partly perhaps to people drinking their recessionary blues away, but also I think to the addition of many of last year’s Island Breeze staff and to the jolt of new energy provided by a gaggle of young drag queens…but more on them later.

All in all, and given the current state of the economy, it looks like a good season ahead in Cherry Grove if we can keep the clouds at bay. Continue to look here for more reports from the front lines!
Clarque Kent
The Only Man Not Getting Laid In Fire Island