By Taylor Nicioli
Part six in a series featuring stories that appeared in the 2022 edition of Pulse, the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication’s annual student-created magazine, titled this year as Pass the Plate. Pick up your copy at the Herbert School.
On the outside, the street is quiet. Few cars drive down the stretch of the mile, passing restaurants, bars and fish markets seemingly unoccupied during winter. The water is still, as boats stay docked at their posts. Inside the businesses, the scene is quite the opposite, as their stools and booths are filled with customers — locals — who come regularly for fresh seafood, to share a laugh and a drink with one another.
During the off-season, the Nautical Mile in Freeport may not be at its usual liveliness, even described as a ghost town, yet the restaurants and markets stay afloat with the help of the locals and the community. For decades, the mile has been a staple for the Long Island seafood culture, as many restaurants provide the promise of “ocean to table.” However, in recent years, the mile has had to work harder to keep business running.
Ivan Sayles, owner of two restaurants on the mile and president of the Freeport Merchants Association, described it as a community. “There’s a saying: A rising tide doesn’t raise people who don’t have a boat,” Sayles said. “The mile is that boat.”
One of the busiest spots on the mile is a fish market that’s been around since the ’60s, which sells to many neighboring restaurants. The 2 Cousins Fish Market is a crucial business on the mile, keeping a reputation for cleanliness, and selling to regular customers who prefer the freshly caught market fish over grocery store fish.
“We are actually very busy right now, selling a lot of fresh fish,” said Kevin Holton, general manager. “People are finding out more and more good things about seafood, how healthy it is, and how fish has high protein and low calories. In general, people are eating more seafood.”
The Nautilus Cafe, one of the restaurants that buy from 2 Cousins, and among the highest-rated restaurants on the mile, takes pride in its high standards. The menu ranges from fried oysters and baked clams to grilled salmon, pan-seared ahi tuna and blackened swordfish. Aohan Fandino, a waiter and bartender for the past three years, calls the restaurant a hidden gem of the South Shore, noting, “We have tourists that come to see the mile, and we have customers that have been coming here for 33 years.”
While the customers in winter are enough to keep businesses running, it is no surprise that many look forward to the traffic that the warmer weather brings. “It’s crazy down here in the summer,” said Brian Crofton, the Nautilus Cafe owner. “With the live music on the weekends, Saturday night is packed, and you can’t even get down the street. Labor Day comes and it’s all over.”
In 2024, a 100-room Hilton Garden Inn is expected to come to the end of the Nautical Mile, with a waterfront view. Many business owners are eager to see the hotel built in the hope of bringing even more tourism to the mile. “We are looking forward to the hotel opening to get more traffic down here so it’s less seasonal,” Crofton said.
The mile is the place to go to get a flavor of the seafood culture of Long Island, and not just from the restaurants and fish markets. The Nautical Mile is also a destination for dinner cruises, another advantage to being set on the water, and is a way to hold celebrations and gatherings with friends and family.
“There is no question that the Nautical Mile is the jewel” of Long Island, said Tom Bentsen, vice president of Sapphire Cruises. “If you really want to get a flavor of Long Island during the summer, you’ll come to the mile.”
The Nautical Mile, similar to many business districts, is still recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. “Typically, we would have a very strong Christmas season, and New Year is the biggest night of the year. We would expect to fill two boats, but this year, people were scared to gather due to the variant,” Bentsen said. This isn’t the first time that the mile had to pull through from a setback. In 2012, the mile was left devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
Geraldine Goldchain, of Long Beach, reminisced about the mile before the hurricane, saying, “It was very lively and known for its great seafood restaurants. After Sandy, a lot of the restaurants were devastated and none of them opened back up. It was a turning point.” Other Long Island residents said the mile became more of a bar scene on weekends.
However, many restaurants looked at Sandy as a turning point and began renovating to bring back the liveliness of the mile.
While some businesses shut down, Bracco’s Clam and Oyster Bar, one of the restaurants known for its live music, transformed its previous fish market into an inside restaurant. “Bracco’s is the cornerstone of the mile. It represents what the mile is,” said Thomas Micciulli, the general manager. “You have fresh seafood, you’re on the docks and with the local people. It still has the South Shore feel of the mile and is staying true to its roots.”
Micciulli worked at the market when he was a teenager and returned in recent years after Sandy. “After the hurricane, the mile was eight feet underwater,” Micciulli said. “This bar brought an energy to the mile and more people were coming back, which is what everyone needed.” Recently, the high-energy bar and restaurant toned it down at late hours for the residents across the way.
The Nautical Mile has seen its ups and downs as it has recovered from devastation in recent years, yet the promise of fresh and local seafood stays the same. “Seafood is our culture,” Sayles said. “There is no kid that grew up on Long Island that hasn’t been fishing with their father. Seafood is a huge part of our culture, and we are very lucky to have that.”