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What kind of restaurant does a lifelong sailor open? One aboard a ship, of course.

Cover Image for What kind of restaurant does a lifelong sailor open? One aboard a ship, of course.
By Sophie Brochu
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Categories:Interview

In 2014, Alex Pincus launched his first restaurant, Grand Banks, alongside his brother, Miles. For those who don’t know it, Grand Banks is no ordinary restaurant. This celebrated oyster bar was built out of a historic wooden schooner, or sailing vessel, that’s now docked in Tribeca. Alex is a multifaceted restaurateur. He’s an architect, a preservationist, and a self-proclaimed obsessive who once read The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell by Mark Kurlansky and never looked back. Today, the Pincus brothers (did I mention they’re also lifelong sailors) own and operate a total of five maritime-themed restaurants including Pilot and  Drift In—all under a hospitality group called Crew. We caught up with Alex to learn about the inspiration behind his fascinating restaurant empire.

Tock: You have such an interesting background between operating a sailing school, an architecture firm, and a tour company. Did you have any restaurant experience prior to launching Crew?

Pincus: Prior to starting Crew I certainly did not have the restaurant background that I needed, but I did have a little restaurant work behind me and some meaningful life experience. My father was (and still is) a hotel manager in New Orleans, so I grew up seeing hospitality in action. In the ‘80s he ran one of New Orleans’ most popular restaurants, The Rib Room, and I certainly absorbed a lot of how things should be, just by being there. My dad is a phenomenal manager and I learned so much through being around him and seeing how he worked with people. After college, I worked as a waiter at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, which was a great foundation in learning attention to detail and customer service. And as I got older I found myself with a lot of restaurant friends and I would hang out with them and let things seep in. But in all reality, I had no idea what I was in for and to this day am still learning.

“But in all reality, I had no idea what I was in for and to this day am still learning.”

Grand Banks was inspired by NYC’s historic oyster barges.

Tock: Grand Banks is inspired by the floating oyster barges that lined Manhattan’s waterfront in the 18th and 19th centuries. How extensive was your research when planning and building your own oyster bar?

Pincus: Back in 2013 a friend gave me The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky and it totally blew my mind. At the time, my brother and I had already created and sold a sailing company in Manhattan, so I was naturally curious and relatively knowledgeable about the maritime history of New York, but this really opened things up for me. I was shocked to learn that in the 18th and 19th centuries, oysters were the staple food of all New Yorkers. The fact that there used to be these floating oyster barges – they look like two-story saloons – where folks would have a beer and some oysters on the water is just so cool. I’m pretty obsessive by nature, so I tracked down everything I could find regarding oyster barges and their history. We even ended up rescuing the last remaining New York Oyster Barge and are working on restoring it and returning it to New York City.

Tock: How did you secure wooden schooners for your restaurants and what’s the most challenging part of maintaining them?

Pincus: My brother and I are pretty deep in the historic boat world these days. It’s a strange subculture of obsessives and oddballs like us who love old things and go to great lengths to preserve them. The crazy thing about these boats is that they are basically alive. They are constantly in flux with nature and engaged with the elements and they require near-constant maintenance. We’ve actually got a full-time team of shipwrights dedicated to keeping them seaworthy.

“I was shocked to learn that in the 18th and 19th centuries, oysters were the staple food of all New Yorkers.”

The Sherman Zwicker dates back to the 1940s.

Tock: Location is such a huge element of your NYC restaurants, though there’s definitely an element of escape, too. What’s more important: transporting your guests or reminding them where they are?

Pincus: It’s funny. We take people out of the everyday so that they can truly appreciate where they are. When we used to have a sailing company I realized this naturally. When you go out on the water in New York you are naturally tied not only to its human history, but to its geologic history, and find yourself as part of the flow of something much larger. And then you look back at this metropolis and it’s pretty mindblowing. At our restaurants, we try to keep the fact that you are on a boat in New York Harbor central to the experience. It awakens you to the range of possibilities of what New York can be.

We take people out of the everyday so that they can truly appreciate where they are.”

Tock: What has been the most rewarding aspect of operating restaurants?

Pincus: It’s a cliché that running a restaurant is difficult, but it truly is the case. Getting everything from the food to the service to the drinks to the flow and the feel of a restaurant to all be at the top of their game is a constant challenge. When it all comes together, and you see the effect it has on guests, there’s nothing better. Pair that with a sunset and a view and a waterfront breeze and you’re on top of the world.

All aboard for sustainable oysters. Photo by Ben Hon.

Tock: How do you keep things fresh and go about continually creating new experiences for your guests?

Pincus: We’re not trying to create something new, we’re trying to tap into a feeling that is already out there. I don’t know what that feeling is called but it is a kind of exalted moment where everything comes together:  the food, the drinks, the people, the vibe, the escape. When it works it’s almost transcendent. At least if you’ve had a couple of negronis…

Tock: Your restaurants combine the things you love — boats, drinking, eating, revelry, and design —  into a single experience.  How do you go about balancing all of these elements? And how do you specifically think about the role of food and drink in that equation?

Pincus: I just happen to care about all of these things. And for me, they make everything better when they are good. We don’t think about balancing things, we just try to do our best on all fronts, given all the constraints, and sometimes it works out.

Pilot is named after the country’s longest-serving pilot ship.

Tock: Have you experienced any great failures? Something you thought would be great but totally flopped?

Pincus: I’m not sure. I suppose it depends on how you define failure. We make mistakes all the time. We have ideas that don’t go anywhere or that nobody likes or that we just abandon. But we also do a lot of things right. We just try to lean into the things we’re doing well and go with it. I never worry about failure, not because it’s not possible, but for better or worse I’m a Pollyanna.

The catch of the day at Drift In.

Tock: In what ways did your business change this past year and how do you see it evolving?

Pincus: Along with all of the challenges COVID presented, morally, operationally, logistically, etc, and all of the various ways that we have dealt with them, we’ve undergone a major shift from primarily walk-in business to primarily reservation based at the majority of our restaurants. When everything settles, we will most likely remain reservation-heavy as it creates a stable platform for us to anticipate upcoming business to perform at the top of our game. 

Nautical cocktails at Pilot.

Tock: Any final thoughts on the future of hospitality?

Pincus: I’m hopeful that as we transition towards a new post-COVID era, that restaurants, customers, and the world at large will all have a little bit more Hospitality – that’s Hospitality with a capital H.

Make reservations at Pilot, Grand Banks, and Drift In

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