Montauk Comes to Queens
Michael Kirby Smith for The New York Times
Imagine a beach club plucked from the East End of Long Island and dropped one block from the subway on Rockaway Beach Boulevard and you’ll start to get a picture of the Playland Motel, which began taking guests on the first weekend in July and, almost from the moment that it opened, became a destination both for residents of the Rockaways, Queens, and for what are known locally as D.F.D.’s, or Down for the Days.
The ambience is beachy and casual at the Playland Motel in Queens, where artists have contributed unique visions to the décor.
“I feel like I’m in Montauk four years ago,” said Claudia Talamas, a 31-year-old wardrobe stylist who was visiting with friends last week from the East Village in Manhattan. “It’s so low-key. It’s just totally relaxing.”
Playland’s formula is a less strenuous, Queens-based version of places like the Surf Lodge, which have transformed Montauk into a party spot: a distressed wood patio, a pebbled “beach” with folding chairs, a couple of plastic splash pools and inexpensive beers. It also offers what the Rockaways had been lacking: a place to spend the night.
The ambience — bare feet are encouraged, Wall Street types are not — was a purposeful design choice by Playland’s four principal owners: Robin Scott and Jamie Wiseman, who are partners in the Brooklyn nightclub Output, and Diego Galarza and Eduardo Suarez, proprietors of the restaurants El Almacen and Rosaito Fish Shack in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
All four men had been visiting the Rockaways for years and decided in the spring of 2012 to try their hands at opening a restaurant-hotel. They heard about a local institution, the Tap and Grill clam bar, whose owner, Andy Cholakis, was looking to sell.
Within days of calling, they were in contract. They bought the place that summer, two months before Hurricane Sandy blew through, ruining the coastline and leaving their building waterlogged and mired in toxic goo. “It was really bad luck but it made us want to rebuild it more than ever and to honor what had been there,” Mr. Galarza recalled recently. “We wanted to keep the soul of the clam bar, to do something beachy and casual, but to bring in a sophisticated feeling from New York.”
To that end, Mr. Galarza and his partners hired Whitney Aycock, a chef from Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, who had moved to the Rockaways eight years earlier, to oversee their kitchen. Mr. Aycock, 39, formerly of the South Gate restaurant at the Essex House Hotel, in turn hired the best-known angler in the Rockaways — James F. Culleton, known locally as Frank the Fish — to provide him with the seafood for his menu. That Mr. Aycock also owned a boat, was known to go fishing and had grown up on the island of Jamaica (where his father owned restaurants for nearly 50 years) was in perfect keeping with the beachy atmosphere that Mr. Galarza wanted.
“Pretty much everything I own has sand in it,” Mr. Aycock said. “I’ve basically been in flip-flops for my entire life.”
As for the Playland’s guest rooms — there are 12 in all and they rent nightly for up to $250 — the partners hired artists from their circle of acquaintances and gave them total freedom in creating their designs. What resulted is hallway gallery in which unique aesthetic visions suddenly emerge from behind closed doors. In one room, a giant tepee sits atop a simple wooden bed frame. In another — called “My Bloody Dreams” — a four-person hammock dangles from the ceiling and red paint drips — à la the elevator scene in “The Shining” — down the walls.
Laura Bond, 28 and a fashion industry worker, spent one night last weekend with two of her friends from Williamsburg. “We were here the week before,” she said, “and it was totally insane. We wanted to come back and stay the night.”
The owners wondered at first whether the firefighters and police officers who populate the Rockaways would take to such insanity — not just to the funky decorations in the guest rooms, but to the bacchanalian parties that can last outside on the patio until 2 or 3 a.m. Last Saturday, for instance, a Brooklyn D.J. crew, No Ordinary Monkey, set up in a sound booth to spin Latin house tunes. Hundreds of revelers were swaying with their cocktails on the dance floor. A crimson beach ball was flying through the air, bouncing willy-nilly off people’s sweaty heads.
Adding to all of this, the Playland hopes in the next few weeks to start screening movies on a whitewashed wall outside and to open up a wood-stove pizzeria. In a testament to its increasing popularity, Rockabus, the Rockaways version of the Hampton Jitney, arranged last week to have a 1 a.m. shuttle pick up late-night stragglers at Playland’s door and return them to points in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
“When we got the keys from Andy,” Mr. Scott recalled, “he said, ‘I’m passing this on to you so you have to take good care it.’ It was important for us from the start not just to airlift Brooklyn culture to the Rockaways, but to respect the fact that we had arrived in someone else’s neighborhood.”
Before the motel opened, he and his partners shrewdly hired a pair of local barmen, Kenny Nichtern and John O’Connor, and installed them at the inside bar on Friday nights to cater to the hometown crowd that comes before the weekend customers arrive. On one such evening, with the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones as a soundtrack, six or seven firefighters were drinking cans of beer and considering the changes in the neighborhood. Some of them had grown up only blocks away and still had memories not only of the Tap and Grill, but of the bar that preceded it, Boggiano’s, and the now-defunct amusement park — also called Playland — that was once across the street.
One of them was a man who, in the clannish manner of the Rockaways, asked to be referred to by his nickname, Leaper.
“What do I think?” Leaper said. “I think that I’m in Florida. I think it’s kind of weird that they took the name Playland, but it’s got nothing to do with what actually used to be here.
“I’m not saying it’s a bad place, but it definitely isn’t what it was,” he added. “I suppose it’s what it is.”
A version of this article appeared in print on August 4, 2013, on page MB1 of the New York edition with the headline: August? Get Outta Town!: Montauk Comes to Queens.