Galley Beach -August 2008

by: Joshua Balling

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Not casual, but casually elegant. No other philosophy better embodies Galley Beach. It’s the bedrock on which the restaurant was envisioned by Jane Silva nearly 30 years ago, and it’s the aesthetic principal which guided her sons Geoffrey and David through a recent renovation and expansion that did nothing but enhance all that is good about the Galley Beach experience.

From the wooden tables set up adjacent to Cliffside Beach, to the impeccable service with continental flair, to the Asian-inspired cuisine of chef Scott Osif and the mystique of the corner table reserved months in advance by captains of industry, senators and celebrities, no detail is overlooked.

“Like the theatre or a movie, it’s not a day-to-day experience,” Geoffrey Silva said. “It’s something you don’t have at home. You can cook a good meal, but you won’t have the design, the look, the chef, the great service.”

None of the romance has been lost in the renovation. The new blends seamlessly with the old. The Gatsbyesque feel of dining outdoors under the former canvas awning – and the thatched roof that leaked in the rain before that – has been retained beneath the white wooden roof. The plastic roll-up storm shades still allow in the open air on idyllic summer days and romantic starry nights. The new wicker and rattan furniture, lazily-rotating ceiling fans and wrought-metal chandeliers complete the classic ambiance and turn-of-the-(last) century feel.

Inside, the new zinc-pewter beach-front bar and coffee-bar wait-station, modeled on the Parisian nightclubs and coffee bars of the 1920s, add a sophisticated, European flavor. The entrance has also been redone, the hostess stand is now to the right in front of a wall of reclaimed brick shipped in from Chicago.

Keeping the special feel of Galley Beach was imperative throughout the renovation. Tradition is of utmost importance to the brothers, as is family.

“We’re the third generation to run the restaurant. When our mother took over, the roof was thatched, and it rained right through. When it rained, we were closed. In 1979, her upgrade was to put in the banquettes all the way around the dining room, and the awning to replace the thatched roof. That’s also when it became a real restaurant open to the public,” Geoffrey said. “We were always concerned that we didn’t want to stray too far from that 1920s shippy, beach-clubby feel. We had all these childhood memories that we wanted to retain in the final design, and I think they are the same memories our customers have.”

They appear to have pulled it off. Most diners are completely unaware of the extent of work done over the off-season.

“The biggest compliment I’ve gotten so far is from the people who come in and say ‘oh, you changed a couple things.’ The feel is still of Galley Beach,” Geoffrey said.

Jane Silva, née Currie, and her family have always had a connection to the stretch of sand known as Cliffside Beach, or at least it seems that way. Her sons run the restaurant today, but the family connection goes back to before the boys were born. Silva’s father was a lifeguard at Cliffside in the 1930s, which is when he met her mother, EmmaLee. Robert Currie fulfilled a lifelong ambition in the late 1950s when he bought a minority share in the Cliffside Beach Club, and eventually the whole club and restaurant.

Today, the property at the end of Jefferson Avenue is owned by three separate entities. All are connected by history, and some by blood. To the west is the Cliffside Beach Club, owned by Robert Currie Jr. and his family. Next to that is Galley Beach, owned by the Silvas. To the east are the cottages known as The Gold Coast, owned by the Huffman family – save for Silva’s house – and leased by Cliffside.

“Tradition is very important to us. Our mother learned to cook from (artist, long-time Opera House chef and close family friend) Lucien van Vyve, and we actually inherited his apartment in Belgium. The family still goes there from time to time, and I have memories of cooking Christmas dinner with Lucien in Paris,” said David. “She learned from (former Chanticleer chef-owner) Jean-Charles Berruet as well, so the tradition stretches back to the 1950s-1970s on Nantucket.”

The brothers – along with general manager Marco Coehlo – have added to Galley Beach a certain modern sophistication absent before. It’s an aesthetic they’ve carried forward to their other culinary ventures: the continental bistro Lo La 41 on South Beach Street and Lo La Burger on the Broad Street “Strip.”

“I think it harkens back to a time when we were in Paris with our parents, and things we’ve seen in New York and California, and really comes out in the bar areas,” Geoffrey said.

David agreed. “One of the things I’m happiest with is the coffee bar. it’s a very old-school, European thing. We figured if we were going to have the wait-station in a public place, we should make it beautiful.”

The brothers have a habit of finishing each other’s sentences, or at the very least, immediately picking up the conversation at the slightest pause.

“Every good Parisian, or European restaurant, they have a good coffee bar,” Geoffrey said.

Providing inspiration, encouragement and helpful suggestions throughout the project were David and Geoffrey’s mother Jane, Geoffrey’s wife Stephanie, and David’s wife Eliza Newman, who was also the interior designer on the project. Her father John was the architect and general contractor.

“When their mother started it, her inspiration was the South of France, with the awning and the flowers,” Newman said. “When the boys took it over, and they talked about the design over many years, they always talked about a nautical inspiration. The combination of the two was really my goal. The zinc bars were about maintaining the old feel from the South of France. The old bistro lights are very nautical in how they move up and down ergonomically. Some of the small design choices, like the curved bars, work for the flow of the restaurant, but also give that feel of ship-like detailing. There are lots of bits and pieces like that.

“Obviously the important thing was to maintain the feel of The Galley. Everyone, including me, would have been upset if it was lost.”

At no time is it more clear that nothing was lost than during an early July dinner on the beach. As the sun slowly sinks into a misty cloud bank to the west, white-shirted wait staff move quietly but solicitously among the tables. Not far removed is the lively bar in the new portion of the building, open to the sand. Revelers getting an early start to the season mingle easily with diners waiting for a table, and even a handful of children play in the sand, among them Kaede, David and Eliza’s year-old-son.

Dinner starts with a pair of appetizers: the jumbo lump crab cake and a classic Caesar salad. Perfectly-seasoned with just a light sear on each side, there’s nothing but crab in the crab cake, a welcome change from the overly-bread-crumbed crab patties all too common today. Not overly-dressed, the Caesar is light and crisp, and pairs perfectly with a crisp glass of Santa Ema sauvignon blanc.

As waves gently lap against the beach and a small catboat bobs on its mooring just offshore, the entrées are served.

The Honey-Glazed Grimaud Farms Duck is perfectly cooked, with two tangerine slices providing just the right amount of palate-cleansing citrus tang. The Lyonnaise Potato, thinly-sliced, infuses the dish with an added layer of depth. The second entrée, Organic King Salmon, is among the freshest pieces of salmon we’ve ever tasted on Nantucket. Set atop a bed of savory brown rice, it is light, yet completely filling.

Other options on Osif’s summer menu include a Truffle-Butter Poached two-pound lobster, with Honshimeji mushrooms, English peas and sweet corn; a Gianone Farms Chicken Breast in a lemon-tarragon reduction; and a Miso-Marinated Alaskan Halibut with a daikon radish and carrot salad.

Dessert is a special treat. The Chocolate Brownie Sundae is the height of decadence, a rich, warm gooey brownie drizzled with homemade hot fudge and nestled against a scoop of slowly melting vanilla ice cream. The lighter chocolate mousse and creme brûlée appeal to the less indulgent – or more stuffed.

Even with a low fog bank obscuring the sun’s final dip below the horizon, the beachside tables are the perfect place to catch the sunset. They cozy up to the sand, bisected by a wooden boardwalk flanked by tiki torches. Several small couches with low tables are located off the bar, available on a first-come, first-served basis.

The ambiance is without equal. There’s no better backdrop to a perfect Nantucket meal.

It’s an aesthetic that carries through to all three restaurants the Silvas run, and it was born at Galley Beach.

“We want the aesthetic and the quality to remain the same despite the price, the menu and the location. We learned that from (Languedoc co-owner) Alan Cunha on The Strip with Steamboat Pizza. Lo La Burger seemed like a good fit. And Marco really pushed that idea as well,” Geoffrey said.

“The places are all different, but they share common themes. They are subtle things, from the colors, to the music, but everything is very carefully thought out so you have the best experience you can,” David said.

Newman agreed. “We don’t want it to stand out too much. It should be different but still fit in. We don’t want people to walk in and say it’s not Nantucket, but we still want to make it sophisticated and elegant.”

Geoffrey summed up The Galley – and perhaps the Silva family philosophy – perfectly. “The overriding theme is to have the best quality we can put out as far as product and atmosphere, while creating a place people feel special going.”

Joshua Balling is the copy editor of Nantucket Today and the managing editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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