Melville on the Menu, Bukowski in the Bathroom

Photo: Beginnings Restaurant.

On a first look, Beginnings Bar and Restaurant in Atlantic Beach, NY, doesn’t seem so different from other dining spots you might find in this Long Island beach village. The rustic dining room has high ceilings, one exposed-brick wall and sturdy wooden tables. On this late-September afternoon, Saturday sports events are playing on the big-screen TVs above the bar.

Look closer, though, and you’ll see that Beginnings is not a typical beachgoer spot. On a ledge along the front wall are framed images of celebrated writers: Kerouac, Woolf, Plath, Vonnegut. In one corner of the room, a large bookcase is lined with everything from Little Dorrit to The DaVinci Code, along with an array of screenplays and some vintage typewriters. Slyly tucked beneath the bar are rows of old library card catalogs.

“None of the drawers are real,” says Heather Freiser, who owns Beginnings with her husband, Ben. “Everyone tries them.”

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The Freisers are meeting with me this afternoon to talk about their literary-themed restaurant, which opened six months ago. With them are their two sons: a lively toddler named Sebastian and his infant brother, Holden, asleep in his pram.

They said no to dark cherry or mahogany paneling.

Ben and Heather are entrepreneurial book (and movie) lovers who married four years ago. In realizing their dream of a literature-themed establishment, they’ve tried to be subtle, to keep the place free of literary-décor clichés. They said no, for instance, to dark cherry or mahogany paneling. They didn’t pattern the place after similarly oriented eateries or watering holes, although they did check out the Charles Bukowski–themed Barkowski when they visited Santa Monica, CA.

“We didn’t want it to be over the top, with book covers everywhere,” says Heather. She and Ben aimed to create a relaxed place where, during the summer season, tourists could drop by for a drink and/or a meal after a beach stroll. But they also wanted it to be a destination restaurant for book lovers.

The printed menus take care not to push the lit theme too forcefully, although apt allusions certainly are to be found (the seafood roster, for instance, is called “Melville’s Corner”). As for the cuisine itself, the couple wanted it to be non-intimidating and familiar fare, but with a twist.

“It’s hard to find somewhere [in Atlantic Beach] where you’re getting more than just a burger and fries and beer,” explains Heather. “You can get a burger and fries here,” adds Ben, “but with a little foie gras on top.”

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Food and drink menus from Beginnings
Remembrance of things repast?

The most innovative culinary choices at Beginnings can be found on Taste of Literature nights (the third Wednesday of each month), when the menu — as well as the general atmosphere — pays tribute to a particular work of literature: sometimes hi-falutin’ and sometimes poppy. There was, for instance, a Great Gatsby night, when staff and patrons dressed in Jazz Age garb. For a Joy Luck Club gathering, the room was transformed into a Chinese restaurant. Most recently, a Wednesday was devoted to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.

Remembers Heather: “I walked into the kitchen and said, ‘You probably haven’t read this one. But we need Italy, Indonesia and India. So go for it. And make it all work for one meal.’ ” One item concocted by chef David Bryer was a dessert pairing pistachio gelato (something spoken of frequently in the Italian portion of Gilbert’s memoir) with an Indonesian mango tart.

Both hifalutin and poppy lit.

The Taste of Literature themes are chosen six months in advance and booked a month before the event. Their reservations lists tend to fill up quickly. Next up will be Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho night, when male waitstaff will wear plastic raincoats and the women will dress as “Robert Palmer girls.” The menu for that one is still in the planning stages, although the Freisers have been joking about featuring sea-urchin ceviche, one of protagonist Patrick Bateman’s favorite dishes.

Again, the trick with both ambience and cuisine is to be clever, but not annoyingly so. “We don’t need a Bell Jar crabmeat and avocado salad,” says Heather. We’re not gonna take it that far.”

Photo of Heather and Ben Freiser
Heather and Ben Freiser. Photo: Mark Dundas Wood.

Other events at Beginnings are book signings and readings, meetings of a recently formed book club, and Sunday kids’ brunches. (On the Sunday following my visit, Alice in Wonderland was the featured story.) A Halloween party for adults is planned for later this month that will include a jazz band and a group of performers from Poetry Brothel. “Hooker tokens” will be issued to diners looking for burlesque-style dancers to sit on their laps and read a poem aloud. (On a different date, there will be a kid-friendly Halloween event.)

The Freisers’ clientele is mixed. Teachers and librarians have held events in the space. Even with more boisterous contingents, decorum tends to be maintained, although the copy of Bukowski’s Women in the men’s room is regularly pilfered, restocked and pilfered yet again. Occasionally there will be a full-fledged scoffer. Says Ben: “Some people will be, ‘I was an English teacher. Who are you to open a place like this?’ ”

Heather was an English major in college who wanted to be a poet. She wound up working in financial TV and now has a full-time position at the marketing company Contently. Ben majored in film, but has managed and owned restaurants throughout his working life. One of his former local eateries, Speakeasy, had a Prohibition-era theme. “I’ve always been a conceptual guy,” he says.

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I’ve been talking with the Freisers for the better part of an hour. (At one point a delighted Sebastian came to the table with a kitchen worker, bringing platters heaped with spaghetti and edamame. The boy wanted to stay at the table, but Ben urged him to return to the kitchen to help with housekeeping detail. “A clean kitchen is a happy kitchen!” he reminded the child.)

Exterior of the restaurant
Beginnings Bar and Restaurant

I check my prepared notes to see if there’s anything I’ve forgotten to ask. I realize I haven’t queried about the choice of the name “Beginnings.” The Freisers explain that it was picked for multiple reasons. For one thing, the restaurant is close to the geographic line at which Queens ends and Nassau County begins — and vice versa. The name is also personal to the Freisers: it alludes to the fact that this is the first restaurant they’ve created together as a couple. But Heather reveals that “Beginnings” was not their first choice as a name:

“We wanted ‘Chapter One,’ ” she says, “but we thought it sounded too close to ‘Chapter 11.’ ”