As they contemplate the first anniversary of super storm Sandy, some shore dwellers have given up and moved inland. Others are still determined to rebuild and continue. One shoreline restaurant is about to embark on its second major comeback.
Dock & Dine isn't a restaurant one is likely to wind up at by accident. Far from having a busy main street location, it's a couple miles from Old Saybrook's downtown, off of a largely rural and residential road. But if nearly 70 years of business have shown anything, it's that customers will find the place, and they'll continue to come back. Herman Fleishman, for one, has been coming for more than 30 years. He says, "Dock and Dine is like the equivalent of my left arm, my right arm." Fleishman drove down from Colchester last week for lunch, a week earlier for dinner and drinks, and the week before that, too.
Mari Kodama, Dock & Dine's manager, says, "One of the reasons why I think Dock & Dine is so successful and so popular is that everyone has these memories of coming to the shore, and so you have a lot of traditions, family traditions, friend traditions that everyone's coming down here and taking part of." Kodama's family has owned the restaurant since 1987, and examples of her theory are easy to find.
When I visited, I met customers from as far away as Boston who choose Dock & Dine for an annual family gathering, and some regular customers from years past who down from Southington to see if the food is still as good as it used to be. You might have your own Dock & Dine story. But if you haven't seen the restaurant in the last couple years, it's not the same as you remember it.
Back in August of 2011, tropical storm Irene put over four feet of water into the restaurant, and forced an end to their season. Kodama said there wasn't major structural damage, but just about everything else was ruined. "At that time, we really decided, okay, let's take the opportunity to do some renovations that the restaurant needed, but unfortunately that took us 360 days to do. And then we had reopened, everything was going great, we were open for 63 days, and then Sandy came."
John Kodama, Dock & Dine's owner, said, "We assumed we were gonna get wet. We didn't think we were gonna get wrecked." As a precaution, he says they'd moved all the furniture and equipment they could, and during the renovations they'd specified materials which could withstand flooding similar to what they experienced with Irene. But the flooding from Sandy was much more destructive. Kodama said, "It literally picked up the portion of the building that extends over the water, twisted it, and pulled it away from the rest of the building. So structurally, there was a lot of damage."
There was so much damage that another renovation wouldn't cut it. A town ordinance had been triggered that would require the Kodamas to demolish Dock & Dine and rebuild to current flood zone building codes, Kodama says that means the building would need to be roughly 12 to 14 feet higher than it currently is.
Rumors flew around town that the Kodamas wouldn't rebuild, and with losses and expenses reaching past a million dollars, who could blame them? But Kodama says that Dock & Dine's location has proven itself time and again. And after feeling the community response when they came back the first time, he was more committed to rebuilding than ever. "Dock and Dine was an old restaurant at the time Irene hit. We were able to modernize it. We saw the boost that that received from the public. The new restaurant, which is going to be spectacular, is going to be even better than that. I know it. So it's worth it," Kodama said.
Even so, the work ahead, and its cost, is daunting. Kodama says the family company's three other restaurants, in Mystic, have been taking up some of the slack during Dock & Dine's shuttered seasons, and opening this past summer in the remaining, structurally sound portion of the restaurant allowed them to turn a profit for those months. But when the new facility opens next summer, Kodama expects it will be on the back of two mortgages, a relief loan from Middlesex County, and a federal disaster assistance loan. He said that if the restaurant were anywhere else, he wouldn't be doing it.
Dock & Dine's last day of business in their longtime facility will be October 30. And as this end approaches, customers are invited to stop by and sign planks that Sandy ripped from the old docks. Next summer, those planks will be hanging in the new restaurant, at least 15 feet above sea level.