The day before Thanksgiving.
That’s when people from afar, whether they’re away at college or employed at a lab in California, are back in town visiting mom and dad.
But before settling in with relatives for hours worth of turkey and football, they go out — late. So do the people who still live in the area, either to catch up with old pals or pursue an old flame.
For a place like Painters’ Restaurant in Brookhaven, Thanksgiving Eve can be the biggest night of the year.
That was the day Craig Bazarewski and Mike Omelchuk targeted to reopen the Brookhaven landmark bar and restaurant after a devastating fire threatened to close it for good in 2012.
Both men are former Painters’ employees and graduates of Bellport High School, where they played football together and became friends. The two purchased the Brookhaven building in March 2013.
Even though they started construction work April 1, and had a team of people on hand to help them, it was still a race against time to meet their target re-opening date.
“We thought it was going to be much quicker than it was,” Bazarewski said. “It turned out to be almost eight months of work. I couldn’t even count how many friends and family were here that last week, for that last push.”
“Behind every wall there was always something,” Omelchuk said.
A CHANGED HAMLET
For those who’ve never been, Painters is somewhat of a hodgepodge of extensions built over more than a century.
It all amounts to four large rooms, as well as a large kitchen and office space, nestled in a woodsy, upstate-like corner of Brookhaven Hamlet off South Country Road, just south of a train trestle.
Omelchuk said the earliest official certificate of occupancy they saw dated to 1897, when the front space operated as a bed and breakfast. It housed several businesses over the next 100 years.
The most recent owners transformed the building from a catering hall in 1998 and came up with the concept of decorating it, wall to wall, with the work of local artists, hence Painters’.
Many of those pieces survived the fire and are still on display today at the restaurant.
It was in the office where fire broke out about 3:30 a.m. on May 1, 2012.
Bazarewski, who had worked at Painters for 10 years and was employed as the GM by its former owners, Steve Laird and Larry Wolhandler, said his cell phone rang shortly after the owners got word of the blaze.
“I just woke up to phone calls from the previous owners,” he said. “And I remember coming down here, the hoses and everything smoking. The fire trucks. It was just weird to see that. To see the condition everything was in. So many years. We just lost a lot.”
Within a few months it became clear the prior owners weren’t committed to re-opening. Word spread, the texts were flying: “RIP Painters.”
Gone was the option to dine, drink and dance the night away in Brookhaven.
“In the summer the bar kind of slows down a little bit,” Bazarewski said. “But as soon as I think September came, right after Labor Day, people were like, what are we going to do? There’s no bands. There’s no DJ’s. It really just changed the vibe of the town.”
“People were bummed out,” said Omelchuk. “It was like losing a brother.”
Having grown up in Bellport, the two pals knew how much Painters meant to the community. After combing through years of the restaurant’s financial records, they came to the conclusion they could afford to purchase and rebuild the place.
“We knew the potential,” Omelchuk said.
They just underestimated how much work needed to be done.
Even before the fire, Painters needed updating, the new owners said.
“From the time it was shut down, there was a lot of theft, a lot of people coming in and taking copper, electric lines, plumbing,” Bazarewski said. “There was water coming in.
“It was honestly a disaster.”
The friends remember how they felt leaving the closing table in Melville after taking possession of the building — even though at the time they didn’t realize the full scope of their project.
“You just feel like you signed your life away,” Bazarewski said.
“We were psyched,” Omelchuk said.
What proceeded was a lot of ripping, pulling, snapping, sawing, screwing, unscrewing, wiping of the brow. Maybe the occasional kicking of something. The montage — with a mix of players that included wives, fathers, friends, and in-laws — continued through that spring, summer and fall.
“We just thought the fire was in the office; it shouldn’t be that bad,” Omelchuk said. “But then we turned on the lights and saw the mess [in the restaurant]. And we said, oh man this is the money-maker. From there it was one thing after another.”
Keeping any of the bathrooms, floors or furniture wasn’t really an option.
“It just needed to be done,” Omelchuk said. “Then, when we thought we were done, it was like, now this has to be done.
“It kind of snowballed.”
What resulted was Painters.
The bar, restaurant and dance club was eventually restored to its former glory, but with modern features like exposed brick walls, new air ducts, and refinished tables and stools. The partners and their helpers built a new bar and nearly quadrupled the selection of draft beer on tap to 26.
The’ve also begun to emphasize the outdoors more, offering Saturday and Sunday morning brunches and mounting TVs and building benches in the front patio in the run-up to football season.
Aside from the brunches, the paint-and-sip nights, a Mexican-themed night and Wednesdays’ seafood fests, the partners say their vision is to maintain Painters’ as a place for one-stop shopping in the realm of having a great time.
“We’re just trying to make this a destination,” said Bazarewski. “When you come here, you’re here for the night, instead of just popping in for a drink or dinner and moving on. We’re just really pushing fun.”
As for what’s next, the Bellporters say not to expect any second-floor addition.
“We’re just try to perfect this,” Bazarewski said. “That would be the best thing to say.”
Photo 1: Craig Bazarewski and Mike Omelchuk in Painters’ main dining room. (Credit: Michael White)