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The Martha's Vineyard Times

The Martha's Vineyard Times is a weekly publication.
August 18 - 24, 2005 Edition
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Edibles: The Wharf rocks anew to Coogan family beat
August 4 , 2005

By Bryan Joiner

Wood paneling, quiet lighting, and friendly atmosphere make The Wharf a comfortable place to meet and eat. Photo by Ben Scott

The Wharf Pub and Restaurant has always been known for its burgers, but pan-roasted cod with littlenecks, linguica and garlic herbs? A chicken sandwich, sure — but pasta with spinach, artichokes, mozzarella and white wine sauce?

Since the Coogan family took it over last October, there have been some visible changes at the venerable Edgartown harborside restaurant, including live music at night and a simplified menu emphasizing quality over quantity.

There’s also an emphasis on family, with less of a pub atmosphere by day and a quieter dinner setting, right until the first guitar chords kick in. The Coogan name is even printed on the menu to let year-rounders know they’re in good hands, while making tourists feel like they’ve made new friends over lunch, dinner, or just a beer.

The renovations are the brainchild of Will Coogan, the oldest son of the late Ed Coogan, a well-respected Vineyard Haven attorney and former Oak Bluffs selectman. Will returned to the Island in 2002 from Los Angeles, where he was an actor with roles in "There’s Something About Mary" and "Stuck On You," and the following year became a co-manager at Alchemy with his sister, Nell. But the family knew they wanted to expand in the restaurant business, and that if they did so it would probably be mostly on Will’s terms. Nell and Geoghan, Will’s younger brother, are now both full-time attorneys but, with their mother, Liza, help out whenever and however they can.

Opportunity knocked

The family jumped when they heard that the McGroarty family was looking to sell the Wharf Pub last year. Will had worked as a busboy there as far back as elementary school and for years afterward, and had several ideas to give the restaurant the Coogan family stamp.

"When I worked there it was more of a drinking crowd. We wanted to put more emphasis on the menu, and make it the kind of place people can come twice a week," he said. "If anybody was going to do it and make it work, it was going to be us. It needs an Island presence to survive the winters."

One of the main changes was implemented before the Coogans began their run at the Wharf. John Shepherd, the former chef of Ipanema in Vineyard Haven, came to the restaurant in early 2004 and has stayed on staff as the architect of the new menu. The list of sandwiches has been slashed dramatically, but the classics remain: a bleu cheese burger here, a turkey club there, and a veggie wrap round out the list of about 10 choices. The real imagination is over on the dinner menu, which will eventually be separated entirely from the sandwich/lunch menu, a la The Black Dog, to create a more formal, family-friendly dining atmosphere at night. The Wharf is on a three-year plan to build its new identity, partly in the image of the Island’s most recognizable eating spot.

"When the Black Dog was going crazy in the 1980s, it was a great family restaurant. Giordano’s in Oak Bluffs is another great family place," Mr. Coogan said.

With the family’s affinity for Oak Bluffs — Mr. Coogan described it as "our town" — it shouldn’t be surprising that, even as he’s refining the Wharf’s image by day he’s letting it rock and roll by night. "There were tons of 22-year-old kids here when we were kids, but nobody wants to do live music in Edgartown anymore," he said. "We’re giving people that option."

Finding the right balance

Given the restaurant’s central location and substantial walk-in business, it will never rival the Island’s most upscale eating joints, but that’s not what Mr. Coogan has planned. That’s why the live music works here: there will have to be a seismic shift in the earth before a classic rock cover band plays L’Etoile, as it did on a recent Tuesday night at the Wharf. Always a favorite of Islanders, the Wharf isn’t being turned out its head. Will Coogan is just bringing a little bit of balance to it.

"We’re a volume restaurant and there’s nothing we can do about that," he said, "but the changes have worked. The winter was good, and we owe a lot to Islanders, and things really started to hum at the beginning of June."

Things are so good that Mr. Coogan has completely turned the page on L.A., and has settled in here for the long haul, which is good news for the fans of the new Wharf — a rapidly growing list of names, Islanders and non-Islands alike. "I always knew I was going to come back here," he said.

The Wharf Pub and Restaurant, located on Lower Main Street in Edgartown, is open daily from 11:30 am to 12:30 am. Food service stops between 9:30 and 10 p.m. For more information, call 508-627-9966.

Bryan Joiner is a 1996 MVRHS graduate. Until recently he was the Assistant Managing Editor of the Queens Chronicle newspaper in New York City.

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