Beetlebung boosts business in Oak Bluffs

Vineyard-based company’s flagship enterprise on Circuit Avenue is part of a changing downtown landscape.

Beetlebung co-owners John and Renee Molinari have invested $2.4 million in their new Circuit Ave. enterprise. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Beetlebung, the popular Menemsha coffee house/bistro and Vineyard Haven retail store, is preparing to open a third enterprise at 53 Circuit Avenue, the former location of Deon’s, Papa’s Pizza, and, many years ago, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea company (A&P).

Beetlebung’s expansion into Oak Bluffs is part of a changing and enhanced business landscape, a top priority of business leaders and town officials.

The new Beetlebung will have two distinct personalities. During the day, it will serve essentially the same food offerings as the Menemsha location — coffee drinks, smoothies, breakfast sandwiches, salads, wraps, and the popular curry lobster sliders — and it will have the same retail offerings as the Vineyard Haven location. Then, after five pm, apropos of old Oak Bluffs, the “speakeasy” entrance at the side of the building will open, and Beetlebung will become an “adult oasis,” as co-owner John Molinari puts it, serving cocktails made with artisanal spirits and gourmet small plates that tap into recipes from around the world.

“It’s all about mixing the old and the new,” Mr. Molinari said as he gave a tour of the building amid the cacophony of construction. “Practically all the work here is being done by Vineyard tradesmen. Even the brackets that support the bar were handmade here. Look at this craftsmanship,” he said, indicating the gently curving bar that will eventually be topped with hand-pressed zinc.

The original tin ceiling has been restored, the oak floor boards and the tiled stoop with the iconic A&P logo are being preserved, but otherwise, the 100-plus-year-old building will be a total renovation by the time it opens in mid-May. Between the purchase of the property and the cost of the renovation, Mr. Molinari estimates the investment into the new Beetlebung will be about $2.4 million. Mr. Molinari and his wife/co-owner, Renee Molinari, have been involved in every detail, from finding the California orchard walnut for the window counters to choosing the handmade Ottoman lamps from Istanbul. The Molinaris enlisted the services of Oak Bluffs architect Chuck Sullivan, interior design consultant Kim Nye, and Vineyard Playhouse technical director Alex Senchak to oversee the lighting and sound. The 2,000-square-foot space will have 64 seats with a capacity of 99 people.

Adult oasis

The Molinaris went to over 100 upscale bars all over the country to do research and to interview bartenders before they came up with the design and atmosphere for the Beetlebung “speakeasy.” Mr. Molinari, a former CEO of Media 100, a video editing software company, said the lighting will be computer controlled to adjust for time of day. “No bar anywhere is more sophisticated, on Island or off. We want the ambiance to be stimulating and adult-oriented, with music programmed so people will not have to shout to hear each other. It’s going to be a low wavelength, chill-out lounge.”

The speakeasy menu — a creation of executive chef Jerry Marano, who spent the off season cooking in Thailand — will include Thai marinated beef salad, Indian spiced soft-shell crab and tempura lobster, as well as dishes from Morocco, Korea, and Italy. “We use the best ingredients, locally grown whenever possible, and we make almost everything from scratch. Even our curry paste is made from scratch,” Mr. Molinari said.

The drink menu will include Speakeasy Coffee Milk, Thai Blackberry Lemonade and the signature A & P — apricot and peach syrup, made in-house; chamomile infused gin; fresh mint and sage; topped with sparkling wine.

“There will be 8 to 10 completely unique cocktails,” mixology consultant Jonathan Pogash said, as he checked in on construction on Tuesday afternoon. “We’ll also make all the classics. You can’t be a great bar if you can’t make a great martini or a great Manhattan. This bar will be like nothing the Vineyard has ever seen, let alone the Cape.”

In for the long haul

The Molinaris had been looking to expand into Oak Bluffs for quite some time before they purchased 53 Circuit Ave. “We tried to buy the Oyster Bar, but Edgartown Bank decided to keep it,” said Mr. Molinari, who worked for Peter Martell at the Lampost in the previous millennium. “The day we learned we didn’t get it, we were crushed. Then [owner of the building] Bill Davies called and said, ‘I hear you’re looking for a building.’ We did the deal that day with a handshake and we closed in 90 days.”

As any Oak Bluffs proprietor knows, buying the property is only the beginning of the process. The first thing the Molinaris did after securing the building was to meet with the Camp Meeting Association. “They had a long list. Their primary concern was noise mitigation,” Mr. Molinari said. “The entire back wall of the building was rebuilt and insulated and we installed oversized exhaust fans that could rotate more slowly and cause less noise.” In the end, the Camp Meeting Association was so pleased with the Molinaris’ cooperation that, in what must be a first in Oak Bluffs history, executive director Robert Clermont went before the Oak Bluffs selectmen to endorse the project when the Molinaris applied for their liquor license.

“The Molinaris have an excellent reputation on the Island,” Mr. Clermont said in a telephone interview with the Times. “They’re leasing a little bit of land from us behind the building, but they promised no liquor would be contained or served on it. They also did not apply for an entertainment license. That would have been a much different situation.”

“People have been talking a lot about the state of downtown,” Mr. Molinari said. “We’re just catching O.B. at a bad moment. It’s going to come back. It already is. We’re in it for the long term.”

Restaurant revival

The new Beetlebung is one of several new eateries opening in Oak Bluffs this spring.

Fishbones restaurant on Oak Bluffs harbor was recently purchased by Michael Santoro, owner of the popular Lookout Tavern. “It all came about at the last minute. Sean Murphy made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Mr. Santoro said, referring to Edgartown attorney Sean Murphy. “It’s so close to the Lookout it was a natural to jump on board.”

Mr. Santoro said the Fishbones name and logo were part of the deal, so the name will stay the same. The restaurant will have the same look when it opens on May 15.  Mr. Santoro said he plans extensive renovations next winter.

“People can expect the same quality and excellent service that my restaurants have been known for,” Mr. Santoro said. “There will be some familiar faces working there. I have some employees who’ve worked for me 12, 14 years, and they’re ready to take on new challenges.”

Mr. Santoro said the new Fishbones menu will be casual and affordable and will offer a “light and healthy” breakfast menu, in addition to lunch and dinner. Asked why he thought there were usually plenty of seats available at Fishbones last summer, Mr. Santoro replied, “I think the Fishbones brand got stale. That’s a prime location. No boats can dock in front of it, so it’s one of the best views on the harbor. It just needs a little TLC and some new blood.”

There will also be new blood at 16 Kennebec, where 20byNine will take over the former location of the Sidecar. 20byNine will offer an extensive selection of craft beers and a seasonal snack menu loaded with local ingredients. It is scheduled to open in mid to late May.

William Craffey, owner of The Pizza Place in Edgartown and Vineyard Pizza Place in Vineyard Haven, purchased the former home of Jimmy Seas, also on Kennebec Ave, at a recent auction. He and his business partner, Lisa Huff, plan to reopen the establishment as a pan pasta restaurant.