Whistling Willie’s Changes Hands

New owner got his start at Dockside at age 13

By Michael Turton

Whistling Willie’s American Grill, located at the corner of Main Street and Morris Avenue in Cold Spring, has a new owner and will soon undergo a number of other changes as well. Frank Ciafardini, 25, who grew up in Garrison and still makes that his home, purchased the business and took over operations on New Year’s Day. The planned changes will not include a new name. Previous owner Bill Sohan had requested that the name Whistling Willie’s be kept as part of the sale agreement. Sohan passed away on Wednesday, Jan. 9.

The new owner of Whistling Willie's, Frank Ciafardini (Photo by M. Turton)

The new owner of Whistling Willie’s, Frank Ciafardini (Photo by M. Turton)

Ciafardini said that the only staff change will see Cold Spring resident Zach Merante promoted to front-of-house manager. “I’m really excited to contribute to something we can all be proud of. We want to take what we have and improve it,” he said. In his new role, Merante will oversee bar and dining room operations, deal with vendors and schedule staff.

The most significant physical change initially will be an expansion of the bar, resulting in more extensive use of the side room, which once hosted The Listening Room music series and served as an overflow dining area. Plans call for the entrance to that room to be enlarged and the bar reconfigured as an open, horseshoe-shaped bar that utilizes both rooms. A white-oak hardwood floor will be installed throughout the restaurant and bar and the entire ceiling will be converted to the copper-colored pressed tin currently used in only part of the main dining and bar area.

The menu will also take on a new look. “I want to include a lot more local, seasonal foods — fresh and organic foods,” Ciafardini said. “I’m not for just taking something from a jar and serving it. Quality ingredients make a world of difference. People don’t mind paying if it’s something that’s special.”

Zach Merante is now the front-of-house manager at Willie's. Photo by M. Turton

Zach Merante is now the front-of-house manager at Willie’s. Photo by M. Turton

An executive chef has been brought in to review the menu and will make recommendations on everything from appetizers to entrees. But there is at least one Whistling Willie’s mainstay that will stay on the menu. “The burgers here are excellent,” Ciafardini said. “We want to take what is here and tweak it, put a spin on it, make it fresh.”

Operating hours will be altered as well. While in the past, the kitchen has closed at 10 or 11 p.m., it will now remain open until 1 a.m., seven days a week. Late-night offerings will likely include “small plates” such a tapas and other lighter fare. A special menu for seniors will be offered in late afternoon. The wine list is being reviewed, and Ciafardini plans on adding more regionally produced beers to the mix. “I’d like to tie regional beers in with the menu — recommending certain beers for different kinds of foods.”

Music lovers will be happy to know that live music will continue to be offered as often as five days a week, depending on the season.

The building that is home to Whistling Willie's first opened its doors as The Diamond Hotel in 1849. M. Turton photo

The building that is home to Whistling Willie’s first opened its doors as The Diamond Hotel in 1849. M. Turton photo

Ciafardini got his start in the restaurant business at age 13, working as a bus boy at Dockside on Cold Spring’s riverfront. Later he worked as a food runner at Bella Vita Restaurant in Yorktown. Thinking he was headed for a career in medicine, he studied biology for four years at SUNY Stony Brook and SUNY Albany. While in Albany he began working as a server at The Cheesecake Factory. After finishing university, Ciafardini decided “to stick with what I know,” and worked his way up to a management position at The Cheesecake Factory in White Plains.

Whistling Willie’s will close — at least partially — beginning Feb. 1. Plans are to fully reopen by St. Patrick’s Day. “Our goal is to stay open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. until closing during construction,” Ciafardini said.

A second phase of construction is planned further down the road. French doors will be installed along both the Main Street and Morris Avenue sides of the restaurant, creating what Ciafardini described as “an open-air vibe.”

“This is really a great opportunity,” Ciafardini said. “When I was little, we were always cooking at home. Then it was my first job. Now I’m here. We want to refresh an existing landmark. This place has a great history, and we want to continue it.”

The building that houses Whistling Willie’s certainly has a rich history, having opened its doors as The Diamond Hotel in 1849. During and immediately after the Civil War, the upper floors served as a veterans’ hospital, while the ground-floor saloon continued operations uninterrupted.

When its role as a hospital ended, it was remodeled and became known as the Hotel Manteo, a name that remained unchanged until 1978. In 1986 it became Henry’s-on-the-Hudson. After two other name changes, it became Whistling Willie’s in 2007. The present-day mahogany bar is believed to be the original, dating back to the Diamond Hotel era.

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