Sunday, October 1, 2023

Longtime Restaurateur To Close Riverwalk Restaurant And Expand Water Street Grille in Yorktown

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YORK-When the covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Mario Buffa, owner of Riverwalk Restaurant and Water Street Grille in Yorktown, thought his days as a restauranteur were over. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam had closed all bars and restaurants for on-site consumption in effort to reduce the spread of covid-19 on Monday, March 23, 2020.

Buffa describes the time as one of the worst experiences of his life and his body language in an interview on Thursday, July 28, implied he’s reliving the historical moment as if it were yesterday.

“I brought all the employees into a banquet room, and I basically had to furlough about 60 employees,” said Buffa. “It still bothers me today. I was choked up and actually started crying.”

At this point in time, Buffa was 56 years old, had spent a large portion of his life working in his family’s restaurants, and personally accrued 37 years of experience as a restaurant owner.

“It was a pretty impactful moment in time,” said Buffa. “They’re all looking at me like kids, and I’m looking down at them, like a dad. They’re asking me, ‘what do we do now?’ And I have to say, ‘I don’t know.’”

Buffa fast-forwarded to when restaurants were able to serve customers inside, but with limited seating capacities, and said he decided to close Riverwalk Restaurant and keep Water Street Grille open as he determined his next move.

“During the pandemic, honestly, I thought I was done,” said Buffa. “I contacted a bankruptcy attorney because I just didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. I went into a little depression. I felt like I was getting ready to lose everything.”

That was then, this is now. Buffa has decided that it’s time to say goodbye to Riverwalk Restaurant, which is adjacent to his other restaurant, Water Street Grill, on the waterfront in Yorktown.

“It wasn’t a decision that was made overnight,” said Buffa. “Over a ten-year period, it became obvious to me that people aren’t really interested in coming down here for fine dining. Of course, Riverwalk Restaurant holds a special place in many hearts because so many of our customers celebrated anniversaries, birthdays, and other special moments there.”

Buffa said the aesthetics of Riverwalk Restaurant may have detoured previous potential Riverwalk Restaurant customers.

“If you walk into a restaurant like Riverwalk Restaurant, and it has tablecloths, you may think, ‘this is going to cost me,’ because of the ambience. Then, you walk next door to Water Street Grille and there’s a totally different vibe, where it’s fun and there’s cool music playing, and it’s casual. But guess what? The burgers cost the same at both restaurants.”

The longtime entrepreneur said he hopes to temporarily close Water Street Grill in October and anticipates spending roughly seven months on construction to remodel Riverwalk Restaurant’s space, combining the adjacent restaurants into one establishment.

“Right now, the county is in the construction bid process,” said Buffa. “We’ve met the contractors and they’re going to put their proposals together and provide us with a realistic timeframe, and then I’ll decide if I’m going to pull the trigger this year.”

Buffa said supply-chain issues in obtaining equipment and materials are being investigated and will have an impact on his decision regarding the timeframe.

Buffa said when both spaces are combined, Water Street Grille will encompass 12,000 square feet. Currently, Water Street Grille employs 90 people.

“Prior to the pandemic, at peak times, we had 250 employees at Water Street Grille,” said Buffa.

Water Street Grille offers a fun dining experience, coupled with waterfront views, and a full bar that boasts a wide selection of craft beer from around the world. Its menu offers steak and seafood entrees, sandwiches, burgers, pizza, salads, and more.

Buffa has owned many restaurants over the years. He purchased Riverwalk Restaurant in 2012 and opened Water Street Grille the following year. In addition to Riverwalk Restaurant and Water Street Grille at the Yorktown waterfront, he currently owns IHOP in Grafton and Waypoint Seafood & Grill in Williamsburg. He opened his first restaurant on the Peninsula at the age of 19. When Buffa’s not working in one of his restaurants, he spends his time working in real estate investment and development.

Water Street Grille is located at 323 Water St., Suite A-1, in Yorktown. Hours of operation are 11am to 9pm Sunday to Thursday and 11am to 10pm on Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 757-369-5644 or visit its website and Facebook page.

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