Nestled along Jamaica Bay, right next to the Cross Bay Bridge, sits a gem in the Rockaway restaurant community: Thai Rock. With a big open patio, views of Manhattan, delicious food, and live music most nights of the week, Thai Rock is the place to be all year round.
Owner, Robert Kaskel, remembers a time when his path was headed in a very different direction. He worked in tech, developing software for years, but wanted to connect more with people in a real way. He and his wife, Metta, moved to Rockaway at a time when there was a lot of new condo development. Being by the beach made a huge difference in his quality of life. They hosted dinners with friends often, and at one, a friend made the suggestion that they take the dinners out of their kitchen and start a real restaurant. Metta had experience in the restaurant industry, so they decided to “follow their hearts,” as Kaskel fondly refers to it.
Thai Rock opened in June 2011. Hurricane Sandy hit about 18 months later, and completely washed away everything they had started. The building’s first floor was completely destroyed from not only the hurricane damage but years of use and a rotation of prior businesses without the care of an owner-occupier. At this point there were only two options, “Either we were going to rebuild, or we were going to leave,” says Kaskel, “but I didn’t want to rebuild someone else’s building.” So he offered to buy it, understanding that he was in this for the long haul, continuing to follow his dream that he had so briefly been living before the storm. “I’m not just a business owner in the Rockaways, I’m a Rockaway resident,” says Kaskel. He invested in the neighborhood where he lives, making it feel like home.
The community came together post-Sandy in a big way. Everyone went out of their way to get anything that was needed for others. Kaskel recounts a story of removing refrigerators from Connolly’s (a bar down the street) by pulling them over the bar, but says that this was just one of thousands of moments of support.
While businesses were starting to get back on their feet, Kaskel had an idea to boost morale, raise some funds, and welcome restaurant-goers back to the neighborhood. He went around to other local eateries within walking distance and asked if they would be interested in giving away food samples for one afternoon. A $10 ticket would get attendees samples at 10 different restaurants. HEART (Hospitality and Entertainment Association for Restaurants and Taverns) for Rockaway Beach became Rockaway Union, an alliance of different businesses in the area. Taste of Rockaway became a semiannual event in the fall and spring each year. This past May, more than 2,000 people tasted samples at over 30 restaurants in the largest Taste of Rockaway yet.
Kaskel grew up near the water and believes that access to the water, not just waterfront views, is important. “There’s nothing more powerful than the view you get from the ferry, or a jet ski,” he says with a smile. In 2012 he decided to introduce Rockaway Jet Ski to his business with the sole purpose of getting people out onto the bay. Kaskel started off with just two jet skis at the start of the season but quickly had to up the number to four, the following season they went from four to eight. Now Rockaway Jet Ski is one of the largest jet ski rental and tour companies for NYC offering tours of Jamaica Bay and the NY Harbor. Kaskel has also introduced the Tarzan boat, with slides and trampolines into the bay, to what’s now known as Rockaway Water Park.
Kaskel says the whole idea behind Thai Rock and Rockaway Jet Ski is “to help people take a break from their troubles.” He wants a visit here to feel like a vacation, even if it’s only for a few hours. As we sit and chat (and eat), patrons of his restaurant come and go, thanking him with a wave and telling him they’ll be coming back soon.
Thai Rock reopens this Friday March 2nd after a brief hiatus. You can visit this slice of paradise on the waterfront by taking our NYC Ferry to Rockaway and walking 22 minutes or hopping on our East-bound shuttle to Beach 96th Street or Beach 86th Street and walking 9 minutes to Beach 92nd Street and Beach Channel Drive.