A Round of Cheers for Jeff and Kerryann

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 After 38 years of running Rockaway’s iconic summer bar, Jeff Aquilante and Kerryann Daly can enjoy their first free summer kicking back with a Guinness in Ireland. With the sale made official and Connolly’s future in good hands, the duo is officially retired.

Aquilante says the wind in their sails started to die down in 2016 when they made the move to Ireland. “We started a new chapter of our life, and we didn’t have the energy. I’m not a young person anymore and it really is a young person’s game. The last few years, we were phoning it in. We weren’t looking for the best DJ, the next best bartender, we just lost interest because we were out of it,” Aquilante explained.

After all, the couple had many years under their belt, which started when they were young. In the ‘80s, Aquilante, a U.S. maritime lawyer, and his law school buddy, Garry Tornberg, were looking for a place to live when they stumbled across a bar for sale. The price was right and at 31 years old, Aquilante suddenly found himself as owner of a place that had been a bar since at least 1927, previously O’Shea’s Celtic House before the Connolly family bought it in 1964. When Aquilante and Tornberg bought it in ’84, the name stuck. Connolly’s was already well established. They just needed to give it some new love.

A year later, Aquilante would find love there when a 22-year-old girl had heard that Connolly’s had the best strawberry daiquiris in town. “They were killer. They were a pain in the ass to make, but that’s how I met my wife. Joe Flores, our bouncer at the time said, ‘Meet my friend, Kerryann, you two are the same head,’” Aquilante recalled. “We were together a month later.”

Tornberg backed out and from 1986 on, Jeff and Kerryann became the team that made Connolly’s a place that has been beloved in Rockaway for generations. But Jeff gives Kerryann a lot of the credit. “Kerryann has a sense of what makes a great bar. So many of the aesthetics was all her. If it was just me, I don’t think you’d see the Connolly’s that you see today,” Aquilante said.

There are many factors that Aquilante says contributed to Connolly’s being a bar of choice. “When you have to go down three steps into a bar, I don’t care where you are in the world, if you got that, you got a good bar coming at you,” he said. “The parking lot was the greatest thing, it’s by the beach and the frozen drinks (60,000 sold a season) set us apart. Now everyone is on our tails, but they still don’t know how to make a proper piña colada. You have to spend money on top-quality ingredients. Or maybe we just have magic,” Aquilante said.

But beyond the secret ingredients, it is the people who have made Connolly’s what it is, from the folks behind the taps to the customers sitting in front of them, many of whom are pictured on the bar’s walls.

“How many times do you go into a bar, and you get some disinterested person behind the bar? You didn’t last at Connolly’s if you were like that,” Aquilante said. “It’s the people in Connolly’s. Other than that, you’d just be sitting in someone’s basement. We serve a good product and it’s clean, but we have personality, and we want to welcome you.”

It would be impossible to name all the bartenders that have come and gone in 38 years, but Aquilante spoke of some who stood out. After he and Tornberg, Aquilante recalls Louie Nicosa as the first new guy behind the bar. “He was terrific,” Aquilante said. “Terence Tubridy was unbelievable. Damien Farrell and Watson in San Diego. There might be a tossup between Patrick Brady and Chris Zam for best bartender ever. Freddie Bomhauf, he was the main lifeguard supervisor who bartended on Wednesday nights. He was a legend. Jean-Marie Haggerty, incredible. Binky Glennon was outstanding with the fun she would inject into an afternoon. A Polish girl, Annetta, some people would come in just for her dry sense of humor. Martin Tubridy was a great bartender and barback. As far as barbacks go, he was magical. Bobby Johnson, Pat Connolly, Duke Foti. We even had Chris Miles for a summer. And we can’t forget Richie Tighe, he was here for the entire run,” Aquilante said. “We’ve had an all-star lineup every generation. People who went on to do great things.”

Aquilante couldn’t point out just one standout memory in all their years. “There’s too many. As a general matter, if we had a season that was more successful than the last, that’s what we were going for. But every time I thought I’d seen everything that could happen in a bar, there was something else,” he said.

But Jeff and Kerryann were often part of the party, especially ones that set Connolly’s apart. “We did toga parties and would go to all the secondhand shops to buy all the sheets we could, and we’d go to this florist in Middle Village, and we’d sit down for eight hours and make laurels and togas. If people didn’t have a toga, we’d wrap them up,” Aquilante said. Of course, Jeff and Kerryann donned togas themselves. “And then there was the bikini contest. Those were two things that required extreme effort, but it was worth it. It was fun, but we hadn’t been injecting that kind of energy into the bar in the last few years.”

So in 2020, they put it up for sale. A listing appeared for a parcel that included the bar, a garden, plus three other homes and bungalows on the property, and it caught the eye of many a local who dreamed of keeping Connolly’s, Connolly’s. It came with an asking price of $6M. But when Aquilante found the right buyer, he closed at a price not near asking, but maybe more valuable. “If a developer came to me with the offer, we would’ve turned it down. It was worth the lesser amount to me for everything we’ve built up over these four decades to have a chance of it surviving into the future,” Aquilante said. “This group’s hook was they weren’t going to kick out my tenants, all of whom are my friends, and they weren’t going to change or knock down Connolly’s. That was a big plus in their favor that I didn’t expect to see.”

On Friday, April 22, the torch was passed to the local families behind Locals Surf School—The Reinhardts and Kololyans. “They’re very nice guys. Every one of them is very personable and they’ve been coming to the bar as regulars since they were young,” Aquilante said. Is Connolly’s in good hands? “Absolutely,” Aquilante said. “I think they’re going to make it even better.”

Along with the properties, all of the secret recipes, including the piña coladas, have been passed on so the new owners can keep them pouring. Aquilante says even though the Dingle peninsula in Ireland will now be his permanent home after living there for six years, he may return in the future as a customer. “I told the Mikes I can’t wait to come back to Connolly’s, so I can be a problem” he said with a laugh.

For now, Jeff and Kerryann are going to enjoy their first real free summer, without the sleepless nights and bar bills. “Prior to owning Connolly’s, summer was my favorite time of year but that came to a grinding halt with the business, so to have a summer where we can have fun again, that feels pretty f***ing good.”

 By Katie McFadden

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