Driving into Hurricane Sandy-ravaged Sea Bright on a freezing winter's night lately is like getting a harsh slap of sorrow square in the face.
It's dark. It's quiet. It's what loss looks like — stark and sad. Eerie mountains of sand block the view of a lone beach replenishment barge equipped with a beacon that calls to visitors like the scary siren of an at-war sea.
It's been that way for a while now, save for the few businesses that stay open into the night. But this night was different. There was another light and a spirit of warmth that emanated from a now re-opened Woody's Ocean Grille.
Stepping out of the car and into an otherwise still Sea Bright, an ironic wave of sounds now engulfs. You can hear wind whistle, waves crashing, doors creaking and loose shutters flapping. But, there's now laughter and a lot of happy grumbling that layers and masks the sounds of solitude.
They're talking about it ... Woody's is open for business and breathing more life into the nearly shuttered-by-Sandy town. At night Harry's Lobster House has been open for a while. So has Ama Ristorante. So has Dunkin' Donuts. Now there's Woody's.
"I just feel like there's such a beacon of hope right now," said a beaming Chris Wood as he made rounds in his restaurant listening to an endless stream of congratulations. "I can't tell you the tremendous amount of relief and happiness I feel right now. And I'm feeling it from everyone who's walked through these doors today."
Wood said that the activity streamed steadily from the time of the opening at 11:30 a.m. straight through, including people waiting in their cars early for him to open the doors.
Nearly 300 dinners were served and the place was jumping and filled with just about any kind of community member you could imagine, from officials to Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School alumni to townies and even people from Texas in town to lend a hand with Sea Bright recovery.
People were pretty happy. And they came to share their homecoming-type happiness with Wood, who also founded Sea Bright Rising after feeling fortunate in the face of Sandy's devastation.
"It's really good to be back," waitress Claudia Cantor could be overheard saying to a steady customer.
Woody's partner Peter Forlenza and wife Ellen, of Rumson, sat, dined and soaked in the homecoming spirit with a smile ear-to-ear. "Yes, we're back and it's just such a great feeling," he said.
And in another corner sat Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon (R-13) and his wife, who enjoyed a meal and were there to show support. "Delicious," O'Scanlon said as he took a bite of food and smiled. "It's so good to have Woody's open. Seeing the lights on and people in here is a sign that Sea Bright is coming back."
O'Scanlon rallied for keeping the Rumson-Sea Bright Bridge open on weekends while repairs are under way that were planned to shut the main artery into town down for weeks starting on Jan. 28. Now the bridge will only be closed on weekdays for a few weeks.
Back in the kitchen, there was a happy clanging and cluster of activity on the cooks' line as head chef Onofrio Moscato rattled off the California coastal cuisine specials he had crafted for the opening: pistachio encrusted grouper, beer salad with fennel, lobster and crab bisque and 16 oz. prime NY strip steak topped with Maytag blue cheese.
Native Fair Havenite Ben Hamilton soaked up the atmosphere, there to support Wood, aka Woody, also a Fair Haven resident. Both are R-FH grads.
And in another corner sat a cheery group of Texans in town to help with Sea Bright recovery. Smiles ear-to-ear, they raved about the food, atmosphere and how beautiful and rich in history they thought the shore was here, in spite of Sandy. They were more perplexed by the notion of a highway jughandle and aggressive Jersey drivers than the Sandy damage they faced.
"We've never seen one of those darn things before (jughandle)," one said. "That's just about the craziest thing we've ever come across. They don't have those in Texas."
They were far from home, but had found a warm welcome "and some wonderful lobster and crab bisque" in their new home in Sea Bright at Woody's, they said.
"It's such a good feeling," Wood said. "It's like that feeling you get when you come home from college after being away a long time for the first time in your life. I feel like I'm home again. We're all home."