End of a Legend: East Hampton Finally Has Its Way with Cyril’s Fish House

Cyril Fitzsimons, Cyril's Fish House
Cyril Fitzsimons and the crowds at his bar, Photo: Courtesy Cyril's Fish House

One of Montauk’s interesting characters won’t be coming back to town anytime soon. He’s an Irishman named Cyril Fitzsimons, and for the last four years the Town of East Hampton, egged on by the townspeople who were alarmed by the crowds of happy people crowding inside and outside Cyril’s bar with drinks in their hands alongside the Montauk Highway on the Napeague Strip, had been unsuccessfully trying to get the crowds under control or close this bar that has born his name for 25 years. Last week, through a kind of legal maneuver, they succeeded.

The maneuver was that unlike the first three years, when they unsuccessfully went after him directly—well, through his company, Clan-Fritz Inc.—with charges of zoning violations for growing the place larger and larger to accommodate the ever-growing crowds, this year it went to a trial.

They’d figured it all out ahead of time with their lawyers. They could win this way. The charges were still the same. Zoning violations. They had been unable to convince a judge to shut Cyril’s Fish House down. They did convince the State Liquor Authority to revoke his license one autumn, but over the winter Cyril’s lawyers argued the bar did not violate liquor license rules and so the Authority issued a new one.

The property owners are Michael Dioguardi, Robert Dioguardi and Debra Lakind. The property has been in the family for years and years, even before Cyril rented it. And surely they were alarmed when the Town came after them too in this way. As you may know, it is illegal for a landlord to come onto a tenant’s property without the tenant’s permission, unless there’s a fire or other emergency. Zoning violations are not an emergency.

Nevertheless, the Town went after all of them. They’d both be subject to zoning charges that could go to trial. Here were the main issues. Maximum occupancy should not be more than 150 people. (Observers reported there were as many as 300 there sometimes.) Seating maximums should be 26 seats in the restaurant and 36 on the patio. There were illegal portable freezers there. The whole place needed to be fenced in. A trial date was set for May 3. A jury of six would sit in judgment. And if a guilty charge was brought in, there could be fines and possibly jail time.

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Discussions ahead of the trial were designed to bring a settlement. The landlords entered into a stipulation of settlement with the town and avoided trial. But Cyril declined to do so, and so the trial went ahead against Clan-Fitz.

It was amazing when you considered it. The landlord would now have to break the bond between landlord and tenant and go on the property and correct all the zoning violations whether Cyril liked it or not. They would remove outdoor freezers, reduce a patio, disassemble a wooden rail fence where patrons sometimes set down drinks, and do all this within 30 days of the settlement agreement. As for Cyril, his lawyer did appear at the trial, but there was no Cyril. The jury of locals then found Clan-Fritz Inc. guilty of 45 of 47 misdemeanors related to an illegal expansion. And that did it. From afar, Cyril announced that he would not be open this summer. He’d give up his lease. He would not be coming back here.

Let us be clear about two things. Cyril was never accused of running a raucous, out-of-control bar. No one ever got into a fight there. No customer ever got hit by a car out front on the way to or from a parked car. No neighbor complained of too much noise. The crowd did seriously slow traffic late on a Saturday night a few times years ago. In response, Cyril, for the last four years, closed at 9 p.m.

The second thing is that, from a zoning point of view, Cyril was only doing what many pre-existing bars and restaurants in this community do. It’s no secret. A pre-existing bar or restaurant is legal forever but may not expand. But many do. An outdoor adjacent area over a period of years gets flagstone and patio furniture, then an awning, then flaps for the awning to keep out the weather, then proper wooden decking, then outdoor electric heaters, posts and beams to hold up the awning, then thicker walls to hold up the posts and beams, then tables and chairs and then—voila! It’s a dining room. And nobody takes it to court.

I’ve been around here a long time. I’ve seen restaurants come, make improvements and then leave and new people come in and make more of these improvements and on it goes. There’s been maybe 20 that have done this. The owners of all of them are shivering in their boots, reading this. Well, nobody cares. Except, it seems, in the case of Cyril’s.

The expansion of Cyril’s took place years ago. Is it really legal, as was done here at Cyril’s, to give a flurry of tickets for improvements that went unticketed for more than a generation?

Cyril Fitzpatrick, a man with a white beard and pink tortoise shell glasses (reminds one of the singer Elton John), has owned bars here and there since he came of age in Ireland 50 years ago. He’s run bars and restaurants in Dublin, New York City, Spain, Anguilla (during the winter —he still runs that one) and here in Montauk.

The son of a wealthy property owner in Ireland, he bought his first bar, with his dad’s money, in Dublin, then emigrated to America and joined the Army—14 months in combat at Khe Sahn and elsewhere—then came home, got married, divorced and opened Cyril’s here. He’s an avid conservative, he’s admitted he drank too much, though he stopped for health reasons five years ago, and he loves conversation and meeting people.

I drove over there last Friday morning to watch the construction people disassembling parts of the establishment. There is to be an auction there on Saturday, May 28—everything must go.

When I arrived, there were, besides construction people, a few others sitting on a bench, looking very upset. I called one over to the car. The others, looking sad, moved slowly away. I learned these people were in mourning, friends of Cyril who had come down to commiserate with one another.

“We all feel bad for Cyril and what they did to him,” the man who’d come over to the car said.

I feel that way too. Cyril is a gentle soul. He loves telling stories, drinking, meeting people and getting along, and he was there every single day the bar was open during the summertime—all you needed to do was go there and find him.

The last time I saw him, he was sitting at a table inside the open dining room, drinking coffee, reading a paperback mystery novel, wearing a T-shirt that said SAVE CYRIL’S FISH HOUSE and a peaked cap with a Republican elephant pin on it, happily greeting everybody who came over to say hello.

Cyril, I suppose, is now a fugitive. He’s been that before. During the Troubles in Ireland, he ran guns to the rebels and was one time pulled over by the police, caught, put on trial, convicted and, with his father’s help, able to flee to Spain, while there the authorities looked the other way. Spain does not have an extradition treaty with Ireland. He was there 12 years until his “sentence” was over and he was free to come home. Of course, he ran a famous bar while in Spain.

There was big trouble at Cyril’s once here in Napeague. They’d closed for the evening, and his people were counting the money when robbers appeared and fought with the help for the cash. Cyril joined in, but the robbers won. Cyril failed to get the license plate number of the getaway car, but he did call the police and give them the color, make and model. The police set up a roadblock across Napeague—there’s only one road in and out—and within five minutes had caught the perps.

Cyril’s was the victim of its success and the inability of the Town to provide proper crowd control. Blame it on the merchant.

Cyril will be so missed.

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