Micheal O’Neal, Restaurateur Who Fed Upper West Siders For Decades, Has Died


Photo via Facebook.

By Lisa Kava

Michael O’ Neal, a restaurateur and community activist, passed away this week. O’Neal ran 14 restaurants during his 60-year career, founding the Boat Basin Cafe on 79th Street and running classic spots like O’Neal’s and its predecessor The Ginger Man at 49 West 64th Street (now Atlantic Grill). He also founded the Ball Fields Café in Central Park.

O’Neal was also known for being community-minded, serving on the boards of the Riverside Park Conservancy, the Westside Crime Prevention Program, Symphony Space, and Project Find, among other organizations. He broke with other restaurant owners to support the city’s restaurant smoking ban.

He was a longtime resident of the Apthorp, and would often invite friends to stay with his family. “They take in strays,” a friend named Patricia Whitman told the Times for a 2009 article. “When I say that, I mean that — dogs, cats, people. It’s just they’re totally open.”

In 2007, O’ Neal was honored with a Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance Food Arts magazine, which credited him with inventing the American bistro and being dedicated to serving “really good food at a fair price.”

It was never O’Neal’s intention to create a template for a style of restaurant that had few antecedents aside from some of the testosterone-filled saloons-cum-eateries such as P.J. Clarke’s. Nor was it written that his place would foster a lively singles scene, as it was known in the ’60s, to compete with the original T.G.I. Friday’s that was attracting stewardesses and jocks on the Upper East Side. Unwittingly he did both, the first with the Julia Child precursor Dione Lucas as opening chef (for three years) and the second with a bar scene/late night menu that attracted the post-performance pretty performers from Lincoln Center and nearby Broadway and those in their thrall. “Come to think of it,” O’Neal muses, “I have many friends who met their wives here.” As did O’Neal, 70, married 41 years to Christine.

Originally from Ocala, Florida, O’ Neal graduated from Emory University in 1958.

April Stewart Klausner, a designer, first met O’Neal 30 years ago when she started waiting tables at one of his restaurants in Times Square. The two remained friends over the years. “Michael was the most generous person, he was always in a good mood. He was wonderful to work for,” said Klausner. According to Klausner, as part of O’ Neal’s work with Project Find, he cooked Thanksgiving meals at an annual event held at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle on 60th Street and Columbus Avenue, for hundreds of seniors citizens of limited means. Klausner attended every year to help out. The yearly Thanksgiving event became a tradition and went on for about 25 years. “ When Michael tried to recruit us to work on Thanksgiving it was impossible to say no to him, he was just delightful” said Klausner “ He was a real advocate for the neighborhood and for underserved communities.”

O’ Neal has also been honored by the Riverside Park Fund at their annual benefit gala. “He was a fixture on the Upper West Side,” said Klausner. “He was not a showman, his family was the most important thing in the world to him.” He was married to Christine Covey O’Neal and had two children, Georgia O’ Neal and Coke O’Neal.

FOOD, NEWS | 18 comments | permalink
    1. Delta Willis says:

      New York’s Upper West Side and Riverside Park have lost a champion with the passing of Michael O’Neal, co-founder with his wife Chris of the Boat Basin Cafe, and other legendary watering holes in Manhattan. He was a good neighbor in every way, a Democrat living nearby at the famous Apthorp, giving a percentage of the Cafe’s profits to Riverside Park. My love and sympathies to Chris and the rest of the O’Neal Family. (former boat dweller.)

    2. Bob Lape says:

      A beautiful story of a beautiful person. It tugs at the heartstrings as Michael did, and turns back my clock 50 years to when Patrick added ginger to the neighborhood flavor as well.

    3. I had known Michael & his actor brother Patrick for more than 40 years. I live across the street from the Apthorp & we would meet often on Broadway and just talk about the Upper West Side. When I was president of the 20 Precinct Community Council he generously contributed food from his restaurant to help us with a Thanksgiving dinner for the officers who worked the parade.
      I had one of my birthday parties at the Boat Basin Cafe and stopped going when he lost the franchise for the cafe. We both had neuropathy and often spoke about various assistance tools available. I last saw him on his scooter about 2 months ago & even asked the doorman at the Apthorp if he was around.
      Spoke to his wife after his passing & asked about a memorial service. She mentioned Blessed Sacrament Church on 71st Street as a possibility.

    4. Eddie Vega says:

      Why no mention of his brother Patrick, the famous actor, who co-owned the restaurants?

    5. Weird That Way says:

      And let’s not forget his actor brother and co-owner of several of the restaurants, Patrick O’Neal, who died in 1994.

      https://www.nytimes.com/1994/09/14/obituaries/patrick-o-neal-66-an-actor-and-manhattan-restaurateur.html

    6. Catherine Holmes says:

      A prince of a man in every way! The West side won’t be the same without him. The last few years have been tough w his failing health, but he always jad a smile and a happy greeting. One of a kind 💕

    7. Pamela Wolfe says:

      He was a wonderful human being. Kind, generous and fun loving with a huge heart.
      We has a wonderful family and we will be greatly missed. My thoughts and prayers to his family Pamela

    8. Babien Avila says:

      I am so saddened to hear of Mikes passing. I worked for him for 10 years at “O’Neal’s 57 th “ and another year or two at “ The Gingerman” . We were a family since the late 1970s! We were all performers; actors, singers dancers , comics, models, and Mike would let us take 2 or 3 months off at s time to tour with our bands or work in Nationsl touring companies . When we returned between gigs, we still had a job and health insurance waiting for us. Many of us are still friends today. God bless you Michael : you were an inspiration to me and so many others. They don’t make em like you any more! My heartfelt condolences to Chris, Georgia and Coke. 🙏Please let us know if there will be s memorial we
      can to. Much love, Babien Avila . Aka ( Bernie)

    9. Kathleen says:

      Good night, Sweet Prince.

    10. Babs says:

      We were celebrating a friend’s birthday at the Ginger Man and he came over to our table and sang Happy Birthday with us and wished her many more. A lovely man.

    11. Janice says:

      Lamenting the painting of the historic bar at the current
      restaurant. They painted it white! EeeeGods!
      Well, we know it is the original bar from way back when….
      and even the white paint cannot obliterate that fact.

    12. pcnyc says:

      Mike was a good man and businessman. It was comforting to see him around the Apthorp and Boat Basin; ever affable. A loss for our UWS neighborhood.
      Interested in his service details also.

    13. Terry Baughan says:

      Michael O’Neal created a family for those of us working for him. Some of my dearest friends today are people I worked with at O’Neal’s in the 1970ies and 80ies. Many of us were performers, students, folks who needed a flexible job. It was that and more. Every time I left to do a show, my job was waiting for me when I returned. Michael and Chris were friends, family, benefactors, and as people have mentioned below, the most generous human beings many of us will ever know. Not many people house and feed strays! Onward to join the angels, Michael! You are much loved!

    14. Leslie Simon says:

      My first date with my husband was at The Ginger Man, as our daughter grew up she was welcomed at that restaurant in every way possible. She “helped” manage the front desk with Cliff, The “cheese man”, Mr Robinson spoiled her with gifts and attention, It was our family’s HOME AWAY FROM HOME. All of this because of the generous spirit of Mike O’Neal. A wonderful man with a wonderful family too. He will be missed here on the Upper West Side and we will never forget him.

    15. Barbara Good says:

      Michael O’Neal was a great community leader and family man. He has touched everyone with his generosity and hospitality. A lovely family that welcomes all to his home and restaurants. A shining star on the west side that will be missed by all, particularly his loving wife, Chris and caring children Coke and Georgia. My sympathy is with them. Barbara Good

    16. Steven wasserman says:

      What a wonderful person and neighbor, together with his wife Chris always looked forward to seeing them, A very kind. altruistic and, introspective person. He will be missed.

      Steve

    17. Barry says:

      When I moved to NYC and the UWS more than 40 years ago Columbus Ave. was just beginning it’s turn around.
      There were only two restaurants worth eating at, Victor’s Cafe and O’Neals. O’Neals was the hub of the new UWS and Columbus Ave. it was where you always went to meet friends and socialize. I spent many memorable nights there. I can still remember that a glass of house red wine was $1.50! The O’Neal brothers gave so much to the UWS and the city. Micheal will be missed.