An unmistakable presence in the Hamptons and the Caribbean
WILD GEESE: CYRIL FITZSIMONS, Restaurateur, Cyril's Fish House:Hard-working and hard- living, an Irishman who runs successful restaurants splits his time between playgrounds for the rich and famous
CYRIL FITZSIMONS hates the cold, so he avoids it by spending six months of the year in the Caribbean and the other six in the Hamptons – Long Island’s playground for the rich and famous.
As you are reading this, there is a good chance Fitzsimons is sitting in his chair (at his table – “the office”) at Cyril’s Fish House, one of the Hamptons’ most popular restaurants and bars, because he never leaves – “not for five minutes” – from the time he opens at 9am until he closes at 11pm, seven days a week.
With four gold front teeth, roughly $200,000-worth of jewellery on him at any one time, long blond hair and a cigarette in his hand (always – he smokes four packs a day), Fitzsimons (68) is an unmistakable presence in the Caribbean-style restaurant.
His table faces the entrance, where he greets customers as they arrive. And although the restaurant regularly plays host to the likes of Billy Joel, Jerry Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin and many other celebs with summer houses nearby, Fitzsimons is probably the best-known character in the Hamptons.
Every Saturday, a line of cars builds up on both sides of the highway running through the East Hampton hamlet of Amagansett. The cars run for roughly a quarter of a mile in each direction leading away from Cyril’s Fish House.
Between 3pm and 9pm, from May to September, close to a thousand people descend on the bar. Many are drinking the signature BBC cocktail ($13 a pop), which likely makes Cyril’s Fish House the number-one consumer of Irish Cream liqueur – the drink’s key ingredient.
“We go through 22 cases in a week,” says Fitzsimons, matter- of-factly. “Nobody in the US sells as much Irish Cream as we do.”
It is 11am, the sun is beating down on the umbrella covering his table and Fitzsimons is drinking water. This is a recent development. For years he drank through the day as he worked; now he only drinks during the six months that he is on the Caribbean island of Anguilla, where he runs another two restaurants.
“I’m getting old, I want to give the body a rest,” he says. “In the Caribbean, I go to war. I drink about a bottle and a half of rum a day.”
If ever there was a personification of the “work hard, play hard” cliché, it’s Cyril Fitzsimons. In 1965, he first left Ireland for the US at the age of 19. He wanted to join the United States Marine Corps, in the middle of the Vietnam War. “I was looking for action. I just felt like getting involved in some sort of a conflict.”
Deployed as a sergeant in the infantry, Fitzsimons got his action. “I saw a lot of combat,” he says, but that is all he will say. It’s not the only thing Fitzsimons is not keen to talk about at length.
In 1968, he returned to Ireland and his father (Phil Fitzsimons of the auctioneers Hassett Fitzsimons) bought him a pub – the Silver Tassie in Loughlinstown.
Everything was going well until Fitzsimons was arrested for possession of explosives in 1972, as Ireland’s own conflict was in full swing. He skipped bail and went to Spain for 12 years, until the statute of limitations took effect.
Fitzsimons describes his involvement with the Troubles as “indirect” and says he’s glad that things have changed. “Enough is enough. I’m glad they’ve come to a half-assed conclusion. It’s better than none.”
Just don’t ask him about the rumour that he knows where Shergar is buried. “ABC television came out here with that same bull***t 10 years ago. I have no idea where he’s buried.”
No time was wasted in Spain, however. Fitzsimons ran a string of bars and they were packed every night.
In 1984, he went home to Dublin for a week before returning to the US – this time to open a bar in Manhattan with well-known publican Eamonn Doran. “How’d it do? It kicked ass,” he says.
But 22 years ago, tired of Manhattan, Fitzsimons decided to relocate to Amagansett. “I saw this place was empty and so I bought it,” he says, referring to the restaurant. “I bought it for the location.”
He points to the constant traffic passing a few feet from where he is sitting. Beyond that road lies one of America’s classic, unspoiled beaches that so many of the country’s well-to-do visit every year.
Cyril’s Fish House is a gold mine, but there’s no question of Fitzsimons sitting back and letting the money roll in. He is involved in every aspect of the business.
Someone wants lobster? Fitzsimons decides the price. You ring to make a booking? Fitzsimons may well answer the phone. “We don’t take bookings, darling,” he tells one woman who calls mid-interview.
So, what is the secret to his success? “Hard work. Personality has a lot to do with it too. Out here everybody knows me. I run my business like my father ran his business in Dublin,” he says of his hands-on approach. “I’ve never had a credit card and I’ve never had a cell phone.
“The biggest curse for my children is cell phones,” he says, bitterly. “And text messages? They’re the biggest joke of all time.”
Fitzsimons also looks after his staff, a team of Jamaicans who have been with him in his kitchen for 10 years. “You can’t just take, take, take; you’ve got to give as well.”
That extends beyond business. Fitzsimons donates regularly to the Republican Party in the US and to the Catholic Church. “You can live hard but you’ve still gotta do the right thing,” he adds, lighting up another Marlboro, before admitting that he still goes to Mass at 9am every Sunday.
Fitzsimons also maintains it is still possible to come to the US and do what he did. “There are endless opportunities for Irish people here, even in this economy,” although not having a visa “is a problem. It’s worth trying to get around it if you can.”