On the night before the Fourth of July, little cards were placed in the center of each table. There were 16 in all and they announced the night’s special: a fig-encrusted rack of lamb. It was the start of the busiest holiday weekend on the Vineyard and the tiny dining room of CafÃ© Moxie was filled — every table, every chair.
The mood was light, the evening warm and there was no bad seat in the house. Some diners looked out onto Main street Vineyard Haven, at the lines forming outside the Capawock Theatre and the after-dinner crowds strolling by with ice cream cones.
Others had a view of the open kitchen, of the cooks bent over ovens and pans. They flipped and sautÃ©ed and turned out plates of pork chops with haricots verts, mussels in red curry broth and flatbread pizzas on dough handmade that morning.
The few who faced the door, however, had the best seat in the house. At the front of the dining room stood Katrina Yekel, hostess of CafÃ© Moxie. As families and friends and couples in love walked in for dinner, she greeted each face with a smile.
She more than smiled. She beamed.
For the past six weeks, Ms. Yekel, 30, had been floating on air. On May 15, she and her boyfriend, executive chef Austin Racine, opened the doors of the restaurant where they first met, where they worked together and where they eventually fell in love. Earlier that spring, the two signed a five-year lease on the space. It was theirs.
In the weeks leading up to their opening, they created the menus and painted the walls. They were open at first five days a week for lunch and dinner. On July 1 they debuted a new summer menu and extended summer hours: seven days a week straight on through until Labor Day.
On the evening of July third, the restaurant, which can seat 50 diners at once, had served 90 people. The night before they had done 88, and they had 70 people who already had made their reservations for July fifth.
“I remember last night we went to bed just so happy,” said Ms. Yekel on July fourth. “I remember we got into bed and I turned to Austin and I said, ‘We’re doing it honey, and we are doing it so good.”
The morning of the fourth was hot and muggy and Ms. Yekel slept in. With the parade set to take place in Edgartown at five and the fireworks slated for dark, the couple had even toyed with closing the restaurant for the evening. There were no reservations on the books and the year before, then-owners Paul Currier and Cindy Curran had not bothered to open.
When she woke, Ms. Yekel saw she had a voicemail from Mr. Racine.
“He called at 9:30. He said the restaurant was on fire,” she said. “I knew. I knew by the sound of his voice that it wasn’t a kitchen fire or anything. It was bad.”
Early that morning, Mr. Racine, 26, had quietly slipped out of the couple’s West Tisbury apartment. He arrived at the restaurant in time to meet a delivery man and then spent the next few hours unloading a food shipment large enough to get the cafÃ© through the weekend rush. He stocked the basement freezers and then turned his attention to prepping for the lunch crowd.
“I was buried in prep work,” he said. Then he paused to look up. “The whole dining room was filled with smoke. I ran downstairs, but it was too smokey to see anything. I went back up and grabbed the fire extinguisher and ran around the side of the building to try to put it out,” he continued.
He was alone in the restaurant at the time, but nearby shopkeepers noticed the smoke.
Tina Miller, who once owned the restaurant and gave it the name Moxie, ran down from her Plum TV office at the end of Main street. As flames shot out the roof, she took pictures on her iPhone.
Across the street, Maria Metters rolled in the awning of her store, Bowl & Board. “I was afraid it would catch fire,” she said. “I was inside and I could hear the windows popping from the heat.”
Inside the cafÃ©, Mr. Racine heard the soda fountains explode one by one.
The fire trucks began streaming into town. Up in West Tisbury, Ms. Yekel hung up the phone.
“I just stood there,” she said. Then it hit her. She pulled on a red skirt and blue top, fitting for Independence Day, but did not stop to put in her contacts. She ran into the room where the restaurant sous chef, Jack Angelbeck, was asleep. With summer housing so expensive, the couple had decided to put him up for the summer.
“Jack drove me down and I called my uncle and I called my mother. I couldn’t stop crying. I felt like I was going to throw up. We came down and all of the streets were closed off. There was all of this smoke in the air,” she said.
Amidst the crowds and the smoke and her tears, Ms. Yekel found Mr. Racine. As the fire raged, the two stood across the street behind yellow police tape. She held her hands in front of her eyes and cried. The heat blew over in waves. The air was heavy. Mr. Racine wore his black chef shoes and pants. The front of his T-shirt was damp with sweat.
“So much for that dream,” he said.
For the next three hours, the couple just watched. They watched the flames and they watched the firefighters work and they watched as the police called in for reinforcement. They saw selectmen stop by, and they let neighbors and friends and family hold them.
Shortly before noon, the couple quietly stole away from the crowds and walked down to the Stop & Shop to buy something to drink. They were standing on the sidewalk there when a yellow excavator rumbled past.
“They’re knocking it down,” Mr. Racine whispered. Slowly, with resignation, the couple headed back towards Main street, hand in hand.
“Where are they going to put all this? What are they going to do with it,” Mr. Racine asked to no one in particular. “The brick work is starting to sink in. They’re afraid it’s going to cave in on them, I guess.”
Ms. Yekel held her head in her hands, but looked up in time to see the excavator bucket reach for the sign over the restaurant doorway. “Can you save the sign,” she asked a passing firefighter. He nodded and walked over towards the excavator to check. “That’s the best thing,” she said under her breath.
When the excavator took its first swipe at the roof, Mr. Racine sat down on the stoop of Bowl & Board. Ms. Yekel sat down next to him.
“You know, you feel bad that it’s your restaurant burning down someone else’s business,” she said. “I don’t know. What do you do? There are gift certificates. People have reservations. What do you do?”
She continued: “It’s just so good that if this was going to happen, we didn’t have a room full of people. I told Austin, I said, this could have been a whole lot worse.”
The beams of the roof crashed down into the small dining room below. Each time, new flames shot up. The time was 12:30 p.m., three hours after the blaze started. “It’s still burning,” said Mr. Racine. “That’s why they’re taking it down.”
The door to the restaurant swung slowly open and shut as the inside filled with debris. A yellow bench sat empty on the sidewalk below.
“God, all the stuff that was in there,” said Ms. Yekel. “All the glasswork, all the artwork. The $1,200 glass plate. The Louisa Gould paintings.”
In the basement downstairs was Ms. Yekel’s desk and all of her paperwork — order forms, bills, receipts. The walk-in was loaded with food and the shelves stocked with dry storage. Ms. Yekel had three pairs of shoes down there and an outfit for that night. Mr. Racine had thousands of dollars worth of knives in the kitchen. And, somewhere under it all, was his cell phone.
“It looks so small right now. You can’t believe how many people fit in there,” she said as the excavator pulled back from the sidewalk. “It’s gone.”
Around her, firefighters gulped down water and Gatorade. They ate sandwiches handed to them from volunteers and wiped the sweat from their foreheads. “It is so scary,” Ms. Yekel said as she watched them. “I mean, I know this is their job, but it’s so scary. My dad was a fireman for thirty-something years and I know how hard it is.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve gone through so much. You just gotta know something good’s coming out of this. I’ve gone through so much. My father died on the Fourth of July eight years ago. You just gotta know something good will come of it.”
In front of her, Mr. Racine had wandered up to the sidewalk. He watched the smoke which still billowed from the roof. At his feet were empty bottles tossed aside by the firefighters. He bent down, picked them up and tossed them into a trash can.
“I thought for sure it was a kitchen fire, but they said no,” he said. “The smoke was black.”
Ms. Yekel pulled her glasses from her pocket and put them on for the first time since the car ride down. “Oh,” she gasped. “It’s even worse with my glasses on. Now I can actually see it.”
“I thought it was going to go out because they were there so fast,” Mr. Racine said. “They had the hoses going in a matter of 10 minutes.”
Across the street, a fireman pulled the restaurant sign from the rubble. It was charred along the edges, but in black lettering the name still read clearly: CafÃ© Moxie.
“They did get the sign. He’s got it,” said Ms. Yekel. “That’s something.” She stood up to go join her partner on the sidewalk. “Seven nights a week,” she said. “Maybe next time.”
The Gazette has been following the progress of the new operators of Cafe Moxie in a series of articles which can be found on this web site. The series will continue.