October 2001 arrived like a haze over Long Island—figuratively and literally, from the smoke. The reality of everything that had happened just a couple of weeks before, and the enormity of our collective loss—of lives, of innocence, of even the most illusory sense of security—lent the days that followed a surrealist bent. It was a strange time to live here, to mourn here, to try to carry on with life here. Imagine how strange it must have been, then, to find yourself on Long Island that October, about to open a new restaurant.
This was the position in which Kurt and Michael Bohlsen, co-owners of the revered Bohlsen Restaurant Group, found themselves at this specific time and place.
But however dizzying the landscape might have been, the space, at least, was familiar. The Bohlsen family had owned 215 West Main Street in Smithtown since 1976. Kurt and Michael’s father had originally opened an Arby’s there, which he and his family operated for 10 years before shuttering the restaurant and opening a Beachtree Cafe in its place. This was before the Bohlsen family opened Tellers in Islip, and long before they came to exist as they do today: as both the father and sons—and the past, present and future—of fine dining on Long Island.
But in October 2001, it was time for a new adventure. The Bohlsens had closed the Smithtown location of the Beachtree Cafe and were beginning to imagine the new restaurant they wanted to build in its place. Smithtown, they figured, wasn’t really an area for a steakhouse, and they wanted to do something different with the space. Something special. Something grand. Something almost elemental in a way, like a missing piece for which the town actually had a need. And so the Bohlsen family took stock of Smithtown. There was earth, air and space—and there had, unfortunately, even been fire. But on a literal island with water, water everywhere, Smithtown had not a drop to eat or drink.
“During the late 90s, due largely to the exposure of the Food Network, people started having a lot more interest in food and chefs,” says Michael Bohlsen. “People were moving away from Arbys, from places like the Beachtree, and moving towards finer, more elegant cuisine.”
“This was extremely exciting for us,” continues Kurt Bohlsen. “It was a shift we wanted and were ready for. So we started thinking in general, but also specifically about this space in Smithtown. We realized, ‘We’re on an island with a dearth of seafood. How could that be?’ So Michael and I decided: We were going to bring seafood to Smithtown.”
And they did. H2O opened on October 4, 2001 and has been living up to Kurt and Michael’s promise ever since.
“It was obviously very tough at first, opening a restaurant a few weeks after 9/11,” says Michael. “Strangely enough, though, the tide quickly turned. Long Islanders decided that they didn’t need to go to the city to eat food, that they could perhaps eat even better food right here on Long Island. As a region, we’re good at making lemonade from lemons and that’s exactly what everyone did.”
But the Bohlsens, of course, were making a lot more than just lemonade. At H2O they were building a Smithtown institution, a seafood stalwart, and one of the first non-Asian-owned eateries that not only took sushi seriously, but found a way to translate the art form into a language of flavors that locals would actually appreciate and enjoy.
“Not long after we opened, sushi started to become very popular across the country,” says Kurt. “So Michael and I decided, without any experience whatsoever, that we wanted to bring a sushi chef into H2O.”
“So we hired a sushi chef from a restaurant in New York City,” continues Michael. “He was a maniac who was very dedicated to his craft and really helped us to elevate the quality of sushi we were serving. His work really put us on the map. Of course, he was also known for throwing rice at guests if they didn’t like what they ordered, so I guess that part was a mixed bag.”
Kurt, Michael and this chef worked together closely, with the Bohlsens trading their intimate understanding of local tastes for the chef’s interpretation of traditional Japanese sushi. The end result of this cultural diffusion? Sushi that Long Islanders actually craved. Sushi that married American and Japanese flavors while still preserving the artistry of traditional Japanese technique.
“We have definitely developed our own style of sushi over the years,” says Kurt. “Many of our rolls make delicious use of things like spicy mayonnaise and lots of crunchies. So it’s not traditional Japanese sushi, no. Instead, we’ve created sushi that our guests enjoy, sushi that they want to come back and eat on a regular basis.”
Twenty years later, it seems H2O’s recipe is working. Their current menu, which features delectable offerings for lovers of land and sea alike, is a case study in creative, expert-level pairing. One of the restaurant’s most popular appetizers, Shrimp & Lobster Wontons, pairs traditional Asian flavors like hoisin sauce and miso-mustard in American-friendly, finger-food-styled packaging. Another of their most popular offerings, the New England Scallops & Crispy Rice entree, marries familiar East Coast scallops with a tangy kimchi vinaigrette. But most impressively, again and again, H2O dives deeper to offer a pairing you won’t find on their menu, as they work behind the scenes to pair their guests with more sustainable seafood.
“We’re very concerned with what’s going on in our oceans,” says Kurt. “Everyone knows about the overfishing of the seas. It’s a big dilemma that needs to be addressed. So we think globally and act locally. We know we can have an impact here on Long Island and it’s important to us to do so. Michael and I grew up on the water and in the water. Our entire childhoods were a collage of swimming, clamming and fishing. So we have a great association and affinity for the marine life here and we feel responsible to protect it.”
“So what does that look like for us?” continues Michael. “Well, first of all, we work every day to educate our guests and encourage them to try different species of fish, more sustainable species of fish. It’s a challenge we’ve been working on for years to moderate success. We know that when people go out to eat, they want to eat what they want to eat; they’re not necessarily that concerned about the depletion of the ocean’s resources—and we respect that. These people pay our bills. But if we can gently introduce them to more sustainable fish, which often tastes the best anyway since sustainable fish is abundant fish—fish that’s local and in season—then that’s a really big and important win for us.”
It is no surprise, then, that H2O is a Surfrider Foundation-certified ‘ocean friendly restaurant,’ a designation given to restaurants committed to making sustainable choices, such as eliminating single-use plastic. Unsurprising, too, are the restaurant’s upcoming 20th anniversary celebration plans, which will include partnerships with local breweries and oyster farmers, as well as with the Long Island Aquarium, an organization the Bohlsen family champions through donations to the causes it supports.
“You know, 20 years is a long time in the world of restaurants,” says Michael. “The dining scene has evolved quite a bit. From where we were 20 years ago, especially post-Covid, going out to eat has become a primary source of entertainment for most people. They closed the movie theaters, they closed Broadway, so all people can do is go out to eat. So no longer are people dining out just because they’re hungry; they’re going out to eat because they want an event.”
“So it’s 20 years in and the pressure is as high as it’s ever been to deliver a fantastic experience,” says Kurt. “But the fact that we’re still in business, and even busier than ever, says something about what we do and how we do it. Both Michael and I are really proud and thankful to the people who work for us, whose dedication has made it all possible in the first place.”
So what’s next for H2O, twenty years after it opened in the midst of national tragedy, now celebrating its anniversary in the midst of a global pandemic? If the past two decades are anything to go by, a continued refusal to ride the wave of trends, with the Bohlsens preferring instead to actually create them.
“About every five years, we try to do something major to make an impact for our guests,” says Kurt. “So I was just at the restaurant the other day, thinking, ‘What can we do next?’ We will have to see what we can do post-pandemic, once everything settles. Until then, we’re just going to invite our guests to celebrate this big anniversary with us.”
“Yes,” agrees Michael, who adds with a laugh: “With a lot of drinking and oysters.”