McDonald’s has lobster rolls now, and it isn’t the worst lobster roll in the Hamptons. And there’s a place serving $18 french fries, and they aren’t the best fries in the Hamptons.
That’s pretty much all you need to know about dining out in the Hamptons in the summer of 2016.
I’ve heard grumblings that this summer was not a great one, economically speaking, for a lot of businesses out here. Real estate was down, beach chairs didn’t sell, the lines at the ice cream shops weren’t long enough, etc.
I guess I will have to shrug and say that’s sad to hear, because everything I saw personally, from behind the bar to the traffic jams I had to sit in to get there, was looking like a gangbuster summer to me.
But it clearly was not a summer in which a lot of new talent took a chance on the Hamptons.
Certainly, in the restaurant business at least, there were places that rocked this year and those that didn’t, and I can only say, if you didn’t have at least a pretty darn good summer, you have only yourself to blame.
There were a few hits, some obvious duds and a few places where, if you ask in the next few weeks how the summer went, the owner will probably say, “It was good. It was good,” in a really high voice, then add, “It could have been better, but it was okay.” Yeah, that means it was not as good as he’d planned on, he’s not sure if he’ll be able to stay open all winter and if things don’t get a lot better next summer that will be it.
I can’t think of one new place that really hit a home run this summer, in the sense that it was both supremely good and also a big success. Part of the reason for this is that most of the new places were in Southampton, which has a sort of funny dining-out scene compared to East Hampton and the hamlets to the west. The customers are more fussy than west of the canal but not as progressive and willing to accept experimentation as farther east.
Arbor was all right, not great, and not packed to the gills, despite being the most promising new place in Montauk, where nothing can really go wrong these days.
The service at Jue Lan Club was good, and the place was cool, and packed, but the food was really just okay and the shared-plates Asian food thing didn’t seem to be a winner with Southampton’s old waspy set from my observations. Union Cantina kinda fell flat both in the re-do of the old Bowden Square building following the departure of Publick House, and in menu and food presentation. Both have minor failures that can be easily fixed in the quiet of the offseason if the management is up to the task.
Zach Erdem’s return to the old Post House with Kozu seemed to be popular with the very well-heeled of his Euro-chic customers from 75 Main. It didn’t seem like there was a lot of patronage by more average Joes and Janes in a spot that has, for some reason, become the venue for super-expensive food and cocktails (but without the track record of success to support the formula).
Bistro Été—my favorite new restaurant this year—and Manna in Water Mill both offer very good food, but didn’t exactly overflow their reservation books. Manna, in the old Mirko’s, and Été, in the old Robert’s, can’t say they suffered from poor locations, though I think it did take Mirko many years to build his reliable reservations.
I did not make it to Topping Rose House since Jean-Georges Vongerichten took over, but I also don’t know anybody else that did either, which may or may not be telling.
The old guys: Sen, Pierre’s, Nick & Toni’s, the East Hampton Grill, 1770 House, Rumba, Cowfish, Canal Cafe, Starr Boggs—they all did just fine this summer and enjoyed good summers, if not record breakers. A lot of owners said July “was a little funny” which means “off” but in a way they can’t figure.
The only new “place to be” this summer, from my observations, was Highway Restaurant in East Hampton. Even though this was their second summer open, the skills of the chefs at Highway have only now apparently finally escaped the shroud of the decision not to change the name, or even the sign, after taking over the Highway Diner—which was almost a hit, but wound up a dud and kept a lot of folks who weren’t paying super close attention away when one of Manhattan’s most powerhouse restaurant groups quietly took over.
As I said before, I thought the best new restaurant this year was Été in Water Mill, which didn’t even open until well into June—and didn’t get a real sign until after July 4. The food is French-ish and excellent. Word at the start of the summer was that it may only be a short-term thing, which would be too bad. So go now.
I’m eager to try Scarpetta Beach at Gurney’s Montauk now that the hipster parade has thinned, if only because the dining room is the best setting for a meal that I’ve ever set foot in anywhere and every time a new restaurant opens there I’m hopeful that the food will at least do it justice—so far, none have.
Sadly, the story of the summer this year was a basket of over-priced french fries. Sigh.
But let me think on them fries for a bit, because I’ve been grinding them over in my head since the first afternoon they were served and as someone who has crunched restaurant numbers, I find them interesting.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, it’s the french fries at Duryea’s Lobster Deck in Montauk—the once super casual BYOB food window where a crusty old seafood wholesaler started dropping some of its product into pots of boiling water instead of ice-filled packing cartons. That place is now owned by some billionaire. You’re stunned, I know.
The place hasn’t changed too much, physically. There’s some better seating arrangements. The menu is more chic now, and in a certain sense a lot better, but mostly holds to the air of the old place, in billionaire version. Frankly, it’s kinda nice, and I really hope Billy McBillionaire, or whatever his name is, will leave it like that.
So, anyway, they’ve got these fries. They’re $18. You order them thinking, “This place is owned by Billy McBillionaire and he’s friends with Bobby McBillionaire who I saw in Jerks Costly Coffee yesterday, so they must be the best french fries ever made!”
And then they come. And it’s a basket of fries.
Not even a big basket, just a regular, reasonable sized order of fries. They don’t have truffles on top or some fancy cheese that you’ve never heard of stuck to them. For $5.95 at the old Salivars you got cheese and gravy on your fries, and you got them at 4:30 a.m. if you wanted. Who says Montauk has changed?
Here’s the thing: they’re good fries. Very good fries. Not that there aren’t about 20 places out here with very good french fries, but I would say the Duryea’s fries are the closest thing to a McDonalds french fry that I’ve ever had in a restaurant, which is neither a bad thing nor a small feat. Is it worth $18? I don’t know, that’s subjective.
They are good fries and when the Berger Babe and I were finished with ours that first weekend they were open, we were not at all outraged we’d paid more for french fries than lunch for both of us had cost at La Brisa (this year’s menu was their best yet: avocado tostada, all day every day) the day before. But a dozen big beautiful local clams was only $12, so you can’t really say the place is overpriced on the whole.
But we were left with the question: Why?
Well, to be my usual cynical self, I will say it was purely to make people talk about the place, perhaps. That works of course, and we all know we are just putty in the minds of billionaires.
But I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s the models.
Montauk is modeltown these days. I mean the girls that pose for pictures and stuff, not plastic things we glued together when we were kids. And places owned by billionaires, especially, are crawling with models. Some of them are only really models on Instagram, but that’s an actual job now, and they’re pretty and can say they’re models so that’s all the guys who are escorting them around care about. I don’t know if these models have a lot of money or not, because I’ve never seen one pick up a check, but the people they go out to eat with sure do.
But these models, a lot of the time, all they order are french fries.
That’s their meal. I imagine they’re only allowed like 1,200 calories a day and by God if they ain’t gonna get 1,000 of them by eating french fries for lunch. And why should a bunch of models who are having lunch bought for them by guys with lots of money get out of any restaurant for the $5.95 any place with an ounce of humility would charge for a side of fries.
So, $18 fries. A cheeseburger comes with them, if you want, no extra charge.
Pricey fries or not, I’m looking forward to going back to Duryea’s this week, now that it’s back to the crowds that were there on that first Friday afternoon. Berger Babe will have the fries and the clams again.
Me? I’ll have the salmon.