Sharpen your wine openers, waiters. Oil up the wheels on those guéridons, bussers. Organize the service aisle, runners. Practice your crumbing technique, get lots of sleep, and start gobbling ginko now—you’ve got less than 12 weeks to shake the cobwebs out of your cognitive abilities.
From where I stand, nervously fanning myself with my dupe pad, this is looking like it is going to be a competitive summer in the restaurant business, and you—waiters, bartenders, busboys, runners, managers and maitre’d’s—are going to have to wage a campaign like you never have before.
I don’t think I can remember a summer when so many restaurants that will be on everyone’s lips on that first Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend have co-existed in one summer season. The old guard is going to be girding to keep regulars from last summer regular, while a new phalanx of wanna-bes positions themselves to intercept at least some of them in hopes of becoming the new favorite.
Yes, summer is still a long way off, but I have a feeling this one is going to come out of the gates with particular abandon, and with the level of competition that is lining up for the battle of the bands, good restaurant staffs are going to need to get up to speed in a hurry.
This is going to be one of those summers when you have to fight tooth and nail for every cover, for every dollar of check average, and it will be more important than ever that every customer of yours who leaves your restaurant, be it first flush or old hat, is imprinted with the impression that they would gladly return at the soonest suggestion.
It’s not just that there is a bunch of newcomers this year—that’s a common circumstance. It’s who the newcomers are and the reputations (hard-earned or otherwise) they bring with them that will make them instantly fast-breakers, with reservation books chock full from day one. Whether their kitchen and floor staffs can sustain the reputations that precede them in their new locations over 12 weekends is a check yet to be printed.
Not to get too breathless over something that hasn’t happened yet, but the bombshell that Eleven Madison Park is planning on moving its entire superstar kitchen and floor staff from the grandeur of its hyper-expensive, wildly celebrated Manhattan location to an East Hampton pop-up in the old Moby’s is quite possibly the most momentous occasion in the Hamptons restaurant industry, ever.
Even if you are someone nonplussed by shelling out $200 to $300 or more per head for dinner at a place like Eleven Madison, Le Bernardin, Per Se, Daniel, Jean Georges or their ilk, if you are not in the restaurant business, it is hard to fully grasp the level of culinary, service and hospitality skills, training, and orchestration such restaurants must demonstrate day in and day out to keep their complicated processes running smoothly (or at least appearing to).
Some of the staff at some of our best restaurants consistently pull off friendly and efficient service. But it is like comparing a decent college football team to the Patriots. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other—they’re just different levels of intricacy and execution.
As anyone who gives it a moment of thought might expect, the EMP folks say they are pulling back from the grandeur of their approach to dining out in New York City. It’s going to be “beachy,” or “laid back,” or whatever the euphemism they’re using is for “not as complicated.” That’s a bit of a disappointment, but understandable.
And, of course, all the grand plans have yet to be pulled off. Reading an interview in this paper with one of the EMP owners recently, I found myself asking, “How are they going to do that?” A lot.
Housing over 100 staff within commuting distance of East Hampton? Renovating a tired kitchen to the demands of Daniel Humm’s staff in three months? What are their price points going to be on an a la carte menu? Tent seating—what’s the Health Department going to think of that at a restaurant that already seats more than 120?
There are a lot of folks in the Hamptons in the summer with a lot of money, but are there enough to fill enough seats on enough nights for even $100 a head to keep this adventure from being a losing prospect? Or is this just a way to keep salaried chefs working and keep waiters from bailing for other gigs during the renovations?
It is going to be very interesting—exciting, even—to see how these maestros tackle the various hurdles through Labor Day.
Also wading into East Hampton’s already saturated dining scene will be Vine Street Cafe, Shelter Island’s fine dining front-runner, which is taking over the recently shuttered Cafe Max, and Doppo la Spaggia, the high-end Italian spot that took over from Tutto il-howeveryouspellit in Sag Harbor a couple of years ago and is now moved into the old Laundry/Race Lane space. Both have a track record of excellent food and good service that has left them looking to spread their wings.
But they are both going to be nuzzling up to the same trough of well-heeled customers as Nick & Toni’s, 1770 House, East Hampton Grill, Palm and Highway—and, presumably, Eleven Madison Park (unless they’re going to transfer their patrons as well?)—this summer.
There will be draws between hamlets, too, from a host of new efforts, most with enough seasoning behind them to be potential successes.
Le Bilboquet, a French bistro that’s done very well in Manhattan, is once again said to be getting ready to open at the old B. Smith’s on the Sag Harbor waterfront. The same thing was rumored last summer, to no avail, but with billionaire Ron Perelman as the money behind the move, it seems bound to happen eventually.
Down the street, another billionaire is backing a new plaything where Doppio used to be. Hedgie Marc Rowan has brought on a chef who everyone keeps saying cooked at Bouley, but perhaps should be more celebrated for the really good reviews he got as the chef at a West Islip restaurant. But that’s city folk for you: If you can’t drop a name that will raise the eyebrows of people who are paying very little actual attention to anything but themselves, don’t bother with the rest.
In Southampton, the new Gastro Pub is definitely going to be stealing some business from Publick House, Little Red and Red Bar this summer. Having now eaten there twice myself, I can say that the only thing they seemed to get wrong—and could fix before anyone notices this summer—is the name. The food is excellent. Pricey, but excellent.
Even the Hampton Coffee Company is getting into the game: It’s doing dinner at its Water Mill cafe now. If the food quality and price points are on par with what breakfast and lunch have been for several years now, there will almost certainly be a market for them—which will put pressure on Manna to deliver in its second summer.
Couple all this industry tension with a shaker full of societal angst and a double shot of stock-market intoxication, and a pinch of self-possessed drama from the reality show with a cast of 300 million that our country has become, and this summer has the potential to be one to remember. Let’s hope it is for good reasons. (Honestly, I’m going to knock on wood after saying that. Knock on wood.)
As I write this, the song in my headphones just changed. Forebodingly perhaps:
“No we’re never gonna survive … unless … we get a little crazy.”
Amen. I’ll have the salmon.