Montauk’s fall festival was enjoying just about the most brilliant morning imaginable — warm weather, cloudless sky — and Leo Daunt, wearing a flannel shirt and work boots, watched as half-inflated bounce houses rose slowly from the village green. “Can I go through the obstacle course?” he asked a man supervising the children’s area.
“Of course,” the guy laughed. “Even though your birthday was last Sunday.”
Daunt, tall and lanky, had just turned 30, and you get the sense that he may well be a big part of the old town's future. For one thing, Daunt is a lifelong resident of the little community — a few years at SUNY Cortland notwithstanding — and has a townie’s love for Montauk's quirky yet laid-back vibe, a vibe that of late has been under near-daily assault from hedge fund managers who appear to be less interested in preserving quirk than Hamptonizing the place.
Daunt has proved to be a forward-thinker. Witness Daunt’s Albatross, a motel his grandfather bought in 1977 and later passed down to Leo Sr., Daunt’s father. Leo Jr. has been running the place since his early twenties, and presided over a spectacular renovation of the property that was completed earlier this year.
But wait, there’s more. Last winter, when Bird on the Roof, a breakfast-lunch spot across the street, went up for sale, “I jumped at the chance, even though we were in the middle of the hotel renovation and I had a broken foot at the time.” (Basketball injury.) Daunt set about reimagining the eatery as well, emphasizing quality over quantity in scaling back its diner-ish menu. Blueberry lemonade cocktails ($15) and pistachio lattes ($6.50) can be had, but also simple and satisfying dishes like soft scrambled eggs with burrata on Eli’s bread delivered daily ($18), and smoked salmon with pickled onions on toast ($22). Fans of deliciousness should hurry, as the restaurant closes for the season in November, although the hotel will continue to operate year-round.
“How do you do that old-school, authentic Montauk that everyone has in their mind but make it nice?” Daunt wondered aloud at a back table at Bird, a question that’s become his mantra. For the motel, nice has meant more comfortable beds, fast Wi-Fi, rattan pendant lamps, a few Himalayan salt lamps here and there, and an irresistibly cozy gravel courtyard well-stocked with Adirondack chairs circling multiple fire pits.
As for the restaurant, Daunt is keeping the name, a nice gesture too, especially when you consider that it was once a part of the Albatross flock. (Indeed, the 30-foot bird silhouette painted on the eatery’s shingles dates from the days when it was part of a complex known as the Albatross Inn and Cafe. When both went up for sale in the ’70s and Daunt’s grandfather elected to buy the inn but not the cafe, the couple who did — Frank and Helmar Cirillo — got rid of the name, although not the bird on the roof. Hence, Bird on the Roof.)
“When he came home from college he told me he wanted to shadow me for six months,” recalled Daunt’s father, who still lives in Montauk. “After that, he was like, ‘I want to take over the office. You’re so behind the times.’ And we were. So I said, ‘well, OK, but then you have to stay.’”
Young Leo did more than that. “I just fell in love with what the Albatross could be,” said Daunt, who counts among his current titles co-president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce. “And I started seeing all these properties being purchased and renovated. I thought it would be so cool if a local family could keep their local property and renovate.”
“I’m definitely worried about the future,” he admitted. Compared to its glittery neighbors down the sand, “Montauk always felt more approachable. It catered to everyone, not just the rich and famous.” And while Daunt knows he's in a privileged position — not everyone is lucky enough to inherit a Montauk property, after all — he's on a mission to prove something to his hometown, that it can change and still be itself. “You’re not going to stop what’s happening in Montauk, but you can help shape it, you can be a force in it.”
Daunt’s Albatross is at 44 S. Elmwood Ave. in Montauk, 631-668-2729, dauntsalbatross.com. Bird on the Roof is at 47 S. Elmwood Ave., 631-668-5833, birdontheroof.com. Opening hours are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Wednesday.