On a Saturday night in high summer, Hollywood stars and Wall Street titans converge on what is arguably the hottest table on the East Coast. At Nick & Toni's in East Hampton, the rich and famous feel at home. So do the not-so-rich and not-that-famous. And that is due largely to Bonnie Munshin, the restaurant's down-to-earth general manager since 1992.
"If we could accommodate every single person who wanted to come here," she says, "we'd be happy."
During the season, Munshin and her staff look after the likes of George Clooney, Paul McCartney, Ina Garten, Howard Stern, Alec Baldwin and any number of Real Housewives. Hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, who owns a house in East Hampton and is a regular customer, described the scene this way: "Imagine a place like old Hollywood but only old Hamptons, which is much more subtle, gracious and classic," he says. "Bonnie is the embodiment of that feeling. She makes walking in to Nick & Toni's a magical moment."
Celebrities and regulars may have an edge when it comes to booking one of the restaurant's 24 indoor tables, but Nick & Toni's does not accept reservations for the dozen or so tables on the porch and patio. If people show up, they will eventually be seated. The wait, which could be more than two hours, is made more pleasant by the benches and wide steps just outside the front door. "You're welcome to get a drink and have a seat outside," Munshin tells walk-ins. "Or not get a drink and have a seat."
Munshin is even sympathetic to star-seekers. "I understand why people are compelled to approach Billy Joel and say, 'I remember when I first heard this song of yours for the first time,' " she says, "but sometimes I have to step in and remind them, 'He's here to have dinner, just like you.' "
Road to East Hampton
Munshin followed a circuitous route to Nick & Toni's. She met the founders, Toni Ross and the late Jeff Salway, when all three were working at Larry Forgione's American Place in Manhattan. Ross and Salway opened Nick & Toni's in 1988 and, four years later, Munshin became their first general manager. She had a few years of restaurant work under her belt, but that was, at the least, her third career. She had sailed around the world, she had sold large-size women's clothing and fine-art posters. But the California native had first and foremost been a dancer. She started ballet at 8, and at 16 she got her first professional job in a production of "Annie Get Your Gun," starring Mary Martin and John Raitt, at the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera.
She was only 18 when she was cast in "Oklahoma!" and fell in love with Jules Munshin, the actor who was playing traveling peddler Ali Hakim. The two married and moved to New York, where she danced on Broadway and on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and had two children. Jules, who was 43 when they married, died 11 years later. Taking on the role of single mother, she did not miss dancing professionally but admits to "one small regret -- I was never in a ballet company and I would have cherished that experience."
At Nick & Toni's, however, Munshin is a combination prima ballerina and choreographer. She directs an elaborate dance that looks effortless to diners but requires an enormous effort, practice and coordination. Her corps includes about 30 people in the front of the house, three of them posted at the door. Executive chef Joseph Realmuto and chef de cuisine John Baron command another 30 in a kitchen that puts out an Italian-leaning New American menu.
Saturday night fever
The tanned crowd on a recent Saturday night is dressed and accessorized to the nines. Munshin, a grandmother, is slim, graceful and erect; she may be the only woman older than 60 in the room whose face appears to have aged naturally. She is calm, but on guard. At 7:30, things are still quiet, but Munshin isn't fooled; the onset of dusk is the dawn of battle. "As the sun goes down," she observes, "everyone suddenly says, 'Hey, I'm hungry. Let's go to Nick & Toni's.' " By 9, every table is filled, the crush at the bar is three deep and there are two dozen people sitting on the steps outside the front door.
Munshin is everywhere. At the door, she meets and greets and surveys. But more often than not, she's attending to some task that no one else is around to perform. She hears the clatter of almost-dropped plates and glides over to the affected table to aid the busboy. When both of the sommeliers are occupied, she helps a table with a wine selection, brings the glasses (which she wipes first to rid them of any spots) and serves. At 10:30 she is standing by the kitchen pass window folding napkins. Munshin is adamant that no matter how late it gets, every table must be set up to receive guests. "Even a late guest should feel like the restaurant is welcoming," she says, "not like everyone is anxious to go home."
Patrons appreciate such gestures. "Homey is not a word people might think of when describing the Hamptons," says Alec Baldwin, who owns a house in Amagansett, "but it is home to many people. And one of the things that makes it feel like home is Nick & Toni's and, of course, Bonnie Munshin."
At 11:06, Munshin sits down for the first time all night. She and her colleagues have fed -- or are in the process of feeding -- almost 400 people. "It's hard with a restaurant this busy to continue to give people what they have come to expect from us," she says. "But that's what hospitality is all about."