Off-season dining in the Hamptons

Almond in Bridgehampton. Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

Go to Estia’s. Everybody goes there.” It was a Sunday morning in August, and a friend and I had asked the clerk behind the desk at our inn about breakfast options in Sag Harbor. Her face was resolute. “It’s the best.” We realized she meant Estia’s Little Kitchen, a short drive out of sag Harbor on Route 114. Soon enough, we found it, a shingled house set back from the road.

That morning, it was in peak Hamptons summer mode: The gravel lot filled with SUVs, the garden swarming with would-be (and possibly hung-over) brunchers and the front door jammed with people. I peered past them, into the dining room, and saw we were in for a wait requiring superhuman patience.

“Let’s go,” my friend said, and we did, so I didn’t get to taste chef-owner Colin Ambrose’s cooking that day—the huevos rancheros, the chilaquiles or any of the other Mexican-inflected breakfast plates that make up half of Estia’s business. Fast-forward to another, chillier morning in mid-November, when I easily found a stool at Estia’s goldenrod counter. The dining room was only half full and moving at an easy pace, one of the cornerstone blessings of the off-season.

Estia’s had just stopped breakfast service for the day, and it was still too early for any of the mezcals or tequilas lined up along the far wall. “We still have this,” said the server, guiding my eyes down the menu toward something called George’s Ranch. I saw the words “toasted tortilla,” “black beans,” “avocado” and “eggs” and gave a thumbs up as a couple of guys bundled against the cold took stools next to me. One was clearly a regular, the other a newcomer like me. “Everyone comes here,” the first told the second, before running through menu items with the equivalent of a verbal strut. He had the glow of someone who felt like he had just come home, at least a little.

George's Ranch at Estia's Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor.

George's Ranch at Estia's Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor. Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

I understood. Not only was Estia’s extremely charming, there was also a cat-caught-the-canary feeling to hitting the Hamptons in the slow season, anywhere from late September to Memorial Day. Growing up about an hour west, I had had little idea of this, as the Hamptons were a place my family rarely went. The picturesque villages and hamlets on Long Island’s South Fork were too crowded or too expensive—so the narrative went—and the subtext was that the Hamptons weren’t really a place for people such as us.

That early misconception stayed with me for a long while. As someone who loves to eat, though, ignoring the Hamptons had been at my own loss. Once the crowds and traffic disappear in the fall, its sparkly culinary riches are still up for grabs, and quicker grabs at that.

Later that November day in Sag Harbor, as fallen leaves whipped into tufts along Main Street, the gritty but extraordinary nautical roots of this village—an early American port and whaling center on Gardiners Bay—felt closer to the surface. Boutiques and restaurants have multiplied here in Sag Harbor in recent years, but back in the early aughts, not many visitors would make the turn off Main Street onto Bay Street, said Stacy Sheehan, co-owner of Dockside Bar & Grill. Her restaurant faces the harbor and occupies one side of a working American Legion hall; the words “American Legion” are still emblazoned over the facade. Despite the prime real estate, inside I found a laidback place with a game of dice being played on the bar.

Left: Patrons during lunch time at Dockside Bar & Grill in Sag Harbor. Top: Chicken pot pie at Dockside Bar & Grill. Bottom: A waiter carries drinks at the Dockside Bar & Grill. Photo credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

I ordered fries, some oysters on the half shell—Promised Lands from Amagansett—and an apricot margarita. The guy next to me rolled the dice but didn’t win the dollar bill–filled pot kept behind the bar. He caught me watching. “It’s for people who come in here a lot, but they’d probably let you in on it if you like,” he said sweetly. Down the bar, in front of another patron, a chicken pot pie was plonked down, its puff pastry edges curled into a giant bouffant.

“[The pot pie] has been on the menu forever,” said Sheehan, who’s run Dockside with her business partner, Elizabeth Barnes, since 2002. Chef Tom Jacobs slow-roasts chickens for the pies, and the shredded meat is tumbled with peas, roasted corn, potatoes and carrots. “When there’s a lot of them in the dining room, you can smell all that butter.”

Before Sheehan and Barnes renovated Dockside into a smart spot with plenty of shiplap and nautical hues, the bar was run by Sheehan’s dad, Edward Sheehan, and a dartboard and smoke eater machine, one that went click, click, click, were among its features. “My dad’s word for the place was “joint,” and I like that word. [Dockside] feels beachy and relaxed and comfortable, not fancy, but the food’s still good,” Sheehan added.

During the summer, the kitchen might do 275 lunches and 300 dinners—a staggering volume—but in the off-season, the pace is slower. “It’s a lot more graceful when you’re doing those kinds of [lower] numbers,” Sheehan said.

Afterward, I walked a few blocks back to Main Street and to Grindstone Coffee & Donuts, for a mocha as rich as sin and one of the last remaining cinnamon-sugar doughnuts. From the window, Main Street looked sleepy, even as it headed into Friday evening.

Later in the day, I rolled my car into the parking lot near the dunes of Main Beach in East Hampton. (In July, parking your car there costs $30—that is, if you can grab one of the few dozen day permits.) The wide stretch of sand was almost deserted, and soon the sky erupted to violet, pumpkin and gold, a technicolor winter sunset.  

“I think what attracted me over the years to change careers and to make this my home—it’s how beautiful the place is,” said Mark Smith, who co-owns the East Hampton restaurant Nick & Toni’s. (Before that, Smith was in the sock business.) “As long as you can put on a jacket and a hat, you can go to the beach or take a walk in the woods out of Montauk.”

Just the restaurant’s name, Nick & Toni’s, is more evocative of celebrity than perhaps any other place in the Hamptons, and in the summer, the 100 or so seats (as well as another 60 outside) are hot properties. In winter, the chances of walking in and finding one in the coveted front dining room, near the glow of the wood- red oven, radically improve.

The hickory fire flickering in that oven lends a smokiness to executive chef Joe Realmuto’s famous pizza, as well as the littleneck clams I ordered one night; they were crisped to char along their edges and fattened with pancetta and garlic butter. At the bar, a bottle of Champagne was popped open among friends as Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” blasted from the speakers, and a server shimmied as she waited for her drink order at the side bar.

Nick & Toni's bartender Derek Smith preparing drinks.

Nick & Toni's bartender Derek Smith preparing drinks. Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

It was not quite what I expected. The names you hear associated with the place, from Alec Baldwin to Meryl Streep, had made me wonder if the hype prevailed and the food played second fiddle. Then, I caught the infectious, homey vibe—and ate those superb clams.

“[Nick & Toni’s] has garnered a reputation as a celebrity hotspot, and I think there’s people that are, unfortunately, hoping to run into this one or that one,” said Smith. Yet at its heart, Nick & Toni’s (named for original owners, the late Jeff “Nick” Salaway and his wife, Toni Ross) is about very fresh, very local food, whether blackfish or oysters, or corn from Amagansett’s Balsam Farms, or greens from the restaurant’s own adjoining garden. “From our vantage point, we try to treat everybody the same and keep it low key. The people that return [to Nick & Toni’s] love it for a myriad of reasons. It’s gratifying to hear people come to the restaurant and walk away raving about the food.”

Roasted fish with salsa verde, wood-roasted clams and oven baked...

Roasted fish with salsa verde, wood-roasted clams and oven baked pizza at Nick & Toni's in East Hampton. Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

Proximity between chefs, farmers and fishers notwithstanding, it’s impossible to ignore one salient point: The affuence of summer residents enables that relationship to reach full flower and for innovation to take root. When the summer folks fade, those jewels remain, whether lingonberry old fashioneds at The Maidstone Hotel in East Hampton or local fluke usuzukuri at Suki Zuki in Water Mill, a hopping izakaya- slash-sushi spot with a charcoal robata grill.

In Bridgehampton, the year-round population was officially 1,756 in the last U.S. Census, in 2010, but is exponentially larger in the summer. Then, one needs foresight on a Saturday night to get into Almond, the whimsical spot established by chef partners Eric Lemonides and Jason Weiner in 2001.

On the same night in the off-season, the energy mellows but does not dissipate: The zebra-covered wallpaper by Scalamandré (which also famously adorned the legendary Gino on Lexington Avenue near 61st Street in Manhattan) and army of candles give the place the feel of a carnivalesque cathedral. To kimchi, perhaps, and cocktails. Weiner also co-owns a concern called Kimchi Jews, and the kitchen tends to spike its dishes, such as taquitos filled with local duck confit, with the garlicky condiment. Even Gulf shrimp, stuffed into wonton-like ravioli and plated with wilted broccolini, gets some smolder from pickled hot peppers.

Almond in Bridgehampton.

Almond in Bridgehampton. Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

Duck and oysters, whiskey and kimchi, mocha and cinnamon doughnuts. Wherever you go in the Hamptons, in season or off, the prices of these things can cause you to pause. Just the high cost of living on the South Fork can drive out teachers, landscapers and other people who make the world turn.

Chef Arthur Wolf realizes this. During the week, he runs humanely priced daily lunch specials, whether local tuna tostadas or a turkey panini, inside his barbecue restaurant, Smokin’ Wolf BBQ & More in East Hampton. “We’ve established a little lunch crowd,” said Wolf, with the insight of a chef who has raised three kids on the East End.

Before he started Smokin’ Wolf in 2013, Wolf was the longtime pitmaster at Turtle Crossing, a spot that operated a few doors away until it closed in 2011. His terra cotta–hued restaurant has an eat-in counter and a few tables, the kind of place where you grab some iced tea or a Montauk Wave Chaser IPA from the cooler to go with smoked brisket, slow-cooked baby back ribs or—especially this—the barbecued duck on the dinner menu. Going on a tip, I waited half an hour for half a bird, its skin blackened and crisp, with a side of black currant sauce. In my car, I was seduced by its aroma and tore into the duck before I drove away. It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

BBQ duck with sweet potato and cornbread at Smokin' Wolf...

BBQ duck with sweet potato and cornbread at Smokin' Wolf BBQ & More in East Hampton. Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

“I cold-smoke first, infusing some smoke flavor,” said Wolf of the duck, which he gets from Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue. He then rubs the skin with Chinese five-spice powder and puts the birds into his rotisserie for two, two-and-a-half hours. “They’re pretty much fat free,” he joked, although remembering the juices, I might disagree. Half a duck costs $17 à la carte, definitely a bargain.

Such simple pleasures abound if you look for them out here, such as the drippy burgers at Fellingham’s Restaurant Sports Bar in Southampton, a tavern in an 1830s carriage house with walls armored in old photographs and memorabilia, and where the conversation flows as languidly as the beer. Or back near Sag Harbor (Noyack, really) inside The Bell & Anchor, a modest-looking spot on the edge of a working marina. One night, while I contemplated either bouillabaisse or fritto misto, I heard applause erupt in a corner of the dining room.

A chili-cheese hot dog and the Bambino burger at Fellingham's...

A chili-cheese hot dog and the Bambino burger at Fellingham's Restaurant Sport Bar in Southampton. Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

“Someone just got engaged,” said the bartender, Sam Duane, looking as if this kind of thing happened regularly. In almost the same breath, she recommended the last remaining order of Peconic Bay scallops, plated in a lemony cream sauce, that were on the menu that night.

“How did you get those?” I asked. Every news outlet from Montauk to New York City had reported this season’s massive bay scallop die-off.

“We know the baymen,” she shrugged. A group of men waiting for their coats behind me began volleying the prices at which they’ve seen scallops this season. “I paid $35 [per pound],” said one. “I saw them for $65,” said another. Later, I asked co-owner David Loewenberg about the connections that enabled a score during a lean year. He and his partner Sam McCleland (also the chef) opened The Bell & Anchor in 2012, and seasonality and producer relationships remain paramount, Loewenberg said. And the loyalty among locals enables that focus. “We’re very thankful we have a strong clientele,” he said.

When my scallops arrived, they were like sea candy, melting almost upon tongue contact. Duane seemed to take genuine pleasure in the fact that a stranger, a newcomer to her bar when everyone else was a regular, enjoyed them so much. Then she wiped her hands on a rag and walked away. 

Restaurant Information

ALMOND: One Ocean Rd., Bridgehampton; 631-537-5665,

THE BELL & ANCHOR: 3253 Noyack Rd., Sag Harbor 631-725-3400,

DOCKSIDE BAR & GRILL: 26 Bay St., Sag Harbor; 631-725-7100, (Closed until mid-to-late February)

ESTIA’S LITTLE KITCHEN: 1615 Sag Harbor Tpke., Sag Harbor; 631-725-1045,

FELLINGHAM’S RESTAURANT SPORTS BAR: 17 Cameron St., Southampton Village; 631-283-9417,

GRINDSTONE COFFEE & DONUTS: 7A Main St., Sag Harbor; 631-808-3370,

THE MAIDSTONE HOTEL: 207 Main St., East Hampton; 631-324-5006,

NICK & TONI’S: 136 N. Main St., East Hampton; 631-324-3550,

SMOKIN’ WOLF BBQ & MORE :199 Pantigo Rd., East Hampton; 631-604-6470,

SUKI ZUKI: 688 Route 27, Water Mill; 631-726-4600

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