Remember how the coronavirus was going to spell the end of fine dining as we know it? Chefs, restaurateurs and almost everyone else with a fork sang the same tune: no sector of the industry would be affected more deeply. For three- and four-star establishments, the pandemic would be an extinction event, an apocalypse.
Nope. Thanks to efforts both speedy and heroic, high-end establishments cobbled together takeout businesses overnight, sold their wine cellars, navigated supply chain disruptions, and made good on promises to feed the hungry and the overworked. They survived by adapting, and because we — the diners — adapted too.
"As recently as two summers ago, people wouldn’t sit out here if it was under 55 degrees," said Michael Nolan, standing in the sun-dappled interior courtyard of Fresno, the East Hampton restaurant he opened in 2004. "They were out here in 20-degree weather last year. It was unbelievable."
The popularity prompted Nolan to give his parking lot an extreme summer makeover, turning it into a summer rose garden — think wine, not White House — a perfect complement to his seasonal menu.
"This restaurant is 16 years old, so it was fun to reinvent and reinvigorate it a little bit," Nolan continuedIn his mind’s eye he saw six-foot-high reed fencing, a fire pit, soft music and sanitized blue fleece blankets.. Fine dining, you see, has this pivoting thing down pat.
GARDEN CITY GETAWAY
"Can I put you on speaker?" said Francine Doukas into her phone. Her husband Jim, with whom she owns and runs Revel in Garden City, was home recovering from the COVID vaccine. "Newsday wants to know how long this took you."
"About a week," came the response. It was hard to believe. Large planters stocked with everything from pansies to palm trees lined two sides of a 20-by-60 tented patio. A third featured a wonderfully landscaped rock garden overflowing with white impatiens and shrubbery. "I had to do something to keep our business going."
Although the 50-seat dining area dates to last year, the Doukases have been adding to it over time, further embellishing what was already the most enchanted back driveway in existence. Now, snowflake chandeliers twinkle above wicker-and-metal chairs, and plastic wisteria vines hang heavily, like they’ve sprouted from the ceiling. "It really gave us a shot in the arm," noted Jim, apparently without irony.
"He’s being humble about it," said Francine, clicking off the call, "but all this landscaping and building was done not knowing if they were even going to give us a permit. Right away, this became one of the most important parts of the restaurant." Revel’s business has improved markedly of late, but things remain complicated. Some diners want to sit inside for the AC, others feel more comfortable in quiet outdoor settings in the back garden, and still others prefer sidewalk tables on noisy Franklin Ave. ("Some people, they feel like it’s Europe. They want the action.") COVID taught Francine, if nothing else, to be ready for anything. "Whatever they want, I have it."
A COMMACK REVAMP
Few commercial enterprises are as reliably perilous as the opening of a restaurant, and surviving infancy depends less on deep pockets than the proper attitude — taking setbacks in stride, say. For restaurants with the audacity to open over the past year, however, survival has required resilience bordering on the superhuman. Like anyone attempting to summon a fine dining establishment from the grave of a Ruby Tuesday, chef-owner Steven Del Lima expected obstacles when he broke ground on Hooks & Chops in Commack early last year. But he didn’t plan for a pandemic, so he didn’t plan for an outdoor area, either.
"I knew I had to do what I could to keep this business running and keep people safe," said Del Lima of his large bluestone and Nicolock-paved patio, which debuted in May adjacent to Hooks & Chops’ main dining room. It is an attractive and organic-appearing offshoot, so much so you’d hardly guess it was born of necessity, or how quickly the project came together. It took just three weeks for Del Lima to have a steep pitch leveled on the grounds, concrete poured, stones laid, arbor vitae trees planted "to keep people from seeing Jericho Turnpike," lighting installed and bands booked — duos and trios now play Thursday through Saturday evenings in a corner of the patio. "I got it all done in record time."
On a recent moonlit Friday evening, most of Hooks and Chops’ 14 outdoor tables were full, a singer crooned ’70s standards, soft breezes fragrant with hope blew in, and for one brief moment, opening a restaurant actually seemed like a good idea. Buoyed by his patio’s popularity, Del Lima hopes to install a pergola and removable walls in time for the restaurant’s first anniversary this October.
Such is the popularity of Italian eateries, and such is the enterprising nature of Italian restaurateurs these days, there’s hardly an idle roll of AstroTurf or Cinzano umbrella to be found on the Island. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been treatments more imaginative, and by imaginative I mean expensive. At King Umberto in Elmont, a cavernous warehouselike space (seriously, there are Walmarts smaller) originally earmarked for weddings and special events got the COVID-conversion treatment last year, and the results were eye-popping.
Strings of lights and purple and white flowering vines — again plastic — look like happy stalactites or perhaps upside-down crystal towers from the old Magic Rocks sets, even as large garage doors sit open on two sides. And soon those garage doors will open onto another lavish new space. Nearing completion is a large, marble-floored patio that will eventually play host to umpteen tables shaded by cherry red umbrellas, several navy blue patio sofas, a few firepits and more.
Eye-popping in a completely different way is the newly-opened outdoor expanse at Centro Trattoria in Hampton Bays, Salvatore Biundo’s monument to all things primi and secondi. An outdoor fireplace creates a measure of coziness on chilly evenings, but Centro’s new gravel "piazza" builds a case for warm summer ones too. Strings of party lights swoop down from blond wood beams, bringing a friendly glow to the white tablecloth dining area. And Biundo also aims to inject some healthy informality into the luxe dining.
If you’ve any doubt of that, train your eyes on a spot beyond the burbling fountain and pots of red-flowering Brazilian jasmine. Those golf carts? They’re zipping food across the parking lot to another new Centro space, where light strings and umbrella tables preside over an inspired bit of unexpectedness — two bocce courts. Equally unexpected: the seriousness with which area old-timers are already playing the game on select Wednesday evenings. (Centro recently felt compelled to advertise for a bocce referee.)
OFF-THE-BEATEN PATH OASIS
With the year restaurants have had, a desire to leave patrons smiling is understandable, which is yet another reason fine dining increasingly means trading stuffiness, if not elegance, for splendid evenings under the stars. For the Stone Creek Inn, a restaurant with serious experience at staging weddings and other one-of-a-kind events at tony enclaves on the East End, such a transition came naturally.
"I’m accustomed to looking at a blank field and saying, OK, how are we going to make this fabulous," said Elaine DiGiacomo who, along with her husband, chef Christian Mir, has been running Stone Creek since 1996, transforming an old speak-easy into one of the Island’s finest fine dining experiences. And there’s no other word but fabulous for the restaurant’s new outdoor setup. There are restaurants with tents and then there’s this — 46-by-65 feet of sailcloth stupendousness that’s as beautiful to look at as it is to eat under. More to the point, the tent — along with Stone Creek’s army of top-drawer young staffers and Mir’s confident cooking — credibly transports an exquisite indoor experience to the great outdoors. But beyond the tent, new experiences await, some of them attracting new fans.
"You’ve heard the word a lot, we pivoted," said DiGiacomo with a laugh. Stone Creek sits on five acres of land, which presented a design challenge, yes, but also an opportunity. Looking for something on eBay that might "pull all the visuals together" outdoors, DiGiacomo happened upon an unlikely solution, a vintage camper owned by a woman on a Pennsylvania horse farm. ("It still kind of smelled like horse, frankly.") The old vehicle paired well with two others she wanted to display on the property, a pair of circa-1940 Fords that were part of her late father’s collection. Add some pea gravel, flowering potted plants, bistro lights, Adirondack chairs, tiki torches and presto — for the first time in its history, Stone Creek had a casual outdoor space where patrons could repair for drinks before or after dinner.
Originally conceived as a way to lure patrons who might be skittish about indoor dining, DiGiacomo’s touches soon began to lure a different kind of patron, the kind you don’t associate with a restaurant celebrating its 25th anniversary.
"It put us on the radar with a younger demographic," she said, "people who used to think of us as a special occasion restaurant or a place to come with their parents." The popularity of Stone Creek’s informal outdoor vibe initially surprised DiGiacomo, but not any longer.
"We really care about hospitality and making the customer happy, and that never goes out of fashion, no matter how old you are, right?"
CENTRO TRATTORIA & BAR: 336 W. Montauk Hwy., Hampton Bays; 631-594-5744, centrohamptons.com
Best bets: Fried baby artichokes, cavatelli carbonara, shrimp saltimbocca
FRESNO: 11 Fresno Pl., East Hampton; 631-324-8700, fresnorestaurant.com
Best bets: Garbanzo and jalapeno-lime hummus, pan-seared Montauk fluke, Kobe steak frites
HOOKS & CHOPS: 6330 Jericho Tpke, Commack; 631-600-0521, hooksandchops.com
Best bets: Flash-fried oyster escabeche, seared sea scallops, brick half-chicken
KING UMBERTO: 1343 Hempstead Tpke, Elmont; 516-352-8391, kingumberto.com
Best bets: Fried capellini, mozzarella caprese, chicken parmigiana
REVEL: 835 Franklin Ave., Garden City; 516-246-9111, revelrestaurant.com
Best bets: Eggplant chips, chargrilled branzino, boneless short ribs
STONE CREEK INN: 405 Montauk Hwy., East Quogue; 631-653-6770, stonecreekinn.com
Best bets: LI duck meatballs, rack of lamb, fried soft-shell crab, banana cartwheel