To the newbie, the Hamptons’ culinary landscape may seem like the epitome of the fad. What’s up? What’s new? Which celebrity chef has landed and where? Which is the latest pop-up? Happily though, there’s another side to dining in the Hamptons. A side where regulars enjoy the area in all seasons and where solid eateries provide serious food, consistent service, and nice ambience, year-round. Next month, Nick & Toni’s, the celebrated East Hampton trattoria, will mark its 35th anniversary—a good moment it seemed to reflect on what makes or breaks a restaurant in this competitive market.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” said co-owner Mark Smith, CEO of Honest Man Hospitality, “but we have withstood the test of time, and in a resort community, it’s not a small feat.”
The group owns four other restaurants that are all located close to each other, between Sagaponack and Amagansett. Executive Chef Joe Realmuto oversees the food, but each eatery has its own chef de cuisine and offers its own concept and menu: Rowdy Hall in its 27th year, La Fondita in its 22nd year, Townline BBQ in its 16th year, and the most recent one, Coche Comedor, which opened in 2019.
“In the dead of winter, it’s tempting to put a burger on Nick & Toni’s menu,” said Mr. Smith, “or pasta at Townline BBQ.”
But the restaurateur is careful to keep each restaurant as a separate entity and not cannibalize their own businesses.
“Our restaurants are all open year-round,” said Mr. Smith. “So one of our challenges is to keep up with the fluctuation in clientele between seasons. We adjust prices and menus.”
The pandemic hit the hospitality industry like a tidal wave. In March 2020, restaurants closed, and staff had to be let go. In 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 47 million Americans quit their jobs. This trend may have started earlier, but Mr. Smith believes that many workers, finding themselves at home, took the time to reflect and reevaluate their priorities. Suddenly, it did not make sense to work long evenings, weekends, and holidays. When restaurants reopened, the labor shortage became obvious, and the group is still reeling from it. Both Coche Comedor, a Mexican concept, and Rowdy Hall, which offers a mix of French bistro and English pub items, can only open six days a week because of labor shortages.
“Even when we find qualified people,” said Mr. Smith, “the cost of local housing is prohibitive. Some employers now offer housing to their staff, but it’s an ongoing problem in resort communities.”
One of the keys to the group’s long-lasting success may be the fact that the partners live in the area. They have built a loyal clientele because each of them, including Christy Cober, Director of Operations, are constantly on site. Executive Chef Joe Realmuto was not able to speak to this reporter at the end of the day recently because he was working the line at Nick & Toni’s, and in the early morning, he was getting his fish in Montauk! When asked if he knew what the secret was to the group’s consistency, he mentioned the fact that his chefs have been working with him for years.
“In this seasonal community,” said Mr. Realmuto, “it doesn’t really make sense financially to stay open year-round, but it allows us to keep a core group of people employed. And that’s the secret.”
In the 35 years since Nick & Toni’s was founded by the late Jeff Salaway and his wife Toni Ross, who is still a partner, eating habits have evolved, but the menu still features such classic dishes as Caesar Salad, Zucchini Chips, Penne alla Vecchia Bettola, and the Roasted Free-Range Chicken.
“Jeff and Toni brought a wood-burning oven and grill,” said Mr. Realmuto. “They placed olive oil on the table instead of butter, and we still do the same!”