Insider's Look at East Hampton Outpost of The Palm
by gary walther
It's only 6:30 on a summer Saturday evening, but there’s already an engine-room thrum pervading The Palm in East Hampton. The dusky bar off the small lobby is a flicker of raised wrists and heads pitched to catch conversation. In the lobby itself, a clutch of early birds circles the hostess podium, waiting for clearance to land. (On summer weekends, the restaurant surpasses LaGuardia on a rainy day for delays, insiders say, unless you’re a real insider.) And out in the parking lot, the front rank of spaces, vacant only an hour ago, is filled with an armada of late model luxury sedans, lined up, front-end forward, with the precision of an honor guard. (Among the vanity plates: ONTHEFLI and AUDACITY.)
The Palm East Hampton, like The Palm in Manhattan, traffics in bigness—big food, big spenders, very big names. The shrimp are “jumbo,” the lump crabmeat “colossal,” and the veal parmigiana is so vast that it slumps over the dish rim in two places. “It’s one of the best things on the menu, although you’d never think so,” notes an acquaintance of mine. That’s confirmed by Bruce Bozzi Jr., executive vice president of Palm Restaurant Group, who says that overall, the veal parmigiana is one of the chain’s two most popular nonsteak dishes. As for the steak menu—it tops out at a 32-ounce boneless Prime Double Cut New York Strip for two. The 16-ounce New York Strip is the Palm’s most popular cut; the rib eye the tastiest (because it’s the fattiest), and the filet mignon the leanest.
The patrons certainly spend big. Although one of the smaller of the 26 Palm locations, East Hampton ranked fifth in profitability, and fourth in profit growth, with a whopping 25 percent increase during 2010. On an average summer night, the restaurant sells $3,000 to $4,000 worth of wine, according to food and beverage manager Andrew Tobin, and on a weekend, the tally can be $5,000 to $6,000. Three names dominate prestige bottle sales: Dominus (the 2008 is $278), Tignanello (2008 for $200), “which is by far the best selling Super Tuscan for us,” says Tobin, and Cardinale (2005, ’06, and ’07). Tobin calls the 2007 ($340) “one of the best wines I’ve had in my entire life.” As for sleepers, he says the Twomey ($115), a merlot, is the best value for the money on the list. “We don’t venture much into aged Bordeaux as we don’t have the demand from the customers,” adds Tobin.
When it comes to the restaurant’s gravitational pull in the East End constellation, The Palm is Jupiter. Metric one: On summer Saturday nights “people come from another Hampton,” says Bozzi, with a trace of sincere astonishment, a reference to the fact that given the traffic, the journey can seem like light years. Metric two: This Palm is an oasis of celebrity, counting Renée Zellweger, Jon Bon Jovi, Jimmy Fallon, Billy Joel, Andy Cohen, Calvin Klein, Bill Clinton, Jack Nicholson, Jerry Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin, Kathleen Turner, Ron Perlman, and Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick among its patrons. On September 1, 2011, the entire Palm dining room broke into a belated “Happy Birthday” for Clinton, who had turned 65 on August 19.
The dining room is famous for what another acquaintance, a long-time resident of Sagaponack, describes as “The Palm Look.” When a party enters, everyone already inside glances up and looks the new arrivals up and down. (That’s true.) The room’s atmosphere is routinely described as charged. That may be because so many big names are shoehorned into such a small space (a ground-floor room in the Huntting Inn, which was built in 1699) and its rambling feel by an addition in 1912, when it became a hotel.
What’s surprising about the room is that it is so not East Hampton. The white, pressed-tin ceiling is only 6’6” high—there isn’t an NBA center who could walk to a table without ducking—and the space is sectioned by three chest-high oak dividers, each topped with a shiny brass rail. See those Belltown Schoolhouse ceiling lights? They’re not the product of some designer’s sensibility, but have been here for decades. The chairs are bentwood Thonet, and there are eight built-in booths with forest green seat cushions and backs as straight as a pew. It all brings to mind a vintage railway carriage, a prep school dining room, or a small-town inn circa 1912.
On any given weekend, almost everybody in here is somebody, but anybody who is really somebody is out on the porch, the narrow adjacent room with 10 tables. It feels a lot less congested, courtesy of the French doors at one end and the shoulder-to-shoulder, three-over-three windows running down the long side. Here, you can even turn your back on the other room. How’s that for having clout? 94 Main St., East Hampton, 324-0411
photography by evan sung; eric striffler (bozzi); charles eshelman/ wireimage.com (klein); dimitrius kambouris/wireimage.com (zellweger)