Nick & Toni's Offers Elite Yet Egalitarian Ambience
by gary walther
I’m perplexed—it’s a Saturday night in June at 8 PM, and I’m in the East Hampton restaurant that is a synonym for celebrity, “the kinds of people who get nominated for Oscars, paint canvases that hang in museums, commute in helicopters, and own office towers,” as The New York Times reporter Florence Fabricant once wrote of Nick & Toni’s. Jack Nicholson, Sting, Tom Hanks, Mick Jagger, Billy Joel, Alec Baldwin, Colin Powell, the Clintons—the list of past visitors is as long as Main Beach. Stephen Spielberg held his rehearsal dinner here in 1991, and the late Nora Ephron once said she didn’t have time to get romantically involved with another restaurant because she was married to Nick & Toni’s.
So where’s the attitude, the foil of condescension? Why don’t I feel as if I’ve passed through the East End’s velvetiest velvet rope? This place feels so, so… normal and (what’s worse), nice. The hostesses smile; the waiters are as personable as their khakis and white button-down shirts; the décor is cottage simple—white walls and a scattering of abstract paintings and two stone dogs in the back room. Artist Eric Fischl, a regular, created the mosaic dog on the chimney of the wood-burning oven. It’s not the East End Elaine’s or even Spago, as I’ve often read. Do I want my money back?
This is the paradox of Nick & Toni’s. It’s a clubhouse of the rich and powerful with the demeanor of Warren Buffett. “It’s an atmosphere that allows me to downshift,” says a longtime Hamptonite and a counselor to former Governor David Paterson. “They take care of me. I relax.” Convivial is the old-fashioned word co-owner Mark Smith uses to describe the atmosphere, and after dining here, I believe him when he serves up that old saw, “We treat celebrities like we treat everyone else.” With one exception: Approach a celebrity table and Bonnie Munshin, the general manager, will step in and firmly explain you’re out of bounds.
This ability to be elite and egalitarian is a legacy of the restaurant’s lineage. Nick & Toni’s was founded by Toni Ross and Jeff (Nick) Salaway, artists who met at a marble quarry in Carrara, Italy, and subsequently fell in love. They started the place in 1988; Jeff had, by all accounts, an alchemist’s touch for people—“a guy who could talk to anyone and everyone,” according to his rabbi, David Gelfand.
Salaway instilled the ambience, but it was Toni’s father, Steve Ross, the head of Time Warner, who injected the celebrities. Yet, the legacy of Salaway, who died in a car accident in August 2001, has shaped the place more so than the CEO of the then most powerful media company in America. For Nick & Toni’s actually makes celebrities let their hair down. Chevy Chase once posed as the reservationist, Steve Martin stood up and did an impression of James Brown, and Gwyneth Paltrow introduced herself to Sir Paul McCartney here. “Jeff was the exact same way with everyone,” Sag Harbor artist Dan Rizzie told the New York Observer when Salaway died.
Like the ambience, chef Joseph Realmuto’s predominantly Italian dishes make you feel at home. “The chef has a thing for fennel,” says our server, and indeed, dishes like the appetizer of Grand Cru Pecorino with fennel carpaccio and fava beans is its own rite of spring, and the grilled sardines puts that underappreciated fish on a fennel pedestal. The free-range chicken lives up to its reputation as one of the three most requested dishes. (The other two are the penne and the spaghetti over crab and roasted tomatoes.) And Realmuto, chef since 1997, embodies the Nick & Toni’s no-pretense spirit: Asked last year how he stays in shape, he said, “I’m hardly in shape.” 136 N. Main St., East Hampton, 324-3550
Photography by Eric Striffler (Nick & Toni's); Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images (jagger)