The Rich Culinary History of Bobby Van's
BY MATTHEW WEXLER
If you have driven eastbound on Montauk Highway throughout the past 44 years, you have no doubt at some point cautiously snapped your head to the right when passing through Bridgehampton—hoping to catch a glimpse (or whiff) of what might be happening behind the mahogany doors of Bobby Van’s Steakhouse.
Born Robert Craig Van Velsor, the restaurateur and pianist picked up the nickname “Van” while serving in the 25th Infantry in Vietnam. Upon returning stateside, Van worked his way through bartending and musical gigs. Opening Bobby Van’s in 1969, it quickly became an iconic gathering place on the East End. As Van plunked out favorites from the American Songbook, notables such as Roy Lichtenstein, George Plimpton, and an eager Truman Capote (who often arrived prior to lunch service in resplendent anticipation of the day’s first pour) held culinary court. The kitchen dished out platters of standard American fare and requisite sides, but the scene was more about who was eating than what was on the plate.
While the stars may be from a bygone era, Bobby Van’s has maintained its credibility as an East End culinary institution favored by local notables such as Alan Alda, Jimmy Fallon, Howard Stern, even Bruce Springsteen. Partners Joseph Smith, Rick Passarelli, Joe Phair, and Joe Hickey bought the establishment in 1986 and have expanded the operation to 10 restaurants throughout New York City and Washington, but the original Bridgehampton location’s reinvention as a modern steakhouse with oldschool charm maintains its status as a go-to dining destination.
Take note of Bobby Van’s juxtaposing aesthetic that equally welcomes the ladies who lunch as much as their neighboring sun-kissed beachgoers. A wooden sign at the center of the bar blazes PRIME MEATS (in case you were wondering) and a few steps beyond reveal the restaurant’s singular pillar with a shelf near the top stacked with magnums of wine, as if to say, “Don’t plan on leaving any time soon.” Industrial fans with taut canvas-covered blades imbue an airy nautical feel while the seasonally rotating display of original art pays homage to the restaurant’s debut clientele.
Servers decked out in khakis, white shirts, and floorlength bistro aprons are quick to arrive and even speedier with the cocktails. At $16 each, the specialty drinks menu runs the gamut from the Slovakian Double Cross Vodka Martini with truffle-stuffed olives to a pear martini featuring Chilean wild baby pear juice. The wine list, unique to this location, is dotted with a range of Old World and New World finds, from heavy-hitting Bordeaux reds to flinty Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, and palatefriendly California Chardonnays.
With more than 13 years as the restaurant’s executive chef, it is John Stella who maintains the delicate balance between the familiar and more forward-thinking food trends. “The clientele is much more food savvy,” says Stella. “When I started, it was steak on a plate, but now we’re much more diverse in terms of what we’re offering our guests.”
General manager James Phair agrees. After 19 years at the restaurant, he’s seen dining trends evolve. “The way people eat has really changed,” says Phair. “We’re known as a steakhouse, but honestly, we’ve become a reputable fish house—it actually blows away the steaks on the menu.”
Passarelli, who met his business partners through his dad’s Italian steakhouse in Long Island, reveals that the Bridgehampton Bobby Van’s was never intended as a meat-centric menu. “All of the restaurants have had their own evolution,” says Passarelli. “When Bobby
ran the restaurant, it was more fun, pub food and the focus was on him as an entertainer.” As the brand grew, he says that the hearty fare offered throughout the New York City locations (which often cater to finance professionals and business meetings) migrated east.
Chef Stella serves more than 300 guests on a typical summer Saturday night. His current menu riffs on classic French technique, local ingredients, and a 1,800-degree broiler that produces a perfectly charred Porterhouse for two. For a fresh first course, consider the chilled seafood bouquet, overflowing with lobster, plump shrimp, lump crabmeat, and if you’re lucky, locally harvested North Fork Cornell oysters. Stella sources much of the restaurant’s seafood through locally owned Patriot Fishing Company, and it’s a good idea to ask your server what the day’s catch has brought in. If “day boat” scallops flutter from his or her lips, you’ve hit the jackpot. The natural and untreated scallops are pan-seared and served with a whimsical interpretation of peas and carrots—sautéed pea shoots and a carrot- ginger emulsion.
Other subtle Asian influences appear throughout the menu. Tuna tartare is garnished with wasabi crema and crispy wonton specked with sesame seeds and toasted nori, while its entrée counterpart is finished with edamame succotash, wakame (seaweed), and miso. But the grande dame is the whole flounder meunière. This classic preparation from the French culinary repertoire relies on spectacularly fresh local fish (depending on the day, you may be served fluke), brown butter sauce flecked with thyme, and a heaping pile of garlicky spinach.
And then there’s the steak. Faced with three simple options—filet mignon, bone-in sirloin, or Porterhouse—be prepared to eat your fair share of Bobby Van’s weekly 900-pound order. The USDA Prime meat arrives aged 21 days, and Stella’s secret is simple: kosher salt that seals in the juices and helps form a nice, brown crust along with the cracked pepper. With a glint in his eye, Stella also confesses “a little butter makes it better.” 2393 Montauk Hwy., Bridgehampton, 537-0590
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIC STRIFFLER; Courtesy of Bobby Van’s Steakhouse (salad); steve granitz/wire image (fallon); vittorio zunino celotto/getty images (springsteen)