Winter Dining at The American Hotel
by gary walther
Some dining rooms do dusky so deftly. It’s not easy, for dusky is a mood sonata, a lack of light turned into an autumnal-winter embrace. Dusky is a Bruegel interior come to life, inglenook and coziness as the keynotes. It has to be sincere, and it has to feel nicely wornin, like the leather of an old catcher’s mitt.
But The American Hotel’s restaurant in Sag Harbor gets it right. If the restaurant were new, it would be pigeonholed as a curious antiquarian mash-up—a moose head over one of the top tables, yacht pennants, a Liqueurs Dolfi poster on the wall, and Tiffany-style lights over the bar. You think to yourself: “What’s a great winter spot doing in a summer resort town like this?” And owner Ted Conklin would agree: “It’s the kind of place when there’s a snowstorm and the streets are closed, we’re packed.”
The hotel itself is a step back in time. The building dates from the 1840s, and when Conklin bought it in 1972, “it hadn’t been touched since 1910,” he says. In and after college, he restored old buildings, and he took on this dilapidated brick-fronted Main Street project with hubris. “When you’re young, you do foolish things,” he says now.
Conklin bought the hotel when Sag Harbor was down and out, but he saw the potential. He comes across as a guy’s guy, but he’s the one who picked the gorgeous vintage wallpapers in the rooms, who mentions Scalamandre, Schumacher, and Zoffany like they’re as well known as Apple or Coca-Cola, who bought the 15 vintages of Chateau Latour, and who says that the most memorable night in the dining room was when local artist Terry Elkins bit into an oyster and found a pearl.
Back in August, The New York Times characterized the bar dining room as the Rick’s Café of Sag Harbor, which seems to me off course by about 180 degrees. It’s really the Algonquin Hotel of Sag Harbor, a refuge where the color brown, wainscoting, an inspired mismatch of vintage décor, and the steep steps have been raised to a sort of Proustian aroma of Hamptons à la recherché du temps perdu.
And it has the East End literary batting order to prove it: Willie Morris, Wilfrid Sheed, Truman Capote, E. L. Doctorow, and Robert Caro drank and ate here. Which is not to say that current celebs don’t turn up: There’s Billy Joel; Billy and Bono, who once played backgammon on the bar couch; the ubiquitous Alec Baldwin; Larry Hagman, spotted eating on the porch; Countess LuAnn de Lesseps and Kelly Killoren Bensimon; and Ramona Singer. One of the best celebrity sightings (and you can’t make this stuff up) was Renée Fleming spotting Chevy Chase taking a piano lesson from Hunky Page, who was The American Hotel’s resident ivory-tickler for more than 20 years before his death.
What’s surprising about the menu is the lack of culinary (or even East End) flag-waving. Okay, there’s bison carpaccio, part of the seasonal emphasis on game, and starting in November (available through March), Peconic Bay scallops, which are “barely cooked through,” in white wine, butter, and chives, says chef Jonathan Parker. “You don’t want to gussy them up with sauces.” But you’d never know that the Howard Pickerell in “Howard Pickerell’s Hog’s Neck Oysters” is a veteran local oysterman who comes in with batches a couple of times a week. (In a lot of restaurants, he’d have a short bio on the menu.)
In fact, the menu lightly genuflects to French cuisine—local products, traditional French techniques—as Conklin described it. Thus there’s local Pekin duckling à la bigarade (that’s Pekin, aka Long Island, not Peking), one of the most popular dishes, which is reminiscent of duck l’orange; California Pigeon à la Francaise; and yellowfin tuna à la nage. Even the local flounder goes to French finishing school, prepared as it is à la meuniere or sauté amandine. The wine list, too, shows a deep reverence for France.
From a purely American perspective, there are the crab cakes, the acid test of any restaurant by the sea. And these pass the test; they are fluffy because they’re much more crab than cake. The American Hotel comes with a patriotic overture, too—the arch-and-pillar porch is where Colin Powell was once spotted having a drink, which is fitting because the porch is the perfect viewing stand for a small-town July 4 or Veteran’s Day parade. Just add red, white, and blue bunting, which Conklin always does. 49 Main St., Sag Harbor, 725-3535
photography by Eric Striffler