This working waterfront joint in Hampton Bays is as laid-back as any fish shack.
The Canal Café in Hampton Bays is located at 44 Newtown Road. Previously, owner Parker Hodges and his brother, Paul, had worked at the Barefoot Contessa, at 46 Newtown Lane in East Hampton.
The Hodges have worked together since Ina Garten, the owner of the Barefoot Contessa at the time, offered Paul a full-time job alongside his brother in 1991. Parker was already working in the kitchen. In 1999, Ms. Garten sold the Barefoot Contessa to Parker.
The name of the street is probably the only thing the two food businesses had in common. The Canal Café is off the beaten path. The bar is central to the space, a relaxed atmosphere with good food and generous portions, while the Barefoot Contessa was smack in the center of East Hampton Village swarming with type-A personalities. On a summer afternoon the retail shop and catering business would be packed with second-home owners dressed in their tennis whites picking up expensive takeout dinners, or tourists wanting a “Hamptons” experience, and locals in for their daily caffeine and sweets fix. The latter would be me.In 2000, I purchased a Little of What You Fancy, a gift shop on the other side of Newtown Lane. That same year, my husband and I bought a small fishing shack in Springs, the underbelly of East Hampton.
Paul and Willie Mata, another Barefoot Contessa alum and close friend to the Hodges, fished near our house every day in Gardiner’s Bay, catching bluefish in the spring and striped bass in the fall. Off-season, there are very few people around our neck of the woods. Eventually Paul and Willie became our friends, too.
It wasn’t much after Tumbleweed Tuesday when the first nor’easter of the season hit the East End, and the first storm in our new home on the water. I will never forget my drive through that storm. I like to live on life’s edge, but this was pushing even my limits. I cried when I got off our road where the seawater was reaching out for my Jeep as I plowed through the waves coming over the road. There was no way I was going back there with my standard little Wrangler. I needed a bigger truck, so I went to Barefoot and sought out the guys. I knew they would help me get home because even though they didn’t live on the street, the street was their home, too, and they knew it like the back of their hand. Willie saved the day, or at least got me home safely through the flooding that occurred from the storm. “That salt water ruined my truck,” he said recently while fishing without his buddy Paul.
With Willie’s help, the brothers ran the Barefoot Contessa as best they could, but after five years the lease was up and Ms. Garten, who was also their landlord, raised their rent. They could not afford to stay, so they sold the business back to Ms. Garten. Ms. Garten has created a huge success with the Barefoot Contessa name, from celebrated cookbooks to her Food Network show, filmed from her studio in East Hampton with a lot of help from the Hodges brothers.The Hodges went on to Wolfie’s in Springs. “You don’t want to mention that,” Paul joked. Some might call the local tavern more of a late-night dive bar. “We were never at Wolfie’s.”
In fact, one day before they were about to renew their lease at Wolfie’s they got an offer to take over part of a new building in the boatyard where Parker bought his boat back in Hampton Bays.And they’ve been there ever since.
If you have a boat, you can pull right up to the building, now the Canal Café. If you don’t have a boat, you have to wind through the Hampton Watercraft Marina. In that case, it’s fun to window-shop. Either way you arrive, you can sit outside overlooking the marina and the Shinnecock Canal.
Canal Café is as unassuming as any fish shack. You may be eating with plastic forks and knives, but it doesn’t really matter. The food is hearty, comfort fare with an emphasis on fish and the flavor of their youth. The Hodges spent their childhoods in Nicaragua, their mother’s homeland. When war broke out they made their way back to New York City, where their parents met. Most of their adult lives, however, were spent on the South Fork of Long Island.
“We like Spanish flavors,” says Paul on a recent visit, “We like a cooperation. Summertime, we like it light. In the wintertime, we pour on the sauces. We do more French,” he says.
My husband and I share one of the weekly specials, the tuna tostada, a very large portion of fresh fish and veggies with a flavorful salsa. Specials tend to be more seasoned than the entrées on the regular menu, such as fish and chips or oyster po’ boy. (Even though my husband’s favorite shrimp in hot sauce dish was dropped from the menu last year, they will still make it for him every time we go in.) The lobster roll on toasted ciabatta bread, served with fries and coleslaw, is huge and one of the most popular items on the menu.”It’s bigger than any lobster roll from here to Montauk,” says Paul, “and north and south and west, too.”
The more exotic, blackened cobia or mahi-mahi with mango pineapple salsa over brown rice gallo pinto, and a pinto bean, tomato, cilantro, jalapeño salad with lime vinaigrette dressing was another recent special.
All desserts such as the Butterfinger tart and the pineapple shortcake with Malibu rum are made on the premises.
On their days off, which are extremely rare (save for the depths of winter when the business closes down), the Hodges might take out the 12-year-old SeaCraft. “We’re always working,” laments Paul. “On weekends, there can be a two-hour wait to sit outside,” he says as we sit at the bar overlooking the canal on a mellow summer weekday night. “Even if it’s really hot, people still want to sit outside,” he says. The night we were there, not even the rain showers stopped diners from sitting outdoors.
Word of mouth brings most diners to the Canal Café, except for the marina boat owners who already have their bows to the dock. “Boats pull up with their catch and say, here, cook this,'” Parker says. “God forbid I buy a fish off a boat.”
Due to strict regulation, Parker may not be able to buy fish straight off the boat from the marina, but the brothers know quite a few commercial fisherman to supply the family-run place with the freshest fish possible. In fact, many of the commercial fishermen eat there, too.
Both Parker’s wife and Paul’s fiancée work at the restaurant a couple nights a week. The Canal Café seems like a version of the well-loved television show about the Boston tavern Cheers, where everyone knows everyone and everyone knows your name. “Ina brings her friends to eat here a couple of times a week,” says Paul.
The new Newtown is quite a bit like the old Newtown after all.
Kelly Ann Smith runs locally owned holdout, A Little of What You Fancy, in East Hampton, and writes from her home in Springs.