Riverhead Retrofit

A boutique hotel sprouts for the North Fork traveler.
By Robert Simonson

At the point where the Long Island Expressway meets Route 25, in Riverhead, there is a hotel. It used to be a Best Western, and had such a bleak reputation that the basement rooms set aside for conferences and other formal affairs were known by local politicians as “The Dungeon.”

Last fall, on November 17, that dungeon didn’t look so dismal.  The room was filled to capacity with celebrants. A lively rhythm and blues band was playing in the corner. Cocktails using locally distilled vodka were being shaken up. Wines from East End vintners such as Sparkling Pointe, Bedell, Peconic Bay and Macari were flowing. For each wine poured, Lia Fallon, the chef and owner of Amarelle in Wading River, had whipped up some succulent finger food, including seafood crepes filled with lobster, shrimp and bay scallops.

A young man of middling size and dark hair walked up to the podium and tapped the microphone. “There was a feeling when this started of ‘How is this ever going to happen?’ ” he told the crowd, gathered for the official opening of the renovated hotel, now called the Hotel Indigo East End. “This could have been a reality show.  This was the most interesting nine months of our lives.”

That man was Rob Salvatico, who, along with his father, Albert, spent 2010 converting the dilapidated and despised Best Western into a branch of the Indigo chain of swanky, locally oriented, boutique hotels. In doing so, they became part of the surging interest in the nearby wine country, and the renaissance of hotels and B&B’s that will help shelter wine-craving visitors.

Today, the Hotel Indigo East End’s outer walls are clad in fieldstone and large murals boasting swirling, blue-and-white seashell imagery. The dramatically peaked, wooden carport that greets drivers outside the main entrance is echoed by the spacious lobby, with its arched, thick-timbered ceiling, illuminated by large, orange, boxy lighting fixtures. There’s a miniature gym, and further back, past the wall of flat-screen televisions tuned to various cable news networks, is the hotel’s new restaurant and bar, Bistro 72 (named after LIE’s Exit 72). For this, the Salvaticos coaxed Fallon into taking on a second kitchen. Out by the swimming pool, comfortable seating is artfully positioned around a cozy outdoor stonework fireplace. A “poolscape,” Rob calls it.

The Salvaticos started spreading the word about the hotel’s new lease on life even before Hotel Indigo East End opened, holding special wine dinners in Bistro 72 (as well as a one spirits dinner, in which every course was paired with a different libation from the nearby LiV vodka distillery), and conducting wine and spirit tours of the North Fork. Such pointedly provincial thinking is a definite plus where Indigo is concerned. “The whole concept of the Indigo brand is regional adaptation and to embrace local product and culture,” says Rob Salvatico. “We think that’s the right move. People want a special experience everywhere they go, even on business travel.”

The inn is a far cry from the Salvaticos’ first foray into lodging, the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites East End, also in Riverhead.  Built in 1999, it was the first new hotel built in Nassau County in a decade. The two men knew they were wading into very different waters with this new venture. “Holiday Inn Express is a very functional, attractive hotel,” says Albert Salvatico, a former insurance executive who—in contrast to his big-picture son, whose language skews toward the visionary—talks in the common-sense cadences of a career businessman. “But it doesn’t have these design features.”

Ironically, the hotel actually began life as a Holiday Inn, back in 1972, long before the North Fork was linked in the public mind with wine, let alone wine tourism. Later on, it was taken over by Ramada and finally Best Western. The Salvaticos bought it in 2004 and ran it as a Best Western for six years. When they decided to reinvent the location, they might very well have created another utilitarian hotel had the big lodging chains not been so unbending about low-slung habitations. The existing building was created when sprawling, ranch-style hotels were a common sight for businessmen and vacationing families. But such wide, unprepossessing structures long ago gave way to the space-maximizing hotel towers of today.

“In the hotel industry, two-story buildings are not favored” says Albert. “The major brands don’t want to give you a franchise.” Hilton and Starwood both said no. The Salvaticos didn’t even bother pitching Marriott, predicting what the response would be.  Then the elder Salvatico took notice of the quirky Indigo chain, which was launched in 2004 and is part of the InterContinental Hotels Group. There are more than 30 locations, including one in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. “We were intrigued by this brand because of its boutique nature,” he explains. “It’s not standardized, not cookie cutter. Every one is different from the last one. It’s much more in the European style. You don’t tear a building down. You retrofit it to make things for a different purpose.”

To attract Indigo’s interest, and to compensate for the unfashionable location, they knew they had to come up with an eye-popping design concept. “Riverhead has been in a period of decline,” says Albert. “So now you got a double whammy against you. An unattractive building and a town that doesn’t have the cachet of being upscale.” They turned to Morris Nathanson Design, a firm in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, that had designed the Manhattan restaurants Oceana, Heartland Brewery and the P.J. Clarke’s locations at Lincoln Center and the Financial District.

“The colors are meant to reflect eastern Long Island, the sand, the water, very muted, even the wood tones,” says Rob Salvatico of the retro-flavored design, which, despite the building’s 1972 birthday, smacks more of the early 1960s. They wanted to create a connection to the local viticulture, but didn’t want to overdo it.  Instead of blown-up pictures of vineyards and grapes, a small, understated photo of a barrel was placed by every room door. “That’s our nod to the wineries. We wanted to be modest.”

Indigo went for it, and construction began. Soon, the Salvaticos’ busy minds turned to food. They had an arrangement with a local caterer, but weren’t happy. “I went downstairs to the computer,” remembers Albert. “I couldn’t sleep. I typed into the computer: ‘Hampton Caterers.’ I came up with four names,” including Black Tie Caterers, then co-owned by Lia Fallon. He called up each of the businesses to see if they’d be interested in taking charge of a new hotel restaurant. “Lia was the only one who called back.”

Fallon wasn’t really looking to take on a second eatery. “It’s hard enough running one restaurant,” she says. “I told them, ‘I’ll get you started.’“ But Rob Salvatico was determined. “I begged,” he jokes. “Then we locked the doors.”

If Fallon was hesitant at first, she’s committed now. “My style is simple American cuisine with a little bit of a spin. I was French trained. At Amarelle, it’s fine dining. Here we want to keep it upscale casual,” with burgers, pull pork sliders, lobster rolls, grilled shrimp, and fish and chips (the whitefish beer-battered with local Greenport lager) on the menu. Many of the dishes incorporate local produce, cheeses and berries. As for the wine list, 30 percent of the 70-plus selections hail from Long Island. Shinn, Lenz, Channing Daughters and Wölffer are all represented.

“We cherry-picked everything,” says Fallon, who also gives Long Island wines pride of place at Amarelle. “We have a lot of great relationships with wineries.”

Rob Salvatico, meanwhile, strengthened ties with the vineyards by organizing wine and spirits tours that commence at the hotel and stop at vineyards like Sparkling Pointe, Bedell, Peconic Bay and Castello di Borghese, as well as at the East End’s sole distillery, LiV.  Riders, who are given a box lunch to offset their vino intake, are ferried by either town car, limo or shuttle bus, depending on the number that sign up. Rob likes to make LiV the final stop on the tour. “It is the best possible finish,” he explains. “After all that wine, you get a little tired. You have some vodka, it brings you back.”

LiV vodka, in fact, is at the heart of the hotel’s signature drink, the Indigo Black and Blue cocktail. Many of these were shaken and poured at the November opening bash. As partygoers exited the hotel, they were greeted by a gourmet coffee truck, serving late-night, barista-pulled espressos. The Hotel Indigo in Chelsea couldn’t have thought up a more cosmopolitan grace note.

Robert Simonson writes about cocktails, spirits, wine and beer. His most recent book, The Gentleman Press Agent, was published in June by Applause.