A Healthy Joint Down the Street

The East End restaurant that dishes an organic, heavily vegetarian menu, and nearly all-day breakfast.

The East End restaurant that dishes an organic, heavily vegetarian menu, and nearly all-day breakfast.

EAST HAMPTON—The vibe at Babette’s on Newtown Lane in East Hampton has been the same for 16 years. It’s mellow, but there’s structure and substance. Consider the hours.

Breakfast is served until 4:30 p.m., and the depth and breadth of the menu rivals any Greek diner with its 12 different omelets. A closer read reveals the absence of sausage and pork bacon and the presence of tofu. But it’s not missed among the fresh vegetables, cheeses and fish that fill the offerings, and isn’t that brown rice in the New Foo Yong with the scrambled tofu, gingered carrots, scallions, cashews and spinach? The lunch and dinner menus reveal that same cross of the conscientious and comfort foodie: there’s a falafel plate, a Cobb salad with turkey bacon, a tempeh Reuben and sides of hummus, grilled tofu and organic beans. At dinner there are multigrain flatbread pizzas, an abundance of fresh fish and a regular or vegan Creole Casbah (just substitute soy cheddar for Cabot’s on the layers of garlic mashed potatoes, kale, succotash, roasted garlic pecans, barbecue tofu and salsa).

And once you meet Barbara Layton, Babette’s owner, the whole thing clicks. She’s calm but passionate, focused but not overbearing. That’s it: you’re eating at the house of the kid with the cool hippie mom down the street from where you grew up, who was feeding her children organic and cruelty-free products before your mother knew they existed.

Layton’s son, Zach, was that kid down the street. Now 31, he maintains the vegetarian diet he’s been on since day one and has embraced his mother’s business with both arms; he works there full-time as the manager and executive chef. Manuel Vasquez, who started as a dishwasher, is the chef de cuisine.

For her family, food was not always an avocation, but it was a vocation. Eating locally, eating fresh and knowing where food comes from was as much a part of Zach’s education as reading, writing and arithmetic. Layton started her career as a Montessori teacher and now sees her restaurant as another kind of classroom.

“People tell me,” she says, “‘Oh my God, I didn’t think vegetarian food could be so good.’ But when the world is at a critical turning point, education is key. When people are given alternatives that are flavorful and fresh, you can turn them on to different things.”
The clientele and the staff must be getting the message. Neither has turned over that much in the past decade and a half, and the former has grown. Customers patiently wait in line, knowing that no one, no matter their A-list status, will be given preferential treatment. Waiters and waitresses happily explain the food while displaying the ultimate patience required of service workers during the summer rush in an elite vacation enclave.

And Layton has had her share of A-list. Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton became patrons after Layton posted a petition outside her restaurant asking Kenneth Starr to end his investigation. The goal was not achieved, but the Clintons stopped by, motorcade and all, to thank her and the 10,000 others who signed. When Clinton ran for senator, Layton joined her finance committee, and during the presidential primary, she traveled with Clinton’s campaign. At the moment, she is taking a break from politics, although she has hosted fund-raisers for Tim Bishop, the Democratic congressman who represents the East End.

It could be because all politics is really local. Even in your own backyard. Layton’s organic garden at home supplies the restaurant with herbs and tomatoes when they’re ripe. But to fulfill the demands of a busy restaurant, she buys most of the vegetables from the Halsey family, who run the Green Thumb organic farm stand in Water Mill. She continues to seek the freshest seafood from local vendors like Gosman’s in Montauk and makes exception to the all- organic wine list by including local wines.

The vegan/vegetarian structure has loosened a bit, too. Two years ago she started selling beef burgers alongside the ever- popular turkey burgers. The meat is from Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Maine, where it is grassfed, receives no antibiotics or hormones and is humanely slaughtered.

The latest addition is the dog menu, which is also organic. Diners can buy something for their pets when they sit outside, or order something to go, like a meal or a birthday cake.

“I’m always looking for new ways in terms of food,” she says, “and my own evolutions and growth. I live locally, eat locally and try to learn everything about this place.”

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Pat Marlowe writes from her home in Southold.