The American Hotel

How can a timeless bar and restaurant inspire so much change?

Consistency of service—and style—is part of what makes the Hotel so welcoming, including the skilled hand of bartender of 20-plus years, Vinnie Rom.

As you step from Sag Harbor’s crowded main street into the lobby of the American Hotel, there’s a fleeting sense of entering a German country inn or an out-of-the-way café in Tuscany. The feeling is one of tradition preserved: impeccable staff dressed in black and white, and good food, good wine waiting.

Actually, a two-inch-thick binder holds the wine list of this beloved institution, one of only four restaurants to hold Wine Spectator’s Grand Award every year since 1981. Yes, the American Hotel is a place where diners celebrating a special occasion can splurge on a $1,000 bottle of bubbly or drop $5,000 for an extremely rare vintage. It’s also where locals go for anniversaries and other special occasions—supping on brandade, sweetbreads and other classic French fare—or to cozy up on a bleak winter’s night to a familiar bar that is open seven days a week, year round. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked in to have a brandy in front of the fireplace on a cold night,” says artist Dan Rizzie, a regular since the day he moved to town in 1989. “It’s not a picky place either. You might be sitting next to a guy who was scrubbing barnacles off his boat that afternoon or rubbing elbows with a billionaire.”

Its consistency is a rarity on the East End, where restaurants come and go with the seasons. And yet this venerable destination remains open to innovation, largely because of the predilections and passions of its owner, Ted Conklin. In 2003, the American Hotel served as the unlikely incubator for the fledgling East End chapter of Slow Food by enticing new members with bargain meals often under $20. At the inaugural dinner that November, 60 people jammed the bar and lobby sampling Peconic Bay clam fritters, oysters on the half shell and Art Ludlow’s voluptuous Atlantic Mist cheese, then sunk into a multicourse meal of Long Island duckling cassoulet, a risotto of local vegetables, and Iacono chicken stew in the dining room, while listening to the inside story of local wines from Paumanok, Wölffer and Lenz vintners. The tab: $25.

“We made the cost just high enough to survive and fill the house,” recalls Conklin. It became the best dining deal on the East End. “Plumbers, bankers, farmers, hippies, old, young, anybody who wanted to have a good time could interact,” he adds.

“Ted’s being the confident entrepreneur, the East End chapter of Slow Food took off faster than any chapter I can remember,” says Ed Yowell, a regional Slow Food director. Back when Yowell was head of the new Manhattan Slow Food chapter, he and his wife, Grace Schalkwyk, often stopped by the hotel bar for a glass of wine. One afternoon Yowell leafed through the hotel’s 110-page wine list. “I was absolutely fascinated not only by the length of the list, but by Ted’s commentary. I think it was the most opinionated wine list I’d ever read in my life,” he says. Turning to his wife, Yowell said, “I should probably talk to this guy about Slow Food.”

One e-mail, one phone call and an hour or so later, Conklin was on board. The chapter in turn nurtured a mushrooming number of farmers markets out here, then a Junior Slow Food (Conklin’s idea), and along with the Peconic Land Trust inspired a new generation of young farmers to return to the land. “He understood like Alice Waters did that you can have these sophisticated people who want to eat good food, but you’ve always got to link it back to kids and education,” says current Slow Food chapter president Mary Morgan, who with her husband, Tom, helped Conklin launch the chapter.

Conklin’s love letter to Sag Harbor and the surrounding land didn’t begin at his childhood dinner table. “My mother was a Birds Eye frozen pea kind of housewife,” he says. Like others during the 1960s to 1980s who went on to influence the American menu, Conklin crossed the Atlantic taking a semester break from college. There he discovered food revered for its taste. He spent three months in Paris with his girlfriend who later became his first wife. “Basically we ate like paupers, coffee on the Champs Élysées, but Christmas dinner at La Tour d’Argent.”

Conklin opened the American Hotel in 1972 the same year that Alice Waters started Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, sharing her frustration over the lack of fresh, local produce. (This was also the year that Eli Zabar, with memories of picnicking on baguettes and rosé in Provence, was set to open the first shop in his East Side Manhattan empire, and a decade before Andy Arons started his Flying Foods to airlift specialty French vegetables to freshness-deprived Manhattan chefs, then opened Gourmet Garage in New York City.)

Conklin’s restaurateuring experience was limited to a brief collegiate effort, when, as a 20-year-old business major at the then Babson Institute in Wellesley, Massachusetts, he opened a restaurant in the summer, staffing it with fellow students. When they quit to return to classes, and he realized, “I had to, too,” he sold it—a shortlived venture that nonetheless whet his appetite for hospitality.

Though he found academia tedious, dreaming up viable business models has informed his career ever since. “When Ted has an idea, he pursues it relentlessly,” says friend and colleague Tom Morgan, wholesale manager of Lenz Winery in Peconic. “He can promote it (as he has Long Island wines) with the influence he has as having one of the most distinguished wine lists in the country.”

After college, Conklin’s first business model was a 200-acre farm in upstate New York with cattle, 100 sheep, chickens and a milk cow. He renovated the house and spent winter nights delivering lambs. “Farming was just something I had to get out of my system until I got into a serious banking career or whatever I was going to do. My father’s family were New York merchants—longtime distributors in the copper and brass business, my mother’s side of the family, lawyers and bankers,” says Conklin.

The Conklins first arrived on these shores in 1631 with a fine honed gene for adventure, begetting the first child of English parents born in New York, sailors, sea captains and one who would become a great-great-grandfather that joined in the California gold rush. Their large houses and farms dot the East End. You’ll find the Conklin name on old, worn, barely readable headstones in the East Hampton town cemetery. Conklin grew up in the Westhampton summer home built by his mother’s father.

Inheriting the adventurer gene, Conklin spent every penny he had for a mortgage on a ramshackle hotel built in 1846, a block from Sag Harbor’s wharf, in the footprint of the old wood-frame Howell’s Inn. That establishment dated back to 1778. It’s said that a colonial raid on the inn resulted in the capture of a group of redcoats. It had closed its door to its last lodger in 1922. A half century later, the site saw salvation in the labors of our determined hero. Working 18 to 20 hours a day for six months, Conklin painted, wallpapered, replaced refrigeration, hired the first of many chefs and opened the American Hotel that July 4. He soon “knew the formula was going to work.”

At one point Conklin took over the stove for six months after one chef who had “an anger management problem” walked out. Later, he renovated the 20 hotel rooms, creating eight suites. He sold the upstate farm and bought two farms on the North Fork, and for five years, one 10-acre farm provided the hotel kitchen with veggies, melons, squash blossom and pigs. “We used the most beautiful, translucent, ethereal, versatile lard I ever imagined. Lard is heaven!” he says.

In a chilling ecological footnote, Conklin planted 17 acres of his Jamesport farm as a raspberry ranch, installed expensive irrigation and brought in three beehives. Those were the days Manhattan chefs were paying $100 a flat for specialty berries. The business plan: harvesting raspberries at dawn, then racing them to reach Manhattan restaurants like Andre Soltner’s Lutèce before lunch. “Within a week we knew we were doomed. All the bees died. No bees, no fruit.” Crop-dusters had flown over adjacent potato fields spraying paraquat. The bees had flown over the hedgerows to the potatoes.

Meanwhile, Conklin was building his 25,000-bottle wine cellar with 2,500 choices of wine. Palate-tutoring French and Italian wine buying trips led him to buy a house in Casole d’Elsa near Florence. There for eight years he delved into the pleasures of the Italian-based Slow Food movement.

“The Italians are able to deliver what could be a heavy-handed Slow Food mission message in a very exciting way. The soil is revered. They consume the products that are grown on it, have a great bottle of wine, get to know people and have fun,” says Conklin, adding, “In other hands it would become a lecture, or even a law.”

A decade before the founding of Slow Food USA, Conklin toyed with the idea of launching Slow Food in America. When Hargrave Vineyard produced the first bottle of wine grown in Long Island in 1975, he bought some, “An early harvest, young vine, a pinot noir, I think, but check with Louisa.”

Louisa Hargrave confirms Ted’s memory then volunteers, “Ted was always a phenomenal supporter of our wines. His confidence radiated to others and led to the emergence of an entire wine region. There are few hoteliers in the word with his devotion or sophistication.”

Conklin says, “If you don’t have the quality of the food, you don’t sell the wines. If it’s not an important meal, you don’t order an important wine. But an important wine can be thoughtfully chosen from a list of $40 list, perhaps an Australian shiraz.” Celebrants with deep pockets can choose wines priced up to $5,000.

“You can always get perfect oysters with perfect mignonette sauce—that’s classic American Hotel,” says Mary Morgan, of the menu that is traditional French American, refined and bolstered with local ingredients. Adds Tom, her husband, “At the American Hotel you know it’s going to be the best quality—meat or seafood. Even something as prosaic as liver and onions, or as (ubiquitous) as steak with French fries—always cooked perfectly.”

But the reliability of the staff is an integral part of the institution. There is Tom Allnoch, general manager since 2001, who calls himself “the new guy” next to bartenders of 20-plus years, Vinnie Rom and Paul Novack, a crew that knows regulars’ cocktail and water preferences.

“If we have a fault it’s that the menu doesn’t change enough,” says Allnoch. “To be appropriate to the zeitgeist we probably should have more vegetarian choices and healthy choices.”

Executive chef, English-born Jonathan Parker, remembers the Slow Food pig dinner three years ago in which he had to butcher half of one of Harry Ludlow’s hogs. “I did it in two hours,” he smiled. Usually, as befits a club, you find two people playing backgammon in the comfortable lobby, with regulars gathering at the bar beyond.

To patron Dan Rizzie, it’s a homey place, “The quintessential bar, a real bar, not a sports bar or a fern bar. Once you stick your head in the hotel you’re caught.” There’s the decade-long dinner promo with tickets to the Bay Street Theater movie now $28.95 and Sunday brunches. A few weeks ago, NPR jazz pianist and vocalist Judy Carmichael performed at a Saturday night dinner and Sunday brunch. A week later, the hotel held the second annual Josh Levine Memorial Dinner in memory of the Quail Hill Farm market manager who was killed in a tragic farm accident a year ago. Funds raised at the $150-a-plate dinner will underwrite three internships for coordinators supporting edible school gardens on the North and South Forks. For the second year, the American Hotel donated the space and labor to prepare and serve the dinner, with food donated by Slow Food and wine by vineyards.

Kate Plumb, another founding member of the local Slow Food chapter and now market manager of the East Hampton Farmers Market says, “The hotel is such a warm place. There’s a club atmosphere. Everyone is friendly. When I first walked into it I felt like I’d entered an elegant, old saloon out West with its moose head on the wall. It has a rich, familiar smell, maybe it’s the cigar smoke absorbed in the wood, and you think, ‘Oh, it’s home.’” True to Plumb’s assessment that “Ted has always needed an adventure to put his abundant energies into,” four years ago Conklin purchased a 75-foot, antique wooden cruising houseboat designed by John Trumpy, which he now charters out actively. Flying down to Palm Beach to give the boat a sea trial, he inspired rumors that he was selling the hotel when regulars started seeing less of him.

Conklin recently restored the building’s extensive stone and brick facade, inspiring still more rumors of a sale at the price of $25 million. Conklin’s home in Sag Harbor has also been on and off the market. While in Florida, Conklin ran into an old girlfriend from his freshman college days, Carol Simmons, at a Palm Beach restaurant. The year Conklin opened the American Hotel, Carol became the first woman investment banker at Salomon Brothers. They hadn’t talked in 45 years. They were married at St. Luke’s Church in East Hampton on May 27, 2010.

Conklin’s alter ego, the American Hotel, has left an indelible impression on Sag Harbor, and the one-time whaling village on the man who never can quite shake the farmer from his soul. In an e-mail from Palm Beach, where by Skype and Internet correspondence he keeps daily tabs on the wine cellar and can still pull strings in the local food movement, he wrote, “Why go anywhere when you have Sag Harbor? It’s incredibly civilized and rambunctious, struggling for identity, and stimulating to live within its walls.”

Geraldine Pluenneke writes from Montauk where she is completing a book about flavor. Warren Schultz contributed reporting.

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Geraldine Pluenneke has written for Newsday, the International Herald Tribune and other publications, and is writing a book on recovering America’s lost flavors and nutrients. She is hooked on Eli’s Health Loaf, toasted and thickly spread with chèvre.