The Plaza Café

Contrast Doug Gulija in the dining room and in the kitchen. In the dining room he tells stories, talks about his restaurant and his family and his desires for the future. In the kitchen, he’s quiet, focused with an intense attention to detail. There is dead silence.

On the plate, however, both are there. Both the effusiveness and the meticulousness. Seared local calamari with hummus and Kalamata olives. Grilled baby asparagus with lobster-morel ragout, sautéed local fluke with spring risotto and lemon olive oil. Each arranged with regard to color and texture and flavor. It’s garrulous yet precise.

But things are changing. The end of last year, the chef was certain his lease would not be up for renewal; the Southampton Inn, which owns the building, was considering expansion. After 15 years in the same location, he was so sure of a move he put an ad in the local paper thanking his customers for their decade-plus of loyalty.

He was also coming off a personal tragedy. His wife, Andi, a vital part of the front of the house, finally succumbed to cancer, which had dogged her the better part of 10 years.

Throw on top of that the dire state of the economy and the fact that his restaurant, Plaza Café, was know for fine dining, and things were pretty dark. Since his wife’s death in December 2010, Gulija could feel the life going out of the dining room and his passions wane.

But the beginning of 2012 brought some good news. The space would still be available. A lease was signed, and Gulija envisioned starting over, doing something more casual, getting away from being a best-kept-secret restaurant for special occasions to one where moviegoers would feel comfortable having a glass of local wine and sharing a plate of pasta at the bar before the show.

He started renovating the dining room and working on a new menu organized around small plates. Sure, the nine-course prix fixe would still be available, but the people who wanted the coveted table in front of the fireplace wouldn’t have to have it. They could just get a snack. He’s been working on fish tacos, a lobster roll and thinking about sushi. The wine list will continue to pour local wines, with one page devoted to Long Island wine, the Long Island Collection.

This is the kind of restaurant he envisioned when opening the place—he called it a café after all—and though he wouldn’t change his past successes for the world, it’s time to get back to where he wished to start.

Gulija is a product of Southampton High School and was a jock. He played college basketball and then went to Johnson & Wales. In Paris he staged at a few restaurants; in the States he worked at the Marriot for 10 years. But his wife wanted to raise their children in the Hamptons. So he went to work at Mirko’s, the old Laundry and opened a place on Three Mile Harbor Road called Monterey Grill.

But he wanted his own place and in 1997 signed a lease on the space he’s in now, tucked back off Hill Street in Southampton Village, and set out with a plan for casual dining.

He was back in the old neighborhood, working with fishermen and farmers that were old high school buddies. He watched the wine business expand and the evolution of we’ve got cauliflower and potatoes to we’ve got bok choy and 400 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

“We decided to focus on seafood,” he says. “I figured pick one cuisine and do it really well.” Favorites from the menu include the famous lobster-shrimp shepherd’s pie and grilled Montauk swordfish “chop.”

It didn’t hurt that he was surrounded by water that would easily populate his menu and purveyors that were willing to fill orders at the last minute. Working with fish requires more precise ordering than a steak house. “Steak gets better the longer it sticks around,” he says.

He also says he lucked out with staff. He inherited one worker, who was cleaning out the fireplace when he first moved in and didn’t speak a word of English. Gulija sponsored him for a green card, moved him up to sous-chef and was at his wedding to the current manager of the restaurant. Gulija’s mother babysits for the sous-chef’s child. Gulija gives the staff much credit for holding the business together when he wife was really sick.

So it’s a new start and Gulija feels ready with so many lessons and much loss behind him.

“A lot of people call me and ask me how to deal with something like this,” he says. “You have to keep hope going.” But now that she’s gone, he says it’s taking a while to get used to. At first he only worried about his two children, now he has to take care of himself.

“She got more out of every day than I did,” he says. “I crossed things off my to-do list, but did I really live? But now I’m ready to move on, and I think she would have wanted it that way.” The chef then went back to the kitchen.

Eileen M. Duffy, Edible East End’s deputy editor, holds a diploma in wine and spirits from the International Wine Center and has been writing about food and wine on the East End since 2003.