Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey published the Old Stove Pub’s moussaka recipe in their New York Times food column on September 11, 1977, and it was all uphill from there for the Johnides family.
Mama Bessie, as Vasiliki Johnides was known, was married to her husband John Johnides for 57 years before he died in 1969 and she moved from Boston to Sagaponack to open a roadside Greek taverna with three of her four children.
By the time Mama Bessie passed, the day after her 92nd birthday on June 18, 1992, her daughter Coula was greeting customers at the door and managing the floor, just like her mother. Coula, and the heavily charred steaks, were the reasons people kept coming back to the Greek, despite her somewhat gruff manner.
Billy Joel was a regular and when he didn’t come in for a while, Coula would ask him, “Billy, where you been?” and pinch him on the cheek. She didn’t know he was a famous musician with a regular gig at Madison Square Garden. To her, he was just a regular. “I’ve been working,” Joel told her.
She never denied loving John F. Kennedy, Jr.
Her two brothers Stephen and Constantine, or Steve and Gus as they were more well known, worked in the kitchen and behind the bar respectively. They were characters too and sometimes, Coula and Gus would go tit-for-tat in front of customers. Somehow, this added to the charm of the rickety place.
Floorboards were warped. The grand piano, out of tune. The dining chairs were more suited to an outdoor picnic, as were the red and white checkered tablecloths. The china was mismatched. The bar was tiny. The covered “sunset” porch could be cold and the interior dining area could be hot.
Nothing was hotter than the brick-walled broiler that burned at a steady 600-degrees. The baked saganaki, moussaka, pasticcio, prime steaks, dry aged on premise, not to mention, the authentic Greek salads, the taramasalata, Greek wines and ouzo.
The food and the atmosphere were homey, because the restaurant was a home. Originally an 1820 farmhouse, the property includes the 75 seat eatery with a 10 seat bar and cozy fireplace, and a 3 bedroom cottage, an artist studio and various outbuildings.
When the Johnides family moved in, the pub was called the 19th Hole, in reference to Poxabogue Golf Course next door, which had 18 holes then. They discarded an old stove on the side of the road, hence the name that still remains on the neon sign, a red arrow pointing the way.
Jim and Maria Hatgistavrou, owners of Wainscott Inn down the road, were long time customers. “We’re Greek. We can eat and talk,” Maria told me, one summer night in 2018. They were sitting at one of the big round tables on the porch with their friends Anastasia and George Gavalas.
“She said it like it is,” said Anastasia. “Then gave me a great steak.” When Coulas found out the Gavalas’ were builders, she told them she had 15 acres for sale.
“Coula was a little feisty,” Maria said “She always favored the men. Gus was the bartender, and a womanizer. Steve was the quiet one.” There was no doubt Coula was the boss. When a steak came out black as charcoal, Maria told her, “Sorry, I can’t eat this steak.”
“Are you Greek?” Coula would reply in a stern voice. “She was yelling at me, telling me I don’t know how to eat steak,” Maria laughed at the memory. “She loved the restaurant.”
She didn’t always love Gus’s girlfriends, however and went as far as to tell the Hatgistavrous not to rent a room to one of his paramours. Needless to say, the siblings all remained single.
Gus, who was also an artist, kept a studio a few yards from the restaurant. One night, a friend and I got a tour after dinner and discovered his tree branch and women’s underwear sculptures. He was nothing but a gentleman, however, some other items found after his death on August 15, 1999 at 81 years were truly unmentionable.
Steve, who taught their butcher a thing or two about dry aging beef, handled the Southbend broiler, (not an easy task) and gave the famous chefs his moussaka recipe, died on April 17, 2002, also at 81 years.
“At one point, it closed,” Maria said of the steakhouse. “Since it reopened, we haven’t stopped coming. We’ve been friends with George forever.”
George Gounelas is the ultimate host, and ultimately, the last host of the Old Stove Pub. “Especially in winter, they’re all regulars. On Friday, I know exactly who’s coming in,” he said during service that last summer. “That’s the kind of atmosphere I like to have. Make people feel comfortable.”
Gounelas, 37, grew up in Shirley, and served as an altar boy at the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, Greek Orthodox Church of the Hampton in Southampton when he was eight years old. “I’m Greek,” he said during service that last summer. “My dad had a diner in Farmingville, Chris’s Diner, and I worked like legit from seven to 21.”
He’s known the Johnides family and many of their regular customers for much of his life. “Coula was very involved with the Greek church,” he said. “She loved it here. She came here once a week.”
Gounelas brought youth to the table. He had Reggae and blues bands playing on the lawn, techno DJs, karaoke theme nights ranging from the Beatles to ‘90s hip hop and even outdoor movies.
“Jimmy Fallon won’t leave. Six years, every week,” said Gounelas setting up karaoke one Thursday night in July, two months before they closed. “He was playing the theme from Zelda on the piano last night.”
Prior to Gounelas’ six year run, local chef Colin Ambrose held the reigns for two years. “I operated the Old Stove Pub in 2007 and 2008,” he said recently.
Under the Johnides’ family, eating at the Old Stove was like eating at your grandmother’s house for Sunday dinner. It was loving but a bit dysfunctional. Gounelas attracted a fun, frenetic, fraternity like atmosphere. Ambrose was the serious foodie.
Investor Brian Murray had been a regular at Ambrose’s first restaurant Estia’s. The two ran into each other at Rowdy Hall in the spring of 2007 and started to make a plan that fit Ambrose’s busy schedule, as well as the aging septic system.
They spent two months sorting through 40 years worth of the family’s remnants, and cleaning the kitchen, sunset porch, bar and dining room. They tuned the piano and opened on Memorial Day, Sunday through Thursday that first season.
“Coula was less than helpful,” said Ambrose. “However I was able to determine many of the keys to sourcing products like her brother Stephen’s prime meat supplier and several recipes by sifting through old receipts and invoices piled waist deep in the upstairs office.”
He found the original “cold fudge” recipe, a frozen fudge dessert that had been on the Old Stove Pub menu for years.
“I also found an old recipe that had been published in The New York Times Magazine in the ‘70’s for Moussaka in a frame on a shelf in the back of a closet,” he said “The glass in the frame was broken.”
It was after that story came out, the celebrities flooded in. Barbara Walters, Hugh Carey, Truman Capote, George Plimpton, Peter Maas, Mario Puzo, Joseph Heller, Sidney Lumet, Elia Kazan, Gloria Vanderbilt and Calvin Klein came for the moussaka, but came back for much more.
The recipe was also published in “Craig Claiborne’s Favorites from the New York Times: Volume 4.” I located the book, thanks to Diane Franey, the daughter of Pierre Franey, who wrote the piece, “Moussaka for the Masses,” with Claiborne.
“One of the best moussakas we know is that made by Steve Johnides, chief cook and proprietor of the Old Stove Pub in our home town, East Hampton.” Close enough. “Although the length of this recipe makes it look difficult, it is actually quite easy to prepare,” the story goes.
Even Diane, who has made the recipe, had to disagree on that one. “Look, you have to make the bechamel sauce, and tomato sauce,” she said sitting at her kitchen counter. There are 22 steps, not including the sauces.
Ambrose substituted the beef in the original recipe for lamb from Cromer’s Market in Noyac, and for a harvest dinner, used Quail Hill venison. He prepared it in hotel pans a day ahead, as per the recipe: “That way, the moussaka gets a chance to ‘set,’ and, therefore, is easier to cut into serving pieces.”
“It sold well and was the least expensive entree item on the menu,” Ambrose said.
Cut slices were finished in the broilers’ upper deck, above the burners, the same spot where they melted the saganaki, and a kasseri cheese appetizer. “That box above the broilers maintained a constant 600 degrees so pickups were fast,” Ambrose said. “I recall incinerating a few of each of those dishes on busy nights.”
The celebrities still rolled into the joint. John Legend, Shakira, Rocko DiSpirito, Jon Bon Jovi, Ronald Lauder, Kelly Klein and on more than one occasion, the pianist Peter Duchin stopped in for dinner and sat at the piano after his steak.
“My favorite evening was a Thursday in August, 2008 when the biggest steakhouse impresarios in the world, Allan Stillman and Peter Morton came for dinner on the sunset porch and ordered our bone-in, 60-ounce, sliced New York strips, on different tables.”
“The steaks were prime 30-day aged, bone-in ‘179’ strips that we cut to 3 inches on the bandsaw,” he said. “We also cut porterhouse steaks daily at 3 inches. Colorado lamb racks were cut to 1.5 inches.”
Christopher Gachot of Gachot and Gachot, was the Old Stove’s best kept secret. The butcher was based out of the meat market, at 440 West 14th Street in Manhattan, back in the day. Now, it’s the location of Diane Von Furstenburg women’s clothing store.
“The name changed while I was buying from them,” said Ambrose.
“As I understand it, for years Stephen would drive to the city and buy aged meat in the meatpacking district,” said Ambrose. “He would then bring 30-day aged 179’s back to the Old Stove Pub and age them another 30 days or more.”
Ambrose served Cabernet Franc from their neighbor Wölffer Estate Vineyard as their house wine to wash down their steaks, and Christian Wölffer was also a regular. In fact, the winemaker had thoughts of buying the Old Stove Pub just before his tragic death in a swimming accident off the Brazilian coast.
With the economy sinking faster than the Titanic, Murray abandoned the idea of putting together a deal with other investors and the property sat empty for four years.
Gounelas met restaurateur, and New York City’s pretzel king, Tom Makkos at his Southampton restaurant, Nammos Estiatorio, formerly Nello’s Summertime. Makkos and his partner Tim Salouros of Trata in Water Mill, installed Gounelas as general manager in 2012 and again, the Old Stove Pub got a facelift and the old menu was revived.
The absence of ouzo and taramasalata was the first red flag that something was off at the Old Stove Pub during my last visit. Chairs were piled on top of tables in the back dining room, which seemed more like a storage area than a place to “Come to the Greek,” as their long-time slogan proclaimed.
Coula sold off several large residential parcels adjacent to the Old Stove Pub, as well as her Bridgehampton home, shortly before she died on March 15, 2018 at the age of 90.
Less than a month after her death, on April 10, 2018, a real estate transfer noted “Bridgehampton Restaurant” sold to “3516 Montauk Highway” for $1.9 million, for the property at 3516 and 3510 Montauk Highway, the site of the Old Stove Pub. It’s currently for sale for $3,495,000, down from the original asking price of $4,295,000 in September 2018, weeks after they closed for good.
During her final years, she donated enough money to the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons for them to build the Johnides Family Cultural Center. The limestone, granite and marble building opened in 2013 on St. Andrews Road in Southampton, and includes seven state-of-the-art classrooms, a recreation room, a conference room, administrative offices, a library, and a fully equipped kitchen.
In addition, the Johnides Family Foundation will assure the maintenance of the building as well as the continued success of various ministry programs within the structure. According to Gounelas, Coula put to shame many well-to-do donors with her contributions when the Church was raising funds for a complete rebuild.
“A little old lady called them out,” he said. “She was a stickler but a good lady.”
In her obituary Father Alexander Karloutsos of the Church said Coula was like the Old Stove Pub’s steak. “Charred on the outside but tender on the inside.”