Veteran travelers like to exchange “Have you been to?” notes about favorite restaurants, especially the ones with renowned wine cellars. In 1981 the Wine Spectator Magazine named 13 restaurants to its first Grand Awards Wine List, selected from among 500 candidates. It included such famous establishments as The Breakers in Palm Beach, Sparks in New York City and Ernie’s in San Francisco. Perhaps surprising to sophisticated diners who had never visited our East End village, the still young American Hotel in Sag Harbor landed on this exclusive list.
Indeed, the hotel’s wine list can be daunting, as anyone who has paged through the thick ring binder will attest. (I usually order “Whatever is open at the bar.”) That may be why some visitors only think of The American Hotel as a place to go to on special occasions. But locals know that the hotel is also a friendly watering place with modestly priced noshes during happy hour. Wine is only one feature of the grand old hotel and restaurant. From the time you step from the sidewalk onto the little porch whose tables are set with snowy white napery, and into the Victorian era lobby with its glass case of fine cigars, and are welcomed by a black-suited maitre d’, you are in the comfortable world of an earlier period. You admire the serving staff in their long white aprons and white shirts, and custom-designed American Hotel ties. A young lady will take you past the hospitable bar on the left into a cozy and gently lit dining space that is graced with old nautical paintings, some by Harbor artist Cappy Amundsen, and warmed in winter by a fireplace.
The restaurant can be a lively place — on a weekend evening the bar becomes a mix of visitors and locals — of intimacy and fun. The crowd sometimes spills into the reception area and onto the porch when the hour is late and diners have departed. Beyond the bar area is a quieter, subdued space for more private dining. On the left from the lobby is a spacious dining room, normally used for larger gatherings, such as the Sag Harbor library’s author luncheon or annual American Music Festival performances.
The American Hotel gained its fame from years of careful nurturing by proprietor Ted Conklin whose roots go far back in the historic village. He unobtrusively watches over every facet of the business. Sag Harbor underwent several periods of decline after WW I and WWII. Prohibition hit hard during the 1920s. In the 1960s most of the factories closed and there was great loss of jobs and population. Ted bought the neglected establishment in 1972 and resolved to return the old hotel to its former dignity. He enlarged and modernized the kitchen and brought back the elegance of the dining rooms. He restored 12 bedrooms, converting them to six double-sized suites with modern baths.
In an article for the Long Island Press far back in 1976, writer Karl Grossman described earlier history. During the Revolutionary War, British officers were billeted in the James Howell Inn, which stood on the present site of the American Hotel. In a daring raid in 1778, Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs led a band of patriots across the sound from Connecticut. Before dawn they seized control of the Harbor and captured British officers at the inn before they could muster resistance. The old James Howell Inn burned down in 1845 in a fire that swept much of Main Street. In 1846 local cabinetmaker Nathan Tinker constructed a three-story brick building on the site to use as his residence, and later added mercantile space to serve the prosperous whaling industry. At some point he began letting out rooms on the second floor.
Much of Sag Harbor history is involved with whaling. In 1845 when the fishery was near its peak, the village was a hubbub of sailors, chandleries, whale oil and the many trades that supported the sailing ships. When the whaling business dwindled after 1850, Sag Harbor became a quiet backwater for over a century. Captain William Freeman and Bridgehampton farmer Addison M. Youngs bought Tinker’s building from his heirs in 1876, added the porch, installed a dining room and named it The American Hotel or The American House. While country inns or stage stops in surrounding towns offered modest accommodations, Sag Harbor boasted a three-story hotel with a bar, restaurant and 25 rooms for traveling salesmen.
Hard times came again with prohibition, wars and the depression, but the hotel continued to welcome visitors like movie star Mary Pickford who made North Haven across the bridge from Sag Harbor into an artist’s colony in the early years of the twentieth century. It was a harbinger of today when celebrities and Hollywood figures continue to patronize the Hamptons and the American Hotel.
Asked about the challenge of the coronavirus, Ted Conklin shrugs like a man who has seen many ups and downs since he began restoring the hotel nearly fifty years ago.
“It isn’t easy, we’ve installed new systems and equipment to protect our staff and customers. But we’ll get through it and hopefully we’ll all be back to normal in a matter of months.” Meanwhile he is reviewing his wine cellar, deciding what bottles to retire and what new vintages he might consider for discerning visitors who find their way to Main Street in Sag Harbor.