The Classically Social American Hotel

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Ted Conklin in front of his American Hotel on Main Street in Sag Harbor. Gordon Grant photo

When Ted Conklin first walked through the front door, he saw a canvas.

The year was 1971, but inside the neglected brick building, it might as well have been the turn of the 20th century — between the gas lamps, rusted coal stove, outhouses in the back and an all-pervasive layer of dust that he could scoop with a snow shovel.

Still, he wanted it.

Conklin envisioned what the place would become, both the establishment itself — now, famously, The American Hotel — and Sag Harbor, then a depressed village following back-to-back economic downturns, first as a whaling port and then as an industrial hub.

“It hadn’t really been touched since a renovation they might have done in the 1870s — 1900 maybe,” Conklin said of the building. “So I started in on the rebuilding of it, as something that would be functional. I was just in a survival mode for the first 20 years, and now I’m back in survival mode. It’s like being a kid again.”

While the COVID-19 crisis has colored day-to-day operations, the pandemic hasn’t come close to erasing The American Hotel’s 49-year mark. On the surface, it starts with the restaurant’s French cuisine, renowned wine list and impeccable service. The staff, dressed in black and white with long aprons, is a nod to a forgotten era. The traditional yet mixed-and-matched décor is eclectic and rarely changes, much to the delight of those who love to gather under the hotel’s iconic moose head, mounted to the wall, a sentinel over the lively bar scene.

The moose head on the wall of the American Hotel. Michael Heller photo

But the hotel’s engrained culture is more than its food and drink, or even the building itself. It’s the feel of the gathering place, a home-away-from-home for regulars and celebrities alike, where status doesn’t matter, privacy is respected, and intellectual, convivial conversation is guaranteed.

“As we move further and further into a world that’s dominated by technology, digital information and digital experiences, people are hungry for authentic experiences that they are finding more difficult to get in the world we live in,” explained bar enthusiast Bryan Boyhan, publisher emeritus of The Sag Harbor Express.

“And I think what The American Hotel offers is an authentic experience,” he continued. “It’s not a phony, made-to-look-like a mid 19th-century hotel and restaurant. It is, in fact, a historic 19th-century hotel, and it’s a great place.”

The Vision: A Meeting Place for All

At the start of the renovation in December 1971, Conklin mostly took it on himself, before realizing the extent of the work required to open the restaurant, bar and hotel six months later. “The building was in a state,” he recalled.

It hadn’t served a meal in decades, or liquor since before World War I, or taken in guests since the early 1930s — with the exception of the nonagenarian owner, Will Youngs, who had turned the dining room into his living space.

Slowly, but surely, Conklin restored the building to its former glory, breathing life back into its faded elegance while simultaneously enlarging and modernizing the kitchen, transforming the 23 guestrooms into eight suites, and welcoming the village back into the restored bar and restaurant during Fourth of July weekend, 1972.

That is precisely when Joe Ialacci first met Conklin, and stepped foot into a place that harbors nothing but fond memories today.

“I could go on for hours, my dear, on stories — believe me,” the former Sag Harbor Village police chief said from his home in Florida. “Through the years, it was a laugh. If there’s anything about Sag Harbor I miss, it’s The American Hotel. It was a glorious, glorious time.”

Over nearly half a century, the hotel has attracted generations of creatives and trades people, public officials and journalists, the glamorous, the blue-collared, the rowdy partiers, the quiet intellectuals. It’s the crowd that Conklin, who spent his childhood summers on the East End, had always imagined — with places like The Patio in Westhampton Beach and the Ambassador Inn, now the Stone Creek Inn, in East Quogue as his model.

“What was notable about these places was they were open all year round, and even though they were not spectacularly busy like they would be in July and August, it was a meeting place for everyone in town — the visiting swells from New York and the machinery of government and the local trades people,” Mr. Conklin said. “Everyone mingled, and it was just something that I always enjoyed.”

Outdoor dining on the front porch of the American Hotel on July 9, 2020. Michael Heller photo

The Culture: People, Food and Drink

The potpourri of unique people who find their way to The American Hotel has become one of the establishment’s most noted characteristics, ranging from heads of state to movie stars to beloved local personalities.

“Everybody in the world who’s anybody, who’s ever been to the Hamptons, eventually you run into at The American Hotel, let’s put it that way — from Julie Andrews to Mike Myers,” according to Sag Harbor-based artist Donald Sultan. “Everybody is going to be there one time or another, if you want to hang out long enough. Because it is a place people want to go, and it’s different than any other place out here.”

Ialacci and his wife, Nancy, recognized that from the start, and couldn’t help but contribute. It was she, in fact, who procured the moose head from an antique shop in Hampton Bays and drove it to the hotel in the back of her Oldsmobile convertible, top down.

“You’re bringing back memories,” Ialacci said, cracking up. “I can remember, I don’t want to name names, but I can remember somebody…”

He burst into laugher again. “Somebody got bombed at the hotel sitting under the moose and was talking to the stupid thing, expecting to get an answer,” he said. “That’s no lie.”

The moose was “pivotal,” according to journalist and author Lorraine Dusky, a frequenter of the hotel for the last 40 years. She actually introduced her husband, fellow writer Anthony Brandt, to the core group of journalists who hung out there, under the moose, in the early 1980s — one of whom tapped Brandt for a feature in GQ about the hotel, which hung framed on the wall for about a decade.

“We always joke between each other that he married me because I had an entrée to The American Hotel and a crowd of friends, and I married him because he went to Princeton,” Dusky said. “This is our personal joke. He was very much a club guy at Princeton and he loved the idea that I had a club.”

The American Hotel isn’t the only club on the East End, explained Dan Gasby, who built a lifestyle empire with his late wife, B. Smith. Others include Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton and Bobby Van’s in Bridgehampton — but the Sag Harbor venue undeniably stands apart, he said, which could be attributed to Conklin himself.

“He’s like the antithesis of me. I mean, it’s almost like an X-ray,” Gasby said. “Whenever I’m there and I see him, I always want his inner black man to come out. I haven’t found it yet, but I know it’s there somewhere. I’m mining for cubic zirconia. There’s nothing better than teasing him and getting him flustered. It always made my day. Whenever I felt down, I’d come in and mess with Ted.”

American Hotel Bartender Vinnie Rom. Michael Heller photo

Alongside Conklin, helping keep the ship afloat are longtime general manager Julian Ramirez and bartenders Paul Novack and Vinnie Rom, whose familiar faces are welcome ones for their host of regulars, including artist Dan Rizzie, who has several of his paintings on the walls and a drink named after him: a twist on a Negroni called “The Rizzironi.”

“They’re like family,” he said of the bartenders. “I would tell those guys anything, and probably have — whether I remember it or not. To me, it’s so comfortable. If I’ve been away for a long time, or my wife and I have been traveling, we come back, have a drink, and I say, ‘Okay, I’m home now.’

“I can’t think of, ever, me having a bad time there,” he continued, “other than the time Vinnie wouldn’t let me in — even though I brought Bill Murray there.”

It was the 1999 Hamptons International Film Festival and the two men had done the full circuit: drinks at a few festival parties, dinner at Nick & Toni’s, and what Rizzie thought would be a nightcap at The American Hotel, shortly before it closed.

But when they walked through the front door, Rom stopped them in their tracks from behind the bar.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Rom had said.

He pointed to Murray.

“Bill, you can come in,” he said. “But that guy with you? He cannot come in.”

A few cocktails deep, Rizzie watched his friend make his way into his hotel, leaving him standing on the porch flabbergasted, until the bartender came out a second later.

“You know I’m just kidding, Dan,” he said, walking him through the front door as they shared a laugh.

“That was certainly the funniest thing that ever happened to me there. I couldn’t wait to show Bill Murray The American Hotel, and then I get kicked out,” Rizzie said. “Then, all of a sudden, the place really opened up and everybody’s drinking again and Murray’s buying drinks and telling stories. It was a great evening.”

In his 29 years bartending at The American Hotel, nights like these have become commonplace for Rom, from what he calls the “Victoria’s Secret model night” — “Absolutely nothing happened, that’s why everybody believes the story,” he said — to meeting one of his music idols, Roger Waters, formerly the frontman of Pink Floyd.

And then there was the day that he walked through the front door, only to see bar frequenter Billy Joel seated next to Bono on the couch.

“I’m looking at Billy and he’s like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and I go, ‘Billy, c’mon, you gotta be kidding me. You two sitting on the couch at the place I work? It’s freakin’ amazing,’” Rom recalled with a laugh.

Word got out and the two musicians soon found themselves in the midst of a large bar crowd, and they decided to hit the road — Billy in the driver’s seat of his Vespa, and Bono in the sidecar.

“When I saw them pull down the block, I was freaking out because Billy’s not the best driver in the world,” Rom said. “And I was worried that my hero in my life, Bono, was gonna get killed. So Billy came in about a week later and I said, ‘Please tell me you got him home safely.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I got him home safely, but it took me an hour to find his house, he didn’t know where his rental was.’”

The celebrity sightings don’t stop there, from Jimmy Buffett sitting at the bar talking to a few locals to spotting Sultan, “who’s probably one of the biggest artists working in America today,” Boyhan said, and a hotel regular.

“I’ve often said that The American Hotel is the best restaurant in America, but that’s not because of the food,” Sultan said. “It’s because everything is exactly what it should be.”

This isn’t to say that the food’s not worth having, Rizzie said. He typically knows what he’ll order before he sits down: the Long Island Pekin Duck a la Montmorency — “Now I’m just gonna start crying because I haven’t had it in three and a half months,” he said — or the Angus beef hamburger, served up “heart-stopper special” style with bacon and cheese, made rare.

“I feel like a part of me is missing that I can’t go there,” he said. “I mean, I can go there, I guess, but it’s not the way it was — but nothing is. There’s a certain sense of loss. If anybody asks me, ‘Where do you want to go?’ or ‘Where do you want to eat?’ you tell them, ‘The American Hotel.’”

For most, the name always rings a bell, much in part to its internationally famous, 30,000-bottle wine cellar, with an 85-page wine list to match.

“People know it around the world,” Rom said. “I’ve been in Paris, sitting at the Ritz bar, and people will say to me, ‘My God, I’ve read all about that place. We want to come one time, we hear you have the best wine list.’ And I tell them, ‘Yeah, it’s on the top 10 wine list on the East Coast of the United States.’

“Some people absolutely love it, but then other people will come in and I’ll hand it to them and after a couple minutes of looking at it, they’ll say to me, ‘Just order me a bottle, I can’t do this, it’s too much,’” he continued. “When Ted got here in 1972, he made this town. It was a sleepy old industrial town with a bunch of meatheads beating each other up in local bars, and now look at Sag Harbor today. Some of the wealthiest people in the world are here shopping and eating and drinking. The hotel’s all been part of it.”

Outdoor dining in the rear patio of the American Hotel. Michael Heller photo

The Days Ahead: Uncertainty in the Face of COVID

With phase three of the New York State reopening underway, so is social-distanced dining at East End restaurants. And while Conklin is optimistic, he doesn’t know if the restaurant business will ever be the same again, let alone The American Hotel — especially as it faces local issues, such as parking and traffic, he said.

“I would hope that the village will work with the older institutions that have helped the recent reputation of the village,” he said. “These places exist on the basis of individuals, not on the basis of profitability. As real estate prices and taxes make these businesses even more anachronistic than they already are, keep an eye to the fact that a lot of us are gonna need an ally in government. Every place has its day, and it’s a question of whether or not the hotel is useful to the community.”

For attorney Tiffany Scarlato, her relationship with the hotel started as seeking a place of refuge after her sudden termination from the East Hampton Town Attorney’s office in 2009, she said. Present day, she can be found at the bar with a martini on good days and bad, but especially after a tough zoning board or planning board meeting, she said.

“I get yelled at every time I go and, honestly, the first place I head if I have a bad night like that is to the hotel, before I go home,” she said. “And there’s always someone there that says, ‘Eh, f— ’em, it’s okay. Don’t worry about it’ — which, I have to say, always makes me feel infinitely better.

“It’s become like home to me. It really is my favorite place. It’s a place unto its own.”

For Gasby and his late wife, The American Hotel was an extension of their living room, from lighthearted “Moose Day” cocktails on Wednesdays — “At times I can look like a moose and my nickname was ‘Chocolate Moose’ back in the day,” he said — to more serious encounters at the hotel for B. Smith, who was a restaurateur, chef, model and author before her battle with early onset Alzheimer’s began.

“As Barbara descended into Alzheimer’s, when she would run away or walk away, invariably she would always end up at The American Hotel, or somewhere near The American Hotel,” Mr. Gasby said. “In the later stages of Alzheimer’s, she would actually walk the room and hostess, unbeknownst to her, because it was just a natural thing. It was a special place for her — and that’s why it will always have a special meaning to me.”

He paused.

“The only thing that you really have in life are moments and memories,” he said. “So I’ve had great moments and wonderful memories, and a lot of fun times there.”

It is nearly impossible to imagine Sag Harbor’s Main Street without The American Hotel, even as COVID-19 ticks on and the restaurant’s future remains uncertain, Dusky said.

“If the hotel can never reopen as it was, it will be a big loss to the village,” she said. “Because, to me, it still remained — until COVID — the gathering place where gossip was exchanged, certain deals were made. Famous people came in and you saw them, and nobody reacted like, ‘Oh my God,’ unless you were from out of town. But if you live here, you just accepted that Colin Powell might be having dinner at the next table. I think it still remains a place to see and be seen.”

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