By Michelle Trauring
To say that builder Nick Zappola is invested in Sen Restaurant would be a vast understatement.
The Japanese eatery is his go-to restaurant in Sag Harbor, he said. And he remembers exactly where he was sitting when he met his wife there, 19 years ago.
So when he won the bid to renovate the village fixture — and its 130-year-old building — it was hard to imagine anyone else doing it but him.
“I’m very proud and excited to be a part of the project,” the owner of Zappola & Associates Construction said during a telephone interview from inside the Sag Harbor restaurant, now gutted and well into framing. “It’s the hottest restaurant in the Hamptons, and I think it’s going to be a really modern take on the old restaurant as it evolved over the years.”
In the early 1990s, Kazutomo Matsuoka — a former top-rank sumo wrestler known as “Tora San” to many — had moved to New York and started training in the art of sushi. Around the same time, Jeff Resnick had started his first restaurant in Sag Harbor, Superica.
Their eventual meeting was serendipitous, and their ensuing relationship an arranged marriage of sorts — Tora San a great chef and Resnick a savvy businessman — resulting in a 25-year success story in the form of Sen restaurant.
“Our father insisted that his sons work during their summer breaks starting at the age of 13,” recalled Tora Matsuoka. “Starting at the very bottom — literally, he started us off scrubbing basements before earning the more honorable level of dishwasher — my brother, [Jesse], and I training in every position within the restaurant until I bought out our father’s shares at 21. My brother became an equal partner in 2017.”
A decade earlier, Matsuoka and Resnick had purchased the building. Because the property “takes a pretty hard beating every year,” they would make annual repairs, Matsuoka said, but that was no longer enough.
“The building is old — circa late 1890s, it seems — so making small improvements was no longer sufficient,” Matsuoka said. “Jeff, Jesse and I love Sag Harbor, and plan on being here for many decades to come. To that end, it was time to make improvements to the building. … Knowing our 25th anniversary is around the corner, we decided to bite the bullet and make the commitment to the next 25 years of serving Sag Harbor.”
The three partners are keeping Sen true to its concept — a countryside, casual Japanese restaurant, Matsuoka said — and it will be rebuilt with the same warm feeling that Resnick envisioned almost a quarter-century ago.
The main differences will include a larger kitchen and expanded bar and lounge, Matsuoka said, not to mention an overall modernization from the basement to the third floor. Much of the aesthetic will remain the same, according to Zappola, with updated wood finishes, metal windows, dimmable lights and a large door unit that will allow open-air dining during the summer months.
“As for price, it’s commiserate with a full gut commercial building renovation in a historical village with a brand new restaurant being built inside it,” Matsuoka said. “Not cheap.”
Construction began in November and, weather depending, should be completed by early June — at the absolute latest, he stressed.
“Jeff and I decided many years ago that a key to success was offering our team year-round employment, as well as to be open for our guests throughout the off season — even when it didn’t serve us financially,” Matsuoka said. “It was a commitment to our people and the community that we believed would pay off in time. We’ve been open seven days a week, year round, for almost two decades. Had we known then how long it would take to pay off, we may have thought of alternative options.”
He laughed, and continued. “The first 10 years of being open year-round, through blizzards and holidays, was tough. To be completely honest, for many years, it was very difficult for us to keep the doors open,” he said. “Deciding to close for renovation was a difficult decision for us and our team because we couldn’t keep everyone employed during the seven to eight months of construction. To make it more difficult, one of our young guests — he is probably 8 by now — told me that he might starve to death if we don’t open again very soon.”
Zappola knows the feeling — “I live in Sag Harbor. I don’t where to go for dinner,” he said. “I need to have sushi and there’s no place to get it” — so locals can count on him to get the place open.
“I eat here so much I need to get it open as fast as possible,” he said. “All of my kids — I have four kids — they all want to come to Sen for their birthdays. My family is very much invested in this place. I need to get it open. I think that’s why they chose me because they know I have to get the place open, otherwise my wife and kids are gonna kill me.”
For more information about Sen restaurant, located at 23 Main Street in Sag Harbor, please visit senrestaurant.com.