There was a period about a decade and a half ago when the North Fork’s “arrival” was being measured by its growing number of fine dining options. North Fork Table & Inn in Southold had opened to rave reviews, including the top rating in the Zagat guide for any restaurant on Long Island.
Perhaps the definitive historical record that the North Fork’s emerging status was being measured in caviar came in the form of an Aug. 2, 2006, article in The New York Times with the headline “Bucolic Delights of ‘Not Hampton’ on Long Island.” The feature contained the words “arrived,” “un-Hamptons” and “bucolic” in its first three paragraphs, quickly hitting the trifecta of North Fork descriptors. The piece explained how the dining scene here was “hitting its stride” with the opening of several upscale restaurants, including the aforementioned North Fork Table, the Jedidiah Hawkins Inn and Frisky Oyster, which are all still thriving and pleasing palates today.
Given the gift of hindsight, it seems the expansion of elegant eating here was more a trend of that prior decade and less indicative of how we eat on the North Fork today — even before the COVID-19 pandemic threw the demographics shift into hyper speed and set the North Fork’s official arrival time at “Summer 2020, ready or not!”
Gone are much heralded high-end places like Caci, The Riverhead Project and Vine.
In the past decade it’s been more casual places like Wednesday’s Table or North Fork Shack in Southold, Barrow Food House in Aquebogue and Opties & Dinghies in Orient that have attracted the most buzz.
They stand as proof the farm-to-table concept is alive and well. But that’s been scaled up more in recent years with the growing number of food establishments offering casual but elevated menu choices.
“People are just not gonna go to North Fork Table every night,” said Linh Trieu, who opened Wednesday’s Table with her sister, Lena Tanzi, in December 2013.
Trieu went to the prestigious Institute of Culinary Education, interned at Jean-Georges and cut her teeth in the business cooking at New York City hotspots Danube and Oceana. Today, the menu at her breakfast and lunch spot includes dishes with un-lofty names like egg sandwich, classic grilled cheese, hot dog and toasty pb&p (don’t you dare call that preserve “jelly”!). These are choices that need very little explanation, but still manage to defy expectations when prepared at an establishment like hers, with a focus on fresh ingredients and little twists in preparation and presentation. The hot dog is angus beef, served on a buttered and toasted roll, and the egg sandwich can be ordered on ciabatta with chorizo instead of the more traditional pork sausage and hard roll that’s near and dear to all Long Islanders.
“I like to cook what I like to eat,” Trieu said of her rationale for the menu, which also includes some slightly more sophisticated options like braised short ribs and banh mi. “That doesn’t mean I want my food to be cooked just ‘whatever.’ So like with the egg sandwich, people do mention how much they liked it, because it’s not just an ‘egg sandwich.’ ”
Trieu said the North Fork, in its ever-so-unpretentious way, lends itself to more relaxed fare.
“For a lot of people it’s, ‘What am I taking with me to the beach,’” she said. In other words, foie gras doesn’t travel to a sandy locale quite like, say, North Fork Shack’s pulled lamb sandwich does. You’re also more likely to grab some coconut shrimp tacos from Lucharitos or a fried chicken thigh sandwich from Ellen’s on Front for a picnic in Mitchell Park than you are the, oh let’s say, Local Bouillabaisse from Noah’s. (Trust us: You should find time for all three places on a trip to the village.) Even Noah’s has dabbled with a food truck that evolved into Mattitaco in the past decade and North Fork Table & Inn has a truck on its grounds that’s open seasonally and is worth checking out. (For that matter, the two major fish markets servicing North Fork restaurants of all sizes, Southold Fish Market and Braun Seafood Co., have added kitchens to much fanfare in recent years.)
“I think people have gravitated more towards the laid-back eateries that capture the charm and farm-to-table style of the North Fork,” said Palmer Vineyards tasting room manager Patrick Cereola.
Winery visitors, he said, are asking more for smaller, locally owned places and “hidden gems.” They’re shunning big time commitments for convenience and affordability.
Cereola lists Main Road Biscuit in Jamesport, Love Lane Kitchen in Mattituck, Legends in New Suffolk and First and South in Greenport as other places his customers get excited about.
“Most people are asking me for a solid sandwich, burger or fresh local seafood,” he said. “Places that represent the area without being locked into an expensive, time-consuming dinner.”
Lucharitos owner Marc LaMaina said the laid-back style of his restaurants are inspired by the way his family, which includes three young children, prefers to eat. It’s also what makes sense businesswise.
“It’s how quickly we can give a memorable experience to the most people we can in one day,” he said.
In 2022, the restaurant formerly known as Jamesport Manor Inn will experience the three Rs: renovation, reimagination and renaming. (They started recycling years ago!) It’s all in the interest of going more casual, owner Chris Kar recently told us.
“You’re not going to feel like you need to wear a sports jacket or only come in on special occasions,” he said.
The pandemic-era population boom helped drive the change, Kar added.
“It’s been overwhelming since 2020,” he said, referring to people who have moved to the North Fork to live full-time. “We’ve seen younger people coming in, overall, than some of the older-time locals from the past.”
Kar’s dad, Matt, is one of the names most often associated with the early days of the North Fork’s farm-to-table movement. John Ross is another. Ross opened his eponymous white tablecloth restaurant in 1973 at what is now the more pub-style Founders Tavern on Main Road in Southold. He later moved it to what will soon be Señor Taco on the North Road. Ross recalls that even for lunch it was white napkin at his spot.
“People don’t eat like that anymore,” he said.
He added that when he first launched his restaurant, which had a menu that changed as he made phone calls to local farms and was typed up each morning by his wife, dinner for two came to $20. By the time he closed it in 2000, it was still in the $50 range.
“Today that experience is going to cost $250,” he said. “People, including me, can’t really afford that, not often anyways. That’s influenced the casual end of things.”
The overall economics of the restaurant industry, Ross theorizes, have caused a shift, in that more of the fine dining places are now owned by groups that might run several restaurants rather than by the local faces diners were more accustomed to seeing.
Economic pressures still exist for the casual locations that dot the North Fork today, exacerbated by the pandemic. “My heart goes out to all the restaurants navigating that,” Ross said.
It’s the casual spots already offering takeout and online ordering that had the least adjusting to do. But Trieu said staffing issues, supply chain disruption and inflation have forced even the more casual places to take more precise note of what they’re charging.
“There’s been a pretty lasting effect,” she said of the pandemic. “Who can afford to charge nothing for a sandwich?”
If the early 2000s were about raising the elegance bar and the past decade of North Fork dining was defined by a shift to a more casual approach to that, what will the next decade bring?
Trieu said she hopes it’s an expansion of ethnic foods.
“We need good Indian food here. More Thai,” she said. She pointed to the notoriety of her banh mi sandwich, even among local diners not previously exposed to it, and eclectic pop-ups offered by Grace & Grit in Southold as indicators the market exists for more diverse options on the North Fork. (We’d add the dumplings at Opties & Dinghies, the Korean offerings at Kon Tiki in Greenport and the sushi, rolls and ramen at Stirling Sake to that list.)
“A little bit more flavor,” Trieu said of the way the North Fork has gone and where it’s headed.