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At the hearth that dominates the dining room, chefs cooking over wood fires held the attention of guests while turning out a steady stream of grilled specialties. (Credit: Susan Carey Dempsey)

While some people spent the worst days of the pandemic making sourdough bread or pursuing needlecrafts, Valerie Mnuchin brought forth a restaurant.

It took a year and a half for Mnuchin and her father, banker Robert Mnuchin to create Léon 1909 on Shelter Island at the corner of West Neck and Menantic roads. Converting a bank to a charming restaurant with massive fireplaces at a country crossroads involved more than just removing the vault.

Léon 1909 officially opened Thursday with 76 seats inside a dining room with banquettes, tables, a private dining area and a 14-foot hearth. Out back, is an equal number of seats at tables and lounge chairs where fire pits and a soon-to-be-delivered nine-foot hearth will blaze. It’s safe to say Shelter Island has never had an eatery like this before.

A picture of Valerie Mnuchin’s grandfather, who was born in 1909, and for whom it is named, hangs at the entrance.

“He passed away before I was born,” she said. “People used to tell me that I looked like him and reminded them of him. I knew that this restaurant had to be a tribute to him.”

Another important inspiration for Mnuchin is La Chaumière, a venerable, country-style restaurant, known for hardwood grilling on the French Riviera, where Grandpa Leon spent a fair amount of time before gravitating to the East End. 

Why open a European-style restaurant on Shelter Island? Mnuchin lives in Wainscott, and first saw potential for a business here when she started meeting her father, who was working on a project on Shelter Island, for a weekly lunch.

“Sunset Beach of course paved the way for this Riviera concept. People we met were clamoring for more food, they wanted more dining,” she said. “They love Vine Street, they just wanted more choice.  So it was kind of obvious.”

Although they won’t quote numbers, the significant investment in Léon 1909 shows; from housing for some of their workers, and year-round employment, to the impressive ventilation system removing the reality of heat and smoke from the hearthside dining experience and the high end, rustic tableware by Jono Pandolfi. 

Chef Mason Lindahl worked at a number of well-regarded restaurants, including The Monkey Bar and Diner.

“We were exceptionally lucky to get him,” says Mnuchin, who lured him away from New York. “Yesterday I heard Mason say he has to go to the city to get his car repaired, but he didn’t want to leave Shelter Island, and I thought, ‘Yes! I’ve got him hooked.’”

The menu they are developing is a nod to La Chaumière, Mnuchin said.

“Things that are natural off the fire, that reflect a certain level of simplicity,” she added.  “Something you want to eat all the time, not just for a birthday dinner.  Farm to table, fresh ingredients, menu changing. I think Mason has brought that to life.”

Their first menu is promising, with the striped bass, scallops and duck that the East End is known for, and the seasonal produce that we’re enjoying now. Comfortable dishes have an elevated touch, such as corn on the cob served with a preserved lemon butter and a Caesar salad with Spanish anchovies.

Temperature control, so critical in cooking, will be a factor in Léon’s success.  At a recent pre-opening dinner for family and friends, a diner seated at a table near the open grill reported that she was comfortable in spite of a long-sleeve dress and torrid weather, a triumph of HVAC given the heat generated by the open hearth a few feet away.  Diners on the patio in the cooler months will have fire pits, heaters and sheepskins to keep them warm.

Valerie Mnuchin says she and her father built Léon 1909 to last.

“We wanted to make something that would be a sort of community hub, open year-round,” she said. “We plan to do lunches next year, we expect people to come to the back patio just for coffee.  We want it to have warmth.  We hope that will be the case for many years.”