After more than 30 years at the helm of a true New Suffolk institution, Legends’ legends retired this week.
On their last day of business on Tuesday, owners Diane and Dennis Harkoff perched on corner barstools and looked back fondly on a remarkable ride — a journey they described as a dream come true.
“There are many, many great people out there that supported us for many years,” Diane says. “We saw them grow up — from dating one another to getting married to having children. Then they had two kids in college and they couldn’t afford to come out. And then the kids got out of college and they came back. So it’s been really, really special.”
On Thursday, Andrea Tese, who owns Minnow at the Galley Ho across the street, took ownership of the storied restaurant and bar and intends to keep the place just as she has found it — including maintaining the Harkoff’s long-serving staff employees.
“You can rest assured that despite this change in ownership everything you know and cherish about Legends will remain unchanged,” Tese wrote on Instagram.
And for good reason. Legends is so beloved it has its own joke: When tourists ask how to get to New Suffolk, locals just point south and say, “It’s right next to Legends.”
Looking back over the years, the Harkoffs are full of great stories and vivid memories.
There was the time in the mid-1990s when a bar regular used his one jailhouse phone call after a DWI arrest to dial up the bar and ask Dennis to come bail him out.
“I says, ‘I can’t come and get you. I’ve been drinking, too.’ I says, ‘If you can get somebody to come, I’ll give him the money.’ His friend went down to bail him out, and he saw a cop in the parking lot and says, ‘Is my friend in there?’ And the cop says, ‘Get out of your car.’ And he got a DWI, too, so the two of them were in jail together.”
There was the night Billy Joel dropped by, and that time in 2010 when New York Giants running back Rodney Hampton guest bartended. There was the time the Harkoffs left it to the barroom to pick a name for their new dog. The young son of a local man won with Clementine. Year in and year out, Legends packed them in on St. Patrick’s Day, Super Bowl Sunday, Fourth of July and other celebratory holidays.
“On the Fourth of July the parade comes down just up the block, and all the firemen come in here and their whole band plays and it’s great,” Dennis says.
Legends has also long been a prime destination for local civil service gatherings. The night before the interview, the bar had hosted a group of local police.
“We always treated [them] great,” Dennis says. “They’re good people. Whatever they needed we just gave it to them. If they needed a barrel, we just gave it to them. Their steak nights, their chicken barbecues — we were always involved in that. The guys cooking the chicken barbecue? I’d send them up 10 cases of beer because they’re out in the hot sun all day long.”
As is to be expected from any beloved bar, there was also drama. Like the time someone stole the Harkoff’s treasured baseball statue that they found at a flea market in Brimfield, Mass. They couldn’t resist the two-foot tall replica of a Boston Red Sox player — but after they bought it, they had the little man repainted as a New York Yankee.
“It was a weekday night, and Dennis was in the hospital with a broken ankle. And the bartender says, ‘Diane, somebody stole your little man.’ And then I looked out the kitchen door and all these people are running. And this guy was putting it in the trunk of his car,” Diane recalls. “And they marched him back in.”
When she came face to face with the thief, it turned out he was a regular. With his Legends loyalty brimming like a proper one-inch head on a beer, the bartender on duty banned the thief then and there from ever coming in again. But for Diane, that wasn’t quite enough.
“I said, ‘No! Hold him here. I’m calling the cops. I want to press charges.’” Which, she says, she did. It was around this time, according to the couple, that they hired a bouncer for security on weekends.
Weathering the storms
The decision by the Harkoffs in the early ’90s to purchase the property where Legends bar and restaurant sits was fraught with risk. When they first toured the building, they found high water mark stains on the wall from 1991’s North Atlantic storm that came to be known as the “Perfect Storm,” the title of a Sebastian Junger book that was turned into a hit film. Runaway boats littered First Street.
“I said, ‘Diane, I don’t know. There are boats up against the building.’”
They were more than a little uneasy.
“We decided we were not buying it,” Diane says, adding with a smile, “And then we decided, ‘if every other place out here on the water could survive, so could we.’ It’s why we didn’t put carpeting on the floor: we didn’t want it to get soaked in seawater.”
And weather storms they did, including 1999’s Hurricane Floyd and 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. They even survived a 1999 tornado that tore right through the neighborhood.
“It came right down Main Street and then cut across here,” Dennis says, gesturing out the bar’s front bay windows onto First Street. “It went right over — that was a fishing station — it went right over that building into Nassau Point. It wrecked a house over there. Somebody had just built a house and it went right through it, and then through Nassau Point headed towards Sag Harbor.”
Dennis was at Legends around 10 a.m. that morning. What at first was thought to be a particularly nasty electrical storm turned out to be a treacherous twister.
“It was like a freight train. It got very dark and all the emergency lights came on.”
Dennis tried to rush the few employees on hand that morning into a walk-in refrigerator for safety.
When it was all over, he stepped out onto First Street and noticed that most of the cars’ windows had imploded — blown inward by the force of the winds and air pressure. He went to assess his own car and couldn’t at first understand why his windows survived intact. Then he noticed he’d left the passenger side window slight cracked, which neutralized the pressure.
Success (and support) from the start
On New Year’s Eve 1993, the Harkoffs opened Legends, following years of preparation, research, risk — and plenty of local support.
“That day we had the plumber here. The electrician was here. The carpenter was here. The painter was here. We would joke: don’t back up against the walls because they’re still wet,” Dennis recalls. “We opened up that afternoon, and it was just a big party. Everyone came in. It was mobbed. You couldn’t move. It was, like, every night the bar was five deep.”
While Dennis had some experience in the bar business, neither of them had any background in restaurant management. They also had very little money.
For years before they opened, the couple conducted extensive research and development projects, traveling to bars and restaurants up and down the Long Island Expressway, in New York City and even deep into New England.
“We visited so many bars, tape measure and notebooks in hand,” Diane says. “We were out of work for about a year and looking at places and trying to find out what we liked about places and what we didn’t like.”
Asked for the secret of their success in the early years, Dennis laughs.
“Well, we copied people,” he says matter-of-factly.
“We’d go to TGI Fridays and I’d measure everything. Really. The only reason we have three steps [up to the Legends bar] is because Applebee’s — all of them have three steps. I don’t know why, but they did the research and we copied them.”
Other innovations the Harkoffs attempted were the product of a lot of thought.
“There’s a reason we didn’t put in a bar rail: so everybody could eat at the bar and not have that bump between them and their food,” Dennis says. In the early days, “people would come in and ask ‘Where’s the bar rail? Why is the bar so wide?’ Now a lot of people have followed that pattern.”
Diane notes that over time during their research trips, “we started noticing service, attitudes, the happiness of the employees, the attitude — things like that.”
Dennis notes that they didn’t cut corners on the quality of their equipment or their attention to detail, like the classic wooden library ladder leaning against the back bar, or the sports figures etched delicately into the glass panels surrounding the bar.
Diane decorated the restaurant dining room with art the couple collected over the years on their travels.
She lights up as she describes the various pieces displayed in the restaurant.
“There’s this piece of art from Arizona. There’s a small aboriginal piece from either Australia or New Zealand. I was always in love with African kuba cloth,” she says. “I don’t know if I lived there in another life or something. There’s a Turkish tea urn. We were never there, but we saw it at a place in Connecticut.”
The couple says they also took great care in developing and evolving their menus over the years.
“It was important to me that we had the best quality we could,” Diane says. “Back at that time [in the early 1990s] there weren’t that many places that were serving fresh veggies.”
They began traveling around New England sampling food at seafood shows and restaurants, sometimes with their chef in tow. Hoping to build an eclectic menu of delicious dishes, Diane first fell in love with the tuna sashimi — at a chain restaurant whose name she couldn’t recall.
“We thought it was great,” she says.
“We were going to do it as a special, but we did not think that the North Fork was going to accept tuna sashimi in, like, 1999. We were wrong. It was very popular over the years. That [tuna sashimi] test was encouraging to me to keep doing some surprising things to see how they went over.”
Legends also came to be known for a variety of its specialties, including the pad thai, the clam chowder and even their rigatoni Bolognese.
“Nobody expects [the food] to be good here, but they love it,” says Diane.
For a time, Dennis says, “our accountant tried to talk us into getting another [Legends] and maybe franchising something,” but they always declined.
After all the risks they’d taken, they were exactly where they wanted to be — running a restaurant and bar in their home town. One legend was more than enough.
“I sleep at night,” Dennis said. “I don’t need to be the richest person the East End or anything. I just wanted to have the one place.”