Not much in the ever-changing Hamptons is purposefully timeless. The American Hotel, however — Sag Harbor’s Main Street institution — carries with it more than just the pang of nostalgia elicited by summers gone by. And in 2018, this local masterpiece is still going strong.
The landmark building has proudly prevailed in downtown Sag Harbor since the mid-1800s, but its history is a bit more complex. The space now occupied by the American Hotel was, according to lore, once a Colonial inn, razed by fire in the late 1700s.
In 1824, that space was reconstructed by a local cabinetmaker named Nathan Tinker. He finished the building nearly two decades later, using it as his residence in the meantime. By 1846, Tinker had tired of his project and, in a bid to supplement his income, added a boarding house above and behind the original edifice. But the whaling industry collapsed shortly thereafter, leaving Tinker with an unoccupied space, which eventually fell into disrepair.
Thirty years later, the building, left to Tinker’s heirs, was bought by Captain William Freeman and Addison Youngs, whaler and farmer, respectively. The men added to the building its now-iconic front porch, installed a formal dining room and bar, and named it the American House. The hotel offered 25 rooms for traveling salesmen, who could eat and sleep comfortably after a day on the road.
In the early 1970s, a spate of factory closings, made worse by a stalled national economy, cost Sag Harbor 1500 jobs, destroying the year-round population. By the time current owner (and wine director par excellence) Ted Conklin bought the place in 1972, it had fallen on tough times, essentially a boarding house with a disintegrating bar and outhouses.
The hotel had been non-operational since the 1930s and had sold no alcohol since before the first World War. Sag Harbor itself had slipped in prestige from its old whaling chops. The track to industrialism had changed the color and the flavor of the town. When Ted Conklin reopened the Hotel, on the Fourth of July in 1972, it was unclear as to how the revised establishment would perform.
Luckily, Sag Harbor made a full recovery (as anyone perusing the real estate listings can see), and the American Hotel reclaimed its moment in history. With its mix of nautical décor and hunting lodge chic — along with a touch of Tiffany glass — the Hotel attracted steady clientele and a staff that never really left. The literary elite — Truman Capote and E.L. Doctorow, among others — established themselves as bar regulars, offering the restaurant a sense of upscale panache.
And what of the menu? Like the setting, the food at the American Hotel is decidedly formal, with formal prices to match. Soupe a l’oignon gratinée arrives still bubbling in a massive, hot-to-the-touch crock. Oysters Rockefeller, Petrossian caviar, terrine de foie gras, fillet of flounder with beurre blanc, and duck a la Montmorency all make obligatory showings, too.
However, you may not be there for the formal dining, which takes place with fine French service, tablecloths, and individual vases full of fresh flowers. You may have come with wine in mind — and if you did, you came to the right place. Since 1981, the American Hotel has boasted the highest award bestowed on a restaurant by Wine Spectator, the Wine Spectator Grand Award. Few restaurants enjoy this distinction, which requires that a restaurant feature 1000 or more wine selections, “outstanding depth in mature vintages,” and a formidable selection of large-format bottles. On Long Island, the Hotel is the sole restaurant to hold this prestigious award.
Come for a drink (even the by-the-glass selections are expansive), stay for a bite, observe the authors and celebrities who dine on the porch or in the intimate dining room, and languor in the low-ceilinged, wooden bar area until last call. It’s a decadent reminder of a Sag Harbor that once was, and a Sag Harbor that now, centuries later, is again.