Barbara Layton grew up “on the streets, in East New York.” The owner of Babette’s, which is going strong in its 24th season (the East Hampton restaurant opened in 1995), was a city kid with a big vision.
“I was primarily raised by my Italian grandmother, and that was my big influence in cooking,” Layton said. “She cooked for my entire family, five days a week. My mother was a pioneer, and she was a career woman. She ran a textile company. That’s where I get the blend of the best of both worlds.”
Layton’s career has been a circuitous one. She met her (now former) chef husband at one of New York’s first vegetarian restaurants, and the pair had a son, Zach. While she raised him, Layton managed restaurants in the city and, later, became a Montessori teacher, a job she pursued for the following 15 years.
The Hamptons was just a happy accident. “I came out here by myself, on a whim, at the recommendation of a friend — I had never even heard of the Hamptons,” she said. “I fell madly in love with it. And I just said, ‘We’re moving.’ I had a dream, and I saw this [space] and I wanted to open up a restaurant and I wanted to change our lives. I borrowed $10,000 from a friend and we picked up and moved to East Hampton.”
When, in the attorney’s office, Layton was pressed for a restaurant name, she picked one off the cuff: Babette’s, a nod to the 1987 Gabriel Axel film Babette’s Feast about a Parisian refugee who provides a troubled church congregation with a lavish, celebratory banquet.
If Barbara Layton’s dream sounds impossible in 2018, rest assured: It was impossible in 1995, too. But, two years after opening, she had paid back her debt. The restaurant was, however, “dead broke,” and Layton couldn’t secure a loan. As she prepared to close the space of her dreams, she shared the news with a regular patron.
“He said to me, ‘Come with me.’ So, we went to one of the banks and we walked out of there with a loan for 50K and that’s all I needed,” she said.
Babette’s concept feels right at home in this decade, but in 1995, it was new territory. The restaurant focuses on local produce, sustainable meats, and juices, with a broad lunch and dinner menu that could convince even the pickiest eater to stop in for a bite.
“The term clean food wasn’t around yet, but that’s how I describe it now. At the time, it was just ‘health food,’” said Layton. She drew some of her inspiration from west coast “smart bars” — establishments that had integrated the healthy caché of the juice bar with the popularity and clientele of an actual bar. Babette’s is still a health-focused haven, providing clean options, like organic produce and grass-fed meats.
What truly set Babette’s ablaze was President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, 20 years ago. “I thought, ‘What can I do?’” she said. “I didn’t even know them.” She wrote a petition asking for an end to the Kenneth Starr investigation into the president. “I hung it outside of this restaurant, on the door. Everyone told me, ‘Don’t you dare do that.’ And I said, ‘I’m doing that. This is injustice.’ I wound up with close to 8000 signatures.”
Later, a patron who also happened to be a major donor to the Clinton campaign, stopped by the restaurant and asked if he could take the petition to the president. Layton received, first, a letter of gratitude from President Clinton, and, second, a brush with his motorcade. “The entire motorcade came down Newtown Lane and stopped in front of the restaurant, and they walked in, and that was the beginning of me entering the scene of politics. My whole life changed,” Layton said.
Since that auspicious day, yes, the Clintons have become regulars of Babette’s during their August trips to the Hamptons, but the restaurant has also cemented itself as a hotbed of community conversation. It is, as Layton describes, the gathering place for political conversations, both local and national. “A restaurant,” she concluded, “is more than just about — for me — serving great, consistent food. Community is very important to me. What goes on in the community is very important to me.” That ethos may just be a recipe for long-standing success in the Hamptons.
Each week The Independent features a local restaurant that has stood the test of time. Each restaurant has been open for over a decade.