If you’re wondering how 1998 could possibly have been 20 years ago, well, you aren’t alone (says the woman who graduated from high school that very year). But, here we are. Twenty years ago, southern attorney-turned-restaurateur Kirk Basnight opened Southampton’s Red Bar Brasserie, a restaurant inspired by both French and local dining traditions. Two decades later, the restaurant is an established part of the South Fork’s dining scene.
Before Red Bar moved in at the Hampton Road space, another established restaurant lived there. Balzarini’s occupied 201 Hampton Road for 68 years, from 1923 to 1997. The original restaurant was an uncool Italian joint, deemed, by the New York Times, “an unpretentious Italian food outpost.”
“At a time when cold modernity is commonplace on the East End, the warm, homey, family-run Balzarini’s, with its unapologetically old-fashioned Italian Riviera atmosphere, looks much as it did 73 years ago,” Richard Jay Scholem wrote in a 1996 review. The “uncool” factor aside, Balzarini’s had a long and successful run, one not guaranteed to its successors. In fact, if anything, the restaurant’s location — slightly removed from town, and hardly Southampton’s most picturesque spot — ensured that building a following would bring forth its own set of challenges.
Basnight — along with now-legendary Hamptons restaurateur David Loewenberg, who has since sold his share of the restaurant — was willing to give it a shot. The restaurant took off, and continues to compel return customers. At the time, Loewenberg had experience managing the then-popular (and since defunct) 95 School Street, while Basnight was still new to the area.
Red Bar was a hit, compelling some of the longest wait times in the Hamptons and eventually spurring the opening of a sibling restaurant. That property, Little Red, a more casual version of the relatively formal brasserie, opened on Southampton’s Jobs Lane in 2011 and has remained consistently busy ever since.
After 20 years, it can be said the restaurant has stood the test of time, but not without a few updates. In 2016, the restaurant closed for renovations, reopening with new flooring, wicker chairs, and banquettes sourced from the Carlyle Hotel. The restaurant also expanded its dining options, adding an outdoor seating area, which had never before existed.
The menu is expansive and, by some turns, expensive, offering such colorful appetizer options as local oysters on the half shell, grilled Spanish octopus with fingerling potatoes, homemade terrine of foie gras with kumquats, and a chef’s selection of farmstead cheeses.
A roasted half Long Island duckling, served with sautéed greens, a sweet potato purée, and sour cherry glaze remains a tried-and-true favorite for East End natives, though the local striped bass — served grilled over wild spinach and quinoa and with a yuzu vinaigrette — is a worthy competitor. (Some may argue, however, that the restaurant’s crackling pork shank, accompanied by sauerkraut, apples, bacon, and beer mustard, is truly Red Bar’s signature dish, but that’s a matter of personal debate.)
Dishes, on the restaurant’s nightly menu are meant to highlight the seasonality of the region, while nodding to classic French techniques.
Chef Todd Jacobs, who took over the Red Bar kitchen in 2016, is a Long Island native who graduated from the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center, or ICC) in the mid-1980s. Prior to joining the kitchen at Red Bar, Jacobs worked at Bridgehampton’s Fresh Hamptons (now Salt Drift Farm), Westhampton Beach’s Tierra Mar, Long Beach’s Atlantica, and Sag Harbor’s American Hotel.
David Loewenberg’s defection notwithstanding, Red Bar Brasserie remains a place to see and be seen, and a place where one can order reliably delicious food with classic notes and a local bent.