To succeed in a seasonal place takes effort — and talent. Nick & Toni’s, the “see and be seen” restaurant par excellence of the Hamptons, has proven that it has the muscle to withstand the ebb and flow of time. This summer, the restaurant will celebrate its 30th year.
While Nick & Toni’s itself has changed a little (a 2013 renovation, notably, freshened its face and brought it fully into the 21st Century . . . bye, bye to tablecloths!), the congeniality, hospitality, and good food remain constant. Constant, too, is the leadership under which the restaurant has thrived.
Decades later, Mark Smith and Joe Realmuto (who is the Executive Chef for Nick & Toni’s as well as its sibling restaurants, Townline BBQ, Rowdy Hall, and La Fondita) are still at the helm. The restaurant group’s partnership also includes founder Toni Ross and Director of Operations Christy Cober.
Nick & Toni’s is also steeped in local lure and, yes, a bit of its own personal tragedy. The restaurant was named for founding owners Jeff “Nick” Salaway and his wife Toni Ross. Early in the morning on Saturday, September 1, 2001, after leaving the restaurant late at night, Salaway crashed his car into a tree, not two miles from Nick & Toni’s.
His premature death, at 46, cast a pall over the Labor Day festivities on the East End. That accident left a giant hole in the celebrity magnet that was — and is — Nick & Toni’s. But the restaurant has risen, like a phoenix, through the ashes of Salaway’s death. In some ways, the restaurant remains a tribute to him, his nickname forever attached to its legacy.
Co-owner Mark Smith began working at Nick & Toni’s as an assistant manager 25 years ago. “I sort of had another life before restaurants,” he said. His career path had taken a marked turn, from hosiery to restaurants. “I was in the sock business. I found myself no longer in the sock business.”
Smith’s family had been going to Montauk since the 1960s, and he decided, after exploring the New York restaurant world via Jerry’s in SoHo, to make a go of it out east. He wrote Salaway a letter, became then-general manager Bonnie Munshin’s assistant manager, and, ultimately, forged a partnership with Salaway.
“I think he realized my business experience could be beneficial to the company, and that was the start of our relationship,” Smith said.
A few years earlier, Joe Realmuto had started at the restaurant as a line cook, where he progressed through the ranks to chef d’cuisine, executive chef, and, eventually, his own partnership with the company. He now directs the culinary arc at Nick & Toni’s, which has grown impressively with the times.
Once known for its upbeat Italian fare, the restaurant, still artistically Italian, has embraced sustainability and “locavorism.” Nick & Toni’s was among the first to participate in the East End’s Dock to Dish program, essentially a fish CSA for restaurants. Once weekly, a fisherman’s bounty arrives, containing whatever happens to be sustainably caught and abundant at the time. Nick & Toni’s also features produce from local farms and purveyors. On Friday mornings, it even hosts a farmer’s market in the parking lot.
In summer, Nick & Toni’s remains, even after 30 years, one of the Hamptons’ most coveted reservations, owing both to delicious food and the near sure thing of a celebrity sighting. But it’s the sense of community — present even in the dreary off-season — that fans the flame of this restaurant fire.
If you work at Nick & Toni’s, you’re likely to stay more than a summer (many staff members stay decades). If you leave, you’re always welcome back. If you’re a patron, you’re likely to know the familiar faces of the people who work there. They’ll know your face, too. Even if you’re only almost famous, at Nick & Toni’s, everybody knows your name — and the name of your favorite drink.