ON ANY GIVEN SUMMER WEEKEND, David Loewenberg is jumping between his popular restaurants — Beacon in Sag Harbor (now in its 18th season), Fresno in East Hampton, and Bell & Anchor in Noyac — working the floor, greeting guests and switching up the music if need be.
“At the Beacon, sometimes I walk in, and there will be a big line and an energy that’s pumping” like adrenaline, he says. “I’ll put on a little bossa nova, a little smooth jazz, and my manager Kristy will look at me and say, ‘That’s right.’” Thirty-five years in the restaurant business have honed Loewenberg’s instincts. But he’s also got a preternatural calm that stands out in a high-intensity industry known for its nerve-fraying chaos and amped-up kitchen staff.
There are a lot of folks who come out here, and think they are going to light the place on fire. Go for it — but be careful.
Eric Ripert, a famed chef who is also a Beacon patron, has described Loewenberg’s demeanor as “a peaceful and pleasant elegance” that belies how hard he’s working. It’s not easy to run a restaurant (let alone three of them) in a place where the peak season is ruthlessly short, the commercial space is expensive, and the clientele demanding. Not many survive. Loewenberg, who lives in Sag Harbor, has figured out a way to endure. His oldest, the Beacon, is in its 18th season.
Restaurants come and go in the Hamptons. What’s your secret?
We’re old school. We’re not trendy. People talk about farm-to-table — we’ve been doing this forever. It’s our desire to know where fish comes from, or when corn is high, or when tomatoes are incredible, or when the fruit is bursting. The key to longevity is to like what you do, and to have systems in place, and to work hand-in-hand with seasons that aren’t so busy.
You’re a former city kid. What prepared you for the East End scene?
I had been working at restaurants in Manhattan since I was 14, washing dishes, bussing tables, prepping food — doing whatever possible to learn the business. I knew one day I wanted to operate a restaurant. My wife, Sarah, and I met at a restaurant [Periyali, on 20th Street] and got burnt out. I was always trying to open a business, and it never happened. We fell in love with Sag Harbor, in the winter! Once I moved out here, I really connected with very strong operators, like Jeff Salaway from Nick and Toni’s. I fell into this incredibly fun and exciting world.
What’s the best part about working on the South Fork?
I can’t imagine not having Sag Harbor as my base. I love the shoulder seasons — spring and fall. I love the harvest out here. To live out here, you need to make hay. I put my head down in the summer and I pick it up in the September or October, when it naturally slows down. My restaurants respond — we go to five days. It gives you time to cook, to travel, to go to other restaurants. But as much travel as I’ve done...how can you not love it out here? It’s really just beautiful.
What’s the most challenging part?
Keeping really good help. My staff is paramount. I’m really big about training. I have people that come back every season. We want to maintain continuity. If we had to hire a brand new staff each year, it would be very difficult. We notoriously pay more than in the city, because it’s difficult to get good help. I’m very conscious of labor costs. I’m very conscious of food costs. People will come in and say, “Oh my God, it’s a Saturday in August, I’m waiting for a table — you must be raking it in.” But profitability is tough.
Bell and Anchor (which Loewenberg co-owns with Sam McCleland, chef) is summertime-only; Fresno (open since 2004) and Beacon (2012) are both year-round. What’s the thinking there?
The building screams “summer!” — it’s above a marina, and when the wind starts blowing, you can feel it shake. I love being there during a storm, because it’s really sexy. But we had to learn how to make it work. The first couple years weren’t easy. We learned that when people line up, you take them. You learn how to manage a menu and serve a restaurant that fills up in 10 minutes. What’s the common link with all your restaurants? There is a sense of hospitality, of management, of a system that plays in all of them. Each restaurant has its own personality. But once they have a system, they have a continuity. All of the menus are Continental — there’s a great steak, a chicken, a vegetarian dish — but each chef has his or her own flair and will utilize some of the same ingredients with different energies.
You’ve walked away from restaurants, such as 95 School Street (which you opened at the age of 28) and more recently, Red Bar and Little Red. Why?
School Street was in the beginning of my ownership years. I negotiated the space, I folded the napkins, I designed the menus. But I was young and naive in my business savvy. I probably would have done things differently if I had been older. I left when I felt I could no longer grow with it. With Red Bar [now owned by a former partner, Kirk Basnight], it just felt like the timing was right. It can’t always be smooth sailing.
Can you remember any special catastrophes?
Our job is try to make everything as seamless as possible — and that inevitably doesn’t happen. Sometimes, the only good thing about an evening is that it eventually ends. I’ve had power outages, deliveries not coming due to traffic, staff not being timely. You have to make it seem like it’s business as usual. At the Beacon, there have been squalls that come in, and we have to batten down the hatches. I have a canopy but there is a leak here and there. We’ve had no one fall off the deck. But we’ve helped save the day. We have saved as many as five or six wedding rings that have fallen off. Usually they are newlyweds — and I hate to say it, but it’s the husband — and they are playing with the rings, and all of a sudden it falls through the slats. We’ve had really good luck retrieving them, with wire — and prayer...
You try to make it look as smooth as possible. Do you hang out with other restaurant types?
It’s a small world out here. There’s definitely a camaraderie. I really respect Mark Smith and Joseph Realmuto at Nick and Toni’s, Jesse Matsuoka at Sen, and Maurizio Marfoglia and Rachel Luria at Dopo La Spiaggia. During high season, it’s few and far between that you get to see everybody. It’s nice to let someone else pour a glass of wine for you.
What would you tell someone looking to open a restaurant in the Hamptons?
There are a lot of folks who come out here, and think they are going to light the place on fire. Go for it — but be careful. Really make sure you understand what you’re doing and your demographics. I’m actually excited when people come and have a new energy and style, because it pushes you to do the best you can.
How do you stay so calm?
It’s the medication. [Laughs.] I try not to take it seriously. I try to step back and breathe. I’ve learned to laugh at myself a bit. There were years when it was very intense. But after years in the business, you build a sense of maturity and a reserve. It’s food. It’s hospitality. I do practice yoga, I do ride a bike, I do love spending time with my daughter and my friends. It’s not just work. But I think the key is that I really like what I do.