In the early days of what is now “the Hamptons,” we had celebrities, but they were few and far between, out here for privacy and, as far we locals were concerned, persons to be left alone. If we were in a restaurant back then and, say, Billy Joel were to come in and sit down with his family, we’d say to one another, “that’s Billy Joel over there,” and then we’d go back to eating our dinner.
It is, of course, not that way anymore. And to give you a rough idea of how this works these days, I would like to describe the experience my wife and I had last Friday night when we made a dinner reservation and then walked into Nick & Toni’s restaurant to be seated by Bonnie Munshin in the first table on the left as you enter the dining area, which is, according to The New York Times, the pinnacle power table at the most celebrity-central restaurant in the Hamptons. From this table, and specifically from the seat I sat in, you can see everybody who is coming into the restaurant, and of course they can see you.
A week ago Sunday, Bonnie’s picture occupied the entire top of the front page of The New York Times fashion and style section, and in the article, she was described as the most important person in the Hamptons. She decides where you sit at Nick & Toni’s.
I was so elated to have this honor—it was a first—that I talked to her about the article in the Times and asked her what had come of it and had she had any interesting encounters about it.
“Everybody talks about it,” she said, “and I have to say, everybody has just been really nice to me about it.”
I thought, well, everybody wants this table.
I also learned in talking to her that she has been at Nick & Toni’s since its founding 25 years ago, and at that point I asked her if she had been here before that, and she said she had.
“Remember Ma Bergman’s?” I asked.
She did. Ma Bergman was the heavyset Italian woman who, along with her husband and children, ran the restaurant in this building before Nick & Toni’s came along. Ma Bergman was a warm, friendly woman, and her restaurant was a local favorite. You’d meet the coach of the high school football team and his family here. You’d meet your dentist and his wife here.
“Do you remember that her daughter did her homework in this main dining room while we ate?”
“All her kids did,” she recalled. “They lived upstairs.”
We ordered our dinner. The restaurant filled with people. Some people came in to sit at the table behind us, the number two table. The olives and bread came. The drinks came. The salad came.
“I think that man sitting behind you is George Stephanopoulos,” my wife said.
I had noticed when we started our dinner that the man in that family had tried to take the seat behind me but had nudged my chair, causing me to move my chair in so he could get in to sit at table two. We were now back-to-back.
“It looks like him,” she said. “I’m pretty sure.”
I had an urge to turn around and see if it was him. I remember him when he was in his 30s and a hotshot aide to Bill Clinton when he was President. I’ve watched him as a news broadcaster on TV. As a talk show host. I tried turning my head a little, but I would not allow myself to fully turn around. Since we were back-to-back, it would have meant making a ruckus, and how rude would that be? So I really couldn’t see him, and so was neither able to confirm or deny the presence of George
We ate in silence for a while. I have never met George Stephanopoulos. I’d like to. I’d like to do an interview of him for the paper. I began to hope that someone coming in might come over to him and say “Hello, George, how are ya’?” confirming that it was George Stephanopoulos, or, even better, saying “Hello, George,” and then seeing me and saying “Oh hi Dan, hey there’s Dan, I enjoy your paper.” And then I would be in the conversation and could turn fully around, but that didn’t happen, either.
I eavesdropped a bit, or at least tried to. It was noisy in the restaurant now, so I only got bits and pieces. A pretty young woman on his right, who I could see by turning just a little bit, talked about private schools not in New York, and George agreeably came into that conversation. Then somebody talked about something else and there was a brief discussion about it with voices raised, but I couldn’t make it out.
We finished our salad. Our main courses arrived. My favorite is the oven-roasted, crisp chicken with crushed baked potatoes and bits of pancetta. That’s a favorite of a lot of people at this restaurant.
When dinner ended and I paid the check, I realized that I had to go to the restroom and that would give me the option to get up and walk past table number two, at which time I would be able to nonchalantly confirm or deny if the man sitting back-to-back with me all this time was indeed George Stephanopoulos, as my wife thought.
“I’ll be right back,” I told my wife, as I got to my feet.
“You just go,” she said. “I’ll wait for you out front.” And so she got up too, and at that point I stepped out into the aisle, turned and confirmed that the man behind me was not George Stephanopoulos. I looked a second time on my way back. Not him.
“I think it was,” my wife said when I got out front.
“Not, not at all,” I said. “I know what he looks like. His face was too thin.”
We walked out toward the car. I thought briefly about how much time had been taken up at our table about George Stephanopoulos.
“No, it was him,” she continued.
And so we got in our car and drove back up Three Mile Harbor to home.
Well, now that I think about it, maybe it WAS him. As a matter of fact, now that I think further about it, it occurs to me that perhaps in recent years, as he’s grown older, his face has thinned out a bit.
But then there was the voice. At times, I could hear the tone of voice he spoke in and it definitely was not the tone of voice of the George Stephanopoulos I know. But then, maybe that was the voice of the man sitting opposite to him, who just spoke normally louder than George Stephanopoulos.
Some final thoughts. We no longer say George Stephanopoulos. We say newsman George Stephanopoulos, as in “newsman George Stephanopoulos was seen eating with his family at Nick & Toni’s.”
And then there would be “Dan’s Papers founder and editor in chief Dan Rattiner blah, blah, blah.”
Off by the kitchen, however, I thought I saw the ghost of Ma Bergman, standing happily there in her apron, holding a tomato sauce ladle, surveying the crowd and wondering if the place would fill up to the point that her daughter would have give up her table, pack up her papers and go upstairs to finish her homework.