Eckart’s: Bringing People Together

Independent/Hannah Selinger

Westhampton Beach’s famous luncheonette, Eckart’s, has been serving up breakfast and lunch for an astonishing 108 years. When the luncheonette opened, in 1911, a ham sandwich cost 15 cents, a far cry from today’s East End prices, even a little west of the Canal.

Still, the crowd — largely locals in the off-season, met with an influx of hungry beachgoers in summer — remains constant. Eckart’s is busy, always — busy enough to inspire a regular rotation of specials, a chalkboard out front advertising what’s good. It’s cash only, and, even in the age of the credit card, that won’t stop anyone, ultimately, for popping in for a quick meal.

In 1949, Warren “Red” Eckart took over the business, a venture some doubted. Red had a reputation for unconventional hospitality, like sticking his thumb in one’s coffee to test its temperature. Eventually, the community warmed to his unorthodox ways, and the luncheonette assumed the unofficial moniker of “Red’s.” Eckart died in 2004, and was survived by his wife, Shirley, who continued to own and operate the restaurant after her husband’s death.

Actually, the family nature of the business goes back further than 1949. Red Eckart’s father, Jacob Eckart, originally purchased the property. Jacob Eckart had some restaurant experience (he had been working as a bartender), and, with the help of his wife, Elsie, established a thriving bar, which he named the Outside Inn.

During Prohibition, when running a sustainable bar was no longer profitable, Jacob Eckart saw an opportunity and transformed his establishment into a luncheonette. The restaurant immediately became a regular destination for locals and tourists alike. It was, in fact, the unofficial gathering place for the police chiefs, city council members, and highway department employees.

The Eckart family worked hard to maintain a certain joie de vivre. For a while, a sign outside of the restaurant advertised a “Deadbeat of the Day,” poking fun at whichever customer had allegedly failed to pay his or her bill. During the holidays, they hosted enviable parties, the details of which are still discussed among locals in certain Westhampton circles.

As for décor, the restaurant feels steeped in nostalgia, from its aging bottles and cash register to its antique phone booth to its newspapers covering the walls that showcase American history. And although the luncheonette maintains a certain approachable camaraderie, it has also been the stomping grounds of the occasional celebrity out for a low-key escape from the Hamptons élite. In truth, Eckart’s is not a place to chase stars, but then, the owners never intended it to be in the first place.

The food is expected, but delicious, featuring diner favorites. There is an entire category dedicated to omelets, for instance, as well as the usual cast of early morning characters: eggs Benedict, French toast, a long list of pancakes, eggs with home fries and toast. For lunch, there are club sandwiches and hamburgers, Reubens and tuna sandwiches, and even — in observance of recent trends, one suspects — a category dedicated to paninis.

East End diner establishments are a dying breed. Each season brings more and more city émigrés and, with them, the sense that the traditional, old school greasy spoon is somehow insufficient for eating in the age of Instagrammable food. But there are traditions and loyalties that outweigh trend, that surpass whatever new, fun cronut has inspired the most clicks, likes, and reposts.

It is impressive that a restaurant like this can still soldier on, producing food that will not necessarily change lives, but that will bring people together all the same, day in and day out, in both winter and summer. And while we cannot know for sure that Eckart’s will be here 100 years from now, at least we will know that it had a very nice run.

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