Like no other restaurant, the North Fork Table & Inn laid the foundation for what is today one of the finest culinary cultures in not just any region on Long Island, but, well, anywhere, truth be told. When Claudia Fleming and Gerry Hayden opened its doors in Southold some 15 years ago, the East End—and guests from further afield—we were all immersed in the concept of fine dining without the attendant fuss, elegant and easygoing at once, world-class cuisine created with ingredients grown and caught right in our backyard that cultivated an appreciation for local sourcing that has become a way of life for many diners and chefs.
So when news came at the end of 2019 that the legendary restaurant would run its last service this past New Year’s Eve, it seemed an era had ended. In one sense, it did. But then came word that a partnership of North Fork-based investors, with JF Restaurants—Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur John Fraser’s New York-based hospitality group—has purchased North Fork Table & Inn from Fleming. The clouds lifted, not only because the restaurant would remain, but because its new stewards appreciate the legacy as they look toward creating their own vision for the future.
“This is something special,” says Fraser, who knows a little something about beloved restaurants, having been chef-owner of NYC’s renowned Dovetail from 2007 until 2018. Clearly he embraces this unique position of acquiring an iconic institution where memories will no doubt long resonate while a new era begins. “We are very aware that there is such a history and love for this place, for so many people, and we are excited and nervous at the same time.”
The restaurant will be back with open doors and open arms this summer, he says, as will the famous food truck, which has earned its own reputation for excellence. Before the big day, which they will announce in the not-too-distant future, Fraser and his team will be undertaking some renovations to the historic building. The inside will undergo a facelift, having absorbed the wear-and-tear that will affect a restaurant over the years, but “we won’t be changing the exterior,” he says, “just some paint and nails.”
It’s a bit early to discuss any changes to the menu and the culinary style, says Fraser—whose hospitality group operates a number of acclaimed Manhattan restaurants, including The Loyal on Bleecker Street in the West Village, 701West at Times Square EDITION, and the East Village’s Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant NIX—but he is happy to say that a few aspects are indeed remaining. Executive Chef Brian Wilson is staying onboard, as is Fleming as Pastry Chef.
“I guess you could say this was buying my way into the chance to work with her,” Fraser says with a chuckle. “She is someone I have admired, and having her involved is, well…” He trails off, but the sentiment is expressed perfectly in his effusiveness and there-are-no-words feelings for Fleming, a James Beard Foundation Award winner who has been called the Doyenne of North Fork Dining.
“I’m so glad that we’re able to leave the restaurant in safe hands with JF Restaurants,” Fleming said in a statement when the sale was announced. “I’m looking forward to working with John and his team on the next chapter of North Fork Table, but also having more time for other creative projects, including my next cookbook.”
Fraser himself is no stranger to the East End, although the culinary scene has certainly changed on both forks since he worked at The Shagwong in Montauk while in college during the mid-1990s. “I spent three or four seasons there,” he says, “and I see a similarity now between Montauk and Southold, the tight-knit communities where people take care of each other.”
Understanding the importance of “local”—the people, the products, the culture—is at the heart of so much success on the East End. “It’s essential,” says Fraser, for whom no small part of the allure of the North Fork Table & Inn is the bounty of the North Fork itself, which he already has utilized for many years by sourcing vegetables he serves up in his New York City eateries. “Being close to the source, to know the farms and the farmers and wineries, that is very important, for guests, for us, for the quality, for everything.”