OUT East End: Eric Lemonides – East Coast Restaurateur
Eric Lemonides is the face of Almond. Though he owns the three Almond restaurants (Bridgehampton, New York and Palm Beach locations) with his longtime business partner and best friend and the executive chef, Jason Weiner, it is ‘Eric at Almond’ customers are used to seeing at the door, welcoming them into his place with a huge grin, a big hug or an intense stare at a computer screen as he tries to squeeze in yet another old friend on a packed Saturday night.
Lemonides is one of the honorees being celebrated for his positive impact on the LGBTQ+ community on the East End. Dan’s Papers OUT East End Impact Awards are Sunday, August 29, 4–7 p.m. at Calissa in Water Mill. For tickets, visit outeastendimpactawards.com. For more information, sponsorships and congratulatory ads, contact Angela LaGreca at [email protected].
In the past year and a half — when all bets were off in the restaurant business and in the world — Almond has managed to survive. Its L&W Market next door pivoted to offering supplies like paper towels and TP when COVID hit.
This year the restaurant is celebrating 20 years in the Bridgehampton location (10 years on Montauk Highway, and the last 10 years on Main Street). 20 years of Almond is a major milestone, not only because of its longevity, but as Lemonides tells it, because all three Almond restaurants have managed to survive despite opening around some pretty major world events: 9/11 (Almond in Bridgehampton), the stock market crash of 2008 (Almond NYC) and COVID (Almond Palm Beach, which opened in February of 2020).
Known for its warm atmosphere, French bistro décor and satisfying comfort food, Almond in Bridgehampton has long been a gathering place for the East End community.
How has Almond survived and what has been the key to its success Out East?
We caught up with Eric Lemonides (who is not an easy guy to pin down, literally flying between his three restaurants in his four seater single prop plane), and talked about his love for the Hamptons, the restaurant business and how he has thrived.
Twenty years of Almond in Bridge – to what do you attribute the success?
One of the events that launched Almond to what it is was 9/11. We opened in April of 2001…when 9/11 happened we were home saying, “What do we do, do we open tonight?” … we never had a TV in Almond – I’ve been that way about restaurants in general – I like TVs in bars to sit there and all have this same experience – like a gay bar where you watch The Golden Girls with a bunch of people … but in restaurants I never liked it .
The afternoon of 9/11 I actually went to Kmart and bought a TV and a satellite system and hooked it up and that night and the weeks after that people would kind of zombie into the restaurant because they didn’t want to be home alone and people started coming. And that was kind of a weird, odd kind of launching because everyone from New York moved out here – everyone who had a house out here – particularly everyone who lived in Tribeca, which is all of Sagaponack …
It really did become a community center … and it still happens. People walk in and say, “I know that person or I know that’s the person with the twins … it’s a little bit of a gathering place. And we do that even more with what we do at the Artists and Writers nights — that’s part of staying open year round seven days a week.
How did Friday nights at Almond become a ‘thing’?
The gay Friday night thing started completely organically. It started two ways and it was really kind of fun and funny.
1) It was pre-cellphones. When we opened, people didn’t have cellphones and the general move was all of my friends who were coming out of the city would stop at Almond on Friday nights on their way out, and they weren’t having dinner. They were stopping at the bar, they left the dogs in the car with the windows open and they’d be like, “I’ll meet you at Almond at 9 o’clock, we’ll see you and make our plans for Saturday.” And that’s kind of how it started. It started with my two friends telling their two friends telling their two friends and everyone started meeting at Almond … to make plans. It was a communication thing.
The honest clincher was Rick Marek. He and his partner Ken throw a huge 400-person party in their backyard … “cocktails on the water, babe.”
It was our second year open and I went to Rick’s party and the Fourth of July was on a Friday, and at 8 o’clock Rick just shuts down the bar … he’s like, “Okay we’re out,” and that one year he was walking around (saying), “Keep the party going, babe, go to Almond, it’s Friday night, babe,” and 300 freaking dudes showed up to the f-ing place. And The Swamp — that was part of the timing – that’s when The Swamp closed and we opened. That had something to do with it.
How did you get into this business and start Almond?
I went to Brooklyn College, and while I was in school I started waiting tables in the city. Jason [Weiner] and I have been friends since I was 6, so when I started waiting tables, Jason started cooking in college as a side job … we would both finish work and meet for drinks at the end of the night and sit and talk about how cool it would freaking be to own a restaurant – and it was just kismet it happened at the right time.
I’d been coming out here for years and working out here … I was the opening maître d at Della Femina … Jason had also been working out here and he was the sous chef at Nick & Toni’s [years later] we came out here for a friend’s wedding in September of 2000 and drove past what is now Armin and Judy and it was a decrepit building, completely boarded up windows, and it had a sign outside, “Restaurant for Rent” … we saw that and were probably drunk as hell and said, “Let’s open a restaurant,” and literally called the landlord the next day and started the conversation.
When we started … it was just dumb luck. We opened at Almond with hokey French wallpaper and cheap burgers and freakin’ cheap beer and so when the world fell apart and people didn’t have money and they still wanted to go out, and they still wanted something new, we exploded – and (years later) all anybody wanted in ’08 was comfort food…
Was coming out an issue for you?
I grew up in Brooklyn … a pretty closeted gay kid who had access to the D train [laughs] so when I was young I went to the Village to kind of go, “Oh, those are gay people!”
I’ll never forget when I told my dad, he was like, “I’m glad you figured it out … I wasn’t sure you’d figure it out, but I’m glad you did.”
How did you and Lee (Felty] meet?
I met him the night we opened Almond on Main Street in 2011 in Bridge…I went to Sen and on the other end of the sushi bar was this freaking cute kid and we started talking…halfway through dinner, I said, “Do you want to say this is our first date?” And he moved in to the middle of the sushi bar and I think within a week we moved in together – the most lesbian thing I’ve ever done. [we laugh].
Do you ever take a break – how many days a week do you work?
I have no idea. I don’t know what work is anymore … I’m addicted to motion, to anything that moves, airplanes, boats, skateboards, cars — I love. They don’t have to be nice, they don’t have to be fabulous, but I just love stuff that moves and I love moving. This whole time you and I have been talking I’ve been trimming trees and pacing in my garden … it’s part of that weird ADD that gets s— done …
How has it been this summer, seeing people again at the restaurant?
My analogy: It’s like the final scene of a hero movie or a war movie. Everybody is like coming back to base, and everybody’s looking a little bit worn but like, ‘Oh f—, you made it!’
People walk in – who I’ve completely forgot existed in my life – someone who I saw once a week for eight years and I haven’t seen them for a year and a half … it’s exciting for us, it’s exciting for them.
What’s looking good on the menu these days at Almond?
Pretty much every piece of produce in our restaurant is within a 10-mile radius of the restaurant. If you look at the menu it’s got people’s names in red – either the person that farmed it or the person that baked it or the person that caught it …
People use farm to table, it’s like friends to table — it’s one of the most satisfying things.
Do you have a favorite Almond restaurant?
Having multiple restaurants is like having kids – there’s no way you could ever say you have a favorite, but you tend to give the move energy to the one that’s acting up the most or the one who is being the sweetest.
What do you love about the Hamptons?
To me, the best part about living in the Hamptons is that it’s a small town mentality … I go to Citarella, I don’t know the woman’s name behind the counter, but she’s like, “Hey, how are you?” That’s what I love.
Almond restaurant in Bridgehampton is located at One Ocean Road, 631-537-5665. Almond in New York is located at 12 East 22nd Street, NYC. Almond in Palm Beach is located at Royal Poinciana. For more information, visit almondrestaurant.com.