Let’s face it: Going out to eat on the South Fork does not necessarily mean a memorable dining experience awaits. There’s no lack of restaurants in the Hamptons that stay well inside the lines of the culinary comfort zone; while others, still, are charmingly (or not) set in their ways.
Sag Harbor is no exception; there is a steadfast, if not exactly tastebud-energizing, lineup of perfectly fine places to eat, but few leave you thinking about the experience after the check is paid.
Sag Harbor Kitchen, led by a Michelin award-winning chef, is hoping to fill that void, bringing a “lively, animated” atmosphere to an otherwise stay-in-your-lane village restaurant scene. So far, the promises have included a vibe that draws inspiration from far-flung seaside locales like Sicily and Beirut, a fun and interactive culinary experience for the 21st century gourmand, and one of the most scenic and well-known spaces in town.
That space is the one formerly occupied by the beloved and long-serving Dockside restaurant, in the American Legion building at 26 Bay Street — the same venue that still holds free weekly summer concerts performed by the venerable Sag Harbor Community Band.
The ownership group behind Sag Harbor Kitchen, which includes a local newsmaker, is betting its prize-winning chef and the food she creates from her signature open kitchen will match its prime real estate and breezy coastal ambiance.
It’s been a dreamy process for Executive Chef and New York City-native Melissa O’Donnell, whose one-time downtown haunts Lil’ Gem and Salt, among others, garnered rave reviews for standing out among a crowded field of small restaurants trying to survive New York City rents.
O’Donnell, who helped repopularize the open-kitchen and communal dining aesthetic, said her mantra is to combine value and quality — a pull-no-punches, fair market approach that many diners want to see more of in the Hamptons. The quality-and-value approach also happens to be the hallmark of the Michelin Bib Gourmand prize, which she’s taken home five times.
“I always want to give people a really good product, fairly priced,” she said over the phone, while also admitting that her time operating small restaurants on her own became overwhelming.
After some recent stops at notable restaurants around the city, O’Donnell, who was introduced years ago to Sag Harbor by friends, said she always felt drawn to live the local life in what is the Hamptons’ answer to the New England whaling village.
She wants to see Sag Harbor Kitchen become a community hangout that customers who frequented the Dockside Bar & Grill will recognize as their own, albeit with a refreshing twist on 21st century foodie culture.
While the cuisine is going to be “seafood-forward” and locally sourced, she said, the menu (unfinished as of press time) will include touches influenced by her Italian-American mother as well as the Middle East. She sees her kitchen as a place where a chef that specializes in, say, a dish like paella, can take the reins for short periods of time to do what they do best.
While her flavor palette tends toward “New American, French and Eastern Mediterranean,” there will be vegan options, too, and regional fare like mussels and scallops prepared as they would be in exotic locales around the world.
When you’re not sitting outdoors, basking in the breezy view, the main interior room will feature her signature communal table and open kitchen. These value-focused concepts sprung from her love of “seeing people eat. I’m motivated when people come together over good food, seeing their whole demeanor change,” she says.
In what is sure to be a new twist in the Hamptons restaurant wars, Sag Harbor Kitchen is partnering with Kittch, a social media application billed as “the food network for a new generation.”
The web-based application livestreams chefs around the world at work in the kitchen, cooking, sharing recipes and living the culinary life. O’Donnell said she welcomes the chance to have other chefs visit and work in her kitchen, and hopes to create new connections with younger diners, too, through the Kittch interactive spaces.
As for the space at the American Legion, it has a lease owned by Adam Potter, notable as a member of the group Save Sag Harbor that wants to bring mixed-use affordable housing to the village waterfront area. O’Donnell said that she, Potter and Kittch founder and partner Brian Bedol have been working together on reimagining the iconic space for a mid-June opening.
“I told Brian I wanted an open kitchen, and he knocked down a wall,” she says. “We hit it off. We have a lot of similar ideas. It’s been kismet.”
Sag Harbor Kitchen is located at 26 Bay Street, Sag Harbor. For more info, visit sagharbor.kitchen.