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The American Hotel in Sag Harbor: A Legacy of Brilliance

Written By | Aug 15, 2017

The American Hotel in Sag Harbor. (Photo by Alison Reynolds)

SAG HARBOR, N.Y., August 15, 2017 — Dating back to the 1840’s, The American Hotel is a classic, historic structure in the middle of Sag Harbor. After falling into disrepair, the building was purchased in 1971 by Ted Conklin, who lovingly restored the property.

The American Hotel is one of a kind. It combines fine dining, gorgeous atmosphere, and 40 years of Sag Harbor history. It’s a place where literary icons, rock stars, and local firefighters intermingle as members of a casually relaxed community.

The legendary front porch of The American Hotel in Sag Harbor. (Photo by Alison Reynolds)

With an emphasis on refined, modern French cuisine, farm-to-table fresh ingredients, exceptional seafood, and a 30,000-bottle wine list, the American Hotel is both a Hamptons social center and an exquisite, fine-dining experience.

Ted Conklin, visionary owner of The American Hotel in Sag Harbor, presides over a dinner soiree at the hotel.
(Photo by Alison Reynolds)

When Conklin purchased the hotel Sag Harbor and the surrounding area were in steep decline. He spent the first winter digging the accumulated coal dust of a century out of the basement.

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The building, falling into disrepair, had not seen a guest since the 1930s. The previous occupant had turned the front room into his own hospital room. Rooms were closed off, including the bar area.

When it was opened up there were still beer schooners and magazines draped over dust-covered bar stools.

Conklin first opened the bar and restaurant on July 4, 1972. It instantly became the unofficial center of the community and a gathering place for the residents of Sag Harbor thanks to its historic charm and charming owner.

Conklin spent the next winter renovating the upper floors, gradually restoring the building to its former grandeur. Today there are eight beautifully restored guest rooms on the second and third floors, an epic bar area, and a series of four impeccably designed and furnished dining rooms.

The front porch, with six tables on either side of the entrance under a white pillared portico, is the stuff of legend. Tales of politicians, rock stars, and celebrities who have visited are told and retold, like the yarns of whalers returning from the sea.

And the stories are true. They are part of a cultural institution in which embellishment is unnecessary, even if intimate details are kept deliberately vague.

John the bartender.
(Photo by Alison Reynolds)

The American Hotel has been compared to the 21 Club in Manhattan, the Algonquin Hotel in the 1920’s, and perhaps most appropriately, to Ricks Café from Casablanca—a refuge from rising tides (without the Nazis) because “everyone comes to Ricks”.

It is an anchor for the community, a haven for its artists and writers, a safe harbor for celebrities, a place where rock stars can play backgammon in the lobby unmolested, and where a Piano Man can give an impromptu performance at 3 in the morning.

That’s a tall order for a small hotel, but Conklin has been pulling this off for 45 years and shows no signs of slowing down.

It is true that The Hamptons are synonymous with economic excess, The Great Gatsby, and luxurious mansions. But Sag Harbor has remained grounded to its fishing town heritage, even with the recent influx of capital and moneyed investment.

It is that balance between the moneyed forces around it and its singular character that has kept The American Hotel’s charm intact and its spirit undiminished.

The front porch with white portico and columns. (Photo by Alison Reynolds)

At first glance, the hotel is unremarkable: a three-story, red-brick cube in the center of Sag Harbor. A white portico and gleaming wooden columns lining the front add some 19th-century charm.

The lobby and reception area are compact, comfortable rooms featuring a lovely wood frame couch, an antique reception desk, a few tables by the door, and a backgammon table open and ready for a casual game between guests.

Just off the lobby is the bar area, a sprawling room filled with dark wood and a sumptuous 19th-century bar that was once a pharmacy counter in England.

The bar at The American Hotel. (Photo by Alison Reynolds)

It all feels like something from another era, with its hand hammered tin ceiling and antique furnishings.

Between the lobby and the bar is the main dining room, an expansive chamber traditionally decorated with gleaming, cream-colored walls, a dozen beautifully set tables, and a grand piano.

This is the heartbeat of the restaurant,where romantic couples sit enjoined in a corner and discreet parties of the occasional bold faced name can enjoy a sumptuous night out with their fellow travelers with a semblance of incognito.

Just beyond the bar area is a backroom dining room. Its theme is nautical, with sea inspired paintings, large banquets, and open spaces where diners might stretch out or find a greater level of quietude.

To one side, in what was once an alleyway beside the hotel, is now a covered atrium filled with natural light and adorned with hanging plants and flowers. Its half-dozen tables are a lovely hideaway within a hideaway. It is popular with lunch guests and for a lingering Sunday brunch.

The hotel rooms are discovered through a separate entrance, up an antique staircase with an impeccably restored banister leading to the second and third floors.

Corner room 2nd floor.
(Photo by Alison Reynolds)

With a total of only eight hotel rooms, The American Hotel is truly boutique, exceptionally special, and unencumbered by pretense; a reinvented gem of the past brought to life in the 21st century.

Each room has been decorated and furnished with antiques and sumptuous bedding, high ceilings over patterned wallpaper, and the distinct feeling of walking into a luxury hotel in the 1890’s.

That 19th century feel gives the hotel its sense of history and effortless charm.

The restaurant, under the guidence of Chef Jonathan Parker, delivers classic French cuisine with a nouveau twist. It emphasizes fresh, farm-to-table ingredients, exquisitely fresh seafood, and a gastronomic flair that elevates dinner to fine, culinary art.

Add to that an extraordinary 30,000-bottle wine list,  personally curated by Conklin over the decades and celebrated by Wine Spectator magazine as one of the finest in the worlld, and you have a singularly fabulous dining experience.

Sag Harbor’s history dates back to the Revolutionary War. It was a principle harbor for whaling ships when the original hotel was built in 1845.

It was a working class town, and those roots are still apparent in many of the restored houses that line its streets.

But now the main street is filled with tourist drawing quaint shops, antique stores including Black Swan Antiques, boutiques and restaurants.

The pace of life is cosmopolitan but understated, sophisticated but neighborly.

Herman Melville mentions Sag Harbor prominently in Moby Dick. John Steinbeck spent many years here. Kurt Vonnegut was a longtime resident, and famed cartoonist Gahan Wilson still makes his home here.

This literary heritage is prominent at Harbor Books, owned by Conklin’s close friend Taylor Berry, just across the street from the American Hotel.

Berry’s vibrant store sells both great literature and specialty teas. Her store is an homage to books classic and modern, and a great place to lose yourself for an afternoon.

Life on the water is still part of Sag Harbor and Conklin also owns a beautiful, 74-foot motor launch, the America, from the same company that built FDR’s presidential yacht Sequoia. It is a lovely piece of Americana, filled with polished wood and plush furnishings, a sophisticated classic.

Conklin sometimes throws a cocktail party on the yacht before dinner at the hotel, a chance for guests to meet him and enjoy a civilized pause at the end of the day.

The sun begins to set as the evening begins with a cocktail party on the yacht America. (Photo by Alison Reynolds)

The America summers in Sag Harbor and winters in Palm Beach, and is available for exceptional charters year round.

Walking over from the yacht berth through town to the restaurant is a reminder of just how intertwined this small town is with its community, all but a stone’s throw from each other, all encompassing within its own space.

A grand dinner for 12 in the front room of The American Hotel.
(Photo by Alison Reynolds)

Dinner parties are set in the front of the dining room, just off the porch. For those lucky enough to join the big table, it’s more than dinner at a fine restaurant. It is a night out with Ted and his entourage in his restaurant, the stuff of Conklin legend brought to life.

Tonight’s dinner includes Conklin’s childhood friend, Denver Post newsman Bill Husted, Taylor Berry from Harbor Books and her husband, Ted’s friend Susie, and the energy of a thousand nights spent in revelry across the decades.

Chef Jonathan Parker creates an evening of exquisite cuisine.
(Photo by Alison Reynolds)

The night begins with platters of brilliantly fresh shellfish, cherry stone clams, oysters, and exquisite shrimp cocktail, served along with the first flights of wine from the never ending cellar.

Chef Parker pulls out all the stops with a stunning array of dishes. Crab cakes ala Moutarde are particularly exceptional, and fresh Scottish salmon with black truffle vinaigrette and sautéed wild mushrooms is a delightful taste treat.

From the spectacular Long Island Peking Duck ala Montmorency to the exquisite crisp veal sweetbreads ala Grenobloise, to the brace of quail with wild rice, he creates a fabulous culinary wonderland with a decidedly French accent.

The evening roars by in a three-hour cacophony of mutually joyous conversation, exceptional food, fine wine, and outrageously entertaining company.

It is more a soiree than a dinner, but it completely encapsulates what Conklin has been creating at The American Hotel for 45 years. It’s not so much a scene as a family, less a restaurant and more a community institution.

It is, in short, a classy gathering place for the grand and the casually humble, curious wayfarers and the glitterati, long time companions and new earnest friends; the collective spirit from a continuum of energy unabated across the decades.

The magic of the front porch at The American Hotel. (Photo by Alison Reynolds)

On the front porch, diners are absorbing a beautiful summer night amongst storied columns, when an old friend and photo editor turned agent, Janice Moses runs into CDN’s photographer, Alison Reynolds.

Through the sheer serendipity of time and place, and the magic of the front porch continuing unimpeded, they are reunited 35 years after working together at Playboy in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Turns out she keeps a place in Shelter Island across the bay.

A small group retires to smoke cigars in the street, a sense of serenity reigns, and the evening comes to a close all too soon, but already it feels like The American Hotel is home in Sag Harbor.

The search for authenticity and single minded spirit in the world is one of the most elusive and treasured qualities to be found, and one of the rarest.

Ted Conklin has bottled that spirit here at The American Hotel, and if you are lucky enough to come experience it, then you just might find that spirit inside yourself, if you don’t find it on the wine list first.

If you plan to go:

The American Hotel
49 Main Street
Sag Harbor, NY 11963

(631) 725-353

Joel Berliner is a travel writer based in Los Angeles. @JoelBerliner
All Photos by Alison Reynolds @BigAlPeoplesPal

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Joel Berliner

Joel Berliner is a travel writer based in Los Angeles who has written for The Washington Times, Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Chicago Tribune, Honolulu Advertiser, El Paso Times, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, among many other publications. He is excited to be here at CDN, where along with his wife, photographer extraordinaire Alison Reynolds, they will travel the globe in order to bring you The Good Life.