“Guys, give it up for our first bingo winner!” whoops Zach Bliss, the host at the 1950s-themed Electric Eel lounge. I am in the Hamptons, on Long Island, but a world away from the prim yachting, golfing and tennis club scene of popular imagination. The Electric Eel is part of Ruschmeyer’s, a revamped motel that, since opening last year in the village of Montauk, has become a sort of summer camp for hip New Yorkers, and Thursday night bingo is the week’s key social event. The prize is a song on a ukulele and a kitsch, choreographed rendition of I’ve Had the Time of My Life by the bar staff.
The End, as Montauk is known because of its situation at the easternmost point of Long Island, is the least developed of New York’s beach resorts and its sleepy, traditional charms have long been cherished by surfers and residents eager to remain apart from the high-spending summer society that colonises much of the Hamptons. Instead of the chichi shops of main street Southampton – Montauk’s upmarket cousin along the coast – there are avenues of grey shingle summer houses, and miles of sand dunes and seagrass. But things are changing.
Ruschmeyer’s is part of a wave of cool new hotels, bars and restaurants to wash up in Montauk. This process began in earnest with the opening of the Surf Lodge in 2008. With 32 bohemian bedrooms, a bar, a waterfront restaurant, live music, open-air lounges, a fashionable swimwear shop and hammocks slung from the balconies, it began to draw a new generation of New York trend-seekers.
“Up until then everything else in Montauk had been very traditional and middle of the road,” says Robert McKinley, who designed Surf Lodge and co-owns Ruschmeyer’s, over a jalapeno-spiced watermelon cocktail at the bingo night. “I built it as my dream summer home, a kind of clubhouse for my friends and also people in the community. The aesthetic was ‘beach modern’ – we collected tonnes of driftwood for months.”
I had begun the evening ordering oysters and a glass of prosecco at Crow’s Nest, watching children fit for a Ralph Lauren catalogue frolic on the lush green lawns that slope down to the water. A former dive spruced up by Sean MacPherson, owner of New York’s Bowery hotel, the white clapboard inn has 14 rooms with nautical touches and ethnic art, a large deck and a restaurant.
Flat and largely traffic-free, Montauk is accommodating to those who want to explore by bike. A short ride away, Moby Dick’s is a new beach shack created by Lincoln Pilcher and Nick Hatsatouris, the Australian restaurateurs behind Ruby’s in New York and Eveleigh in Hollywood. A blackboard menu offers wood-fired pizza, just-caught fish, seafood pasta and salads of purslane, peaches and toasted pistachios. The three regulars behind me barely scan the menu before concluding that the sensible option is to order each one of the nine dishes to share. With blue-and-white-striped cushions, and tables and benches right on the sand, it feels more Caribbean castaway than white-hot nightspot on this Thursday evening but it has been so successful that there are rumours of bedrooms being added in time for next season.
Not everyone is pleased by these new establishments and the clientele they attract. Fearing the arrival of privilege and exclusivity familiar in other parts of the Hamptons, some locals have even gone so far as to erect “Save Montauk” posters showing a red cross through a fedora, favoured headgear of the stereotypical New York hipster. The critics point to the arrival of valet parking and doormen at some establishments, as well as menus geared to the rich.
Offering $27 lobster rolls, and with a private pool club commanding a $600 a month membership fee, the Montauk Beach House is very much part of the village’s new scene. Another reinvention of an old motel, it opened in July with a distinctly European atmosphere: chill-out music, billowing white muslin curtains, and 120 daybeds by the two pools (where weekend parties have included DJ sets from Mark Ronson and Paul Oakenfold). Signs for the “loo” and quirks such as “Keep Calm and Carry On” shower curtains in the bedrooms betray proprietor Chris Jones’s British roots.
“It’s right in the centre of town but as soon as you walk into its lobby you don’t feel like you’re in Montauk any more,” shrugs a bemused surfer I talk to later.
Local newspapers and bloggers have made much of the row between hipsters and locals but, during my stay, angst is hard to find – the atmosphere feels easygoing with second-generation families drinking alongside out-of-towners. And, anyway, gentrification is nothing new – in the mid-1920s industrialist Carl Fisher had plans to develop the village into the “Miami of the north”. The grand Montauk Manor hotel, Montauk Yacht Club and Gurney’s Inn are souvenirs from that era but the Great Depression put paid to Fisher’s grand plan.
The truth is that Montauk today has something of a split-personality – where one side throws on the same old surf T-shirt, and the other is a glossy, groomed alter-ego that slinks in to see and be seen on summer weekends. Visitors can choose the personality they prefer – come midweek or outside the peak summer months and there will be little sign of the “scene”. The miles of sand dunes are the same as they ever were, just punctuated now by the occasional chic restaurant.
Down by the bustling harbour, I find Swallow East, another of this summer’s new arrivals, where chef James Tchinnis is lovingly creating tapas-style dishes of asparagus fries, beer-steamed clams and moreish tacos. “It’s on the docks, and we wanted to bring that feeling inside,” says Zach Bliss, who as well as being the Electric Eel’s bingo caller is the designer behind the restaurant and bar’s colourful interior and outdoor seating area. Weathered wood was brought from upstate New York, the ceiling was modelled after old lobster traps.
“The trick was making it feel as though it had been here for years, while giving Montauk a breath of fresh air,” says Tchinnis. “The locals and people who live out here are nervous about change – and I get that. Residents are fussy about who joins this quaint little town. Sure, during the high season every night is busy – but that influx is also what makes Montauk what it is.”
Crow’s Nest, www.crowsnestmtk.com
Moby Dick’s, www.mobydicksmontauk.com
Montauk Beach House, www.thembh.com
Surf Lodge, www.thesurflodge.com
Swallow East, www.swalloweastrestaurant.com