Day One, 3pm
The first thing you notice when you get off the bus and arrive in Montauk, New York is the air. Sweet, salty, breezy; it’s a far cry from the choking smog that engulfs nearby Manhattan. It’s immediately clear as to why New Yorkers have been flocking to the Hamptons for a century; the trade-up from getting wafted in the face with a honking truck’s exhaust complimented with a nearby overflowing garbage pail compared to the smell of the beach is beyond comprehension.
I’m here in Montauk to explore a summer unlike any other during an age unlike any other, an earth-shaking time in our history that seems like hyperbole; but then again, no amount of hyperbole could begin to describe just how bizarre our current reality is. On a typically beautiful day, the summer crowd would only be flaunting a pair of sunglasses, slather of suntan lotion or one of those comically beach hats on their respective sun-kissed heads. Today however, like a twisted version of The Handmaid’s Tale, the residents and tourists of Montauk walking up the town’s main drag are slapped in masks with few exceptions. It’s all for good reason, and is the first of many signs that, wish as we did it wasn’t so, this isn’t your ordinary summer.
It was about 15 years after the last pandemic that Ruschmeyers (located at the appropriately named 2nd House Road), was first built and originally served as a dance hall, restaurant and hotel that presumably roared for exactly two years before, well, that whole Great Depression thing. Since then, it’s been everything from a staff house to a summer camp. Today, true to the style of the Hamptons, it’s a chic motel with an outdoor, distanced food and beverage program catering to out-of-towners with deep pockets (think Lobster Rolls overflowing with freshly cracked lobster) and an even bigger thirst.
Case in point: it’s rosé selection. If you want to blow your state unemployment check, order a 1.5 liter of Vievit Magnum for a cool $300. If that’s not enough for you, your Pandemic Unemployment Assistance check should cover the Double Magnum for $600. And if you just got laid off and really need to blow off steam, the 6L Macari Methuselah should do the trick for only $1,250. But in these wild times, that might not still be enough for you. If that’s the case, throw caution to the wind and spend a couple month’s rent on the Macri Nebuchadnezzar, Ruschmeyer’s 15 liter bottle of rosé that sells for $3,000. (Hey, you can always AirBnB your place back home). I asked Director of Operations Enzo Lentini, a Long Island hospitality veteran, if they even sell and he replied with perhaps the understatement of the year: “There’s a lot of wealth in the Hamptons.” Okay, then. “When some younger people are here, they want to splurge a bit, that’s when those bottles sell. But do we sell one every day? No. But if you don’t have them, you can’t sell them.”
Ruschmeyer’s restaurant and bar was formerly known as Etiquette, a party pop-up that would have overtaken the property’s outdoor space and would have been great literally any other time in the past hundred years. But because this isn’t your typical season, Etiquette couldn’t be its raging, crowded self and Ruschmeyers is now handling food and beverage on its own, all outdoors and socially distanced, trading mindless vodka-soda guzzling for some rich and energizing sips of its Espresso Martini. “When Etiquette ended, it gave the impression that (the whole property) closed,” says Lentini, noting that it was obviously not the vibe a business would want. But as Lentini explains, it hasn’t been too hard to get the word out otherwise. “This summer is busier than past summers because everyone left the city. I think they’ll remain here as close to Thanksgiving, probably.” And with that, the concept of a Thanksgiving Lobster is born.
Day Two, 10am
Waking up in Ruschmeyer’s stark white rooms and walking into its grassy courtyard as the sun rises is pure serenity; a respite from the madness that not even a tweet from the President could derail. It gives the impression of a quaint Catskill Mountain getaway; but if Ruschmeyer’s is country-like, our next stop, the Montauk Beach House, is pure Miami. Steps away from the beach, its bright, airy rooms (with names like “Ocean Mist”) surround a chic pool full of a fashionable clientele who do yoga in the morning and relax at nearby tables for food and drinks, once again entirely outdoors, safely distanced and masked when necessary. Its bar program, the mastermind of another hospitality veteran in the form of Nik Jablanovic, is available all day. This afternoon, a plastic cup of hard JuneShine brand Kombucha screams quintessential Hamptons: organic, gluten free, low ABV. Cheers.
Even though it’s a Thursday afternoon, nearby Montauk Beach is teaming with people. And even though winds are whipping and the masses are safely separated from each other, there are just as many garish beach blankets as there are masks, giving extra emphasis as to why the Hamptons has turned into a Covid-oasis: a nature getaway where you can actually feel comfortable that everyone is following the proverbial rules. As I notice fins bobbing up and down in the water in the distance, I can’t help but imagine what it’d be like to be a seal or dolphin during these times. On one hand: no viruses, no politics, no taxes. On the other hand: sharks!
Back at The Montauk Beach House, I’m having a masked conversation with Nik who is going over his cocktail menu. From hearing the ins and outs of his concoctions, it’s no doubt a labor of love. Jablanovic used to work more in nightlife, at places like The Standard. “But then I was like, I don’t want to be pouring vodka sodas at 5am anymore,” he explains. He also has a vast Hamptons pedigree and knows full well what sells. (For example, dark spirits decidedly don’t, and Frozen Pina Coladas is the new Frose.) “You have to think about how when people (are on vacation here) they want refreshing drinks, clear spirits and flavors.”
As a result, he points to a cocktail dubbed The Jamie. “We have Belvedere Ginger, and I was thinking to just add a little more ginger and a touch of lemon and mint to give it a little freshness. It’s a perfect summer drink.” Meanwhile, his cocktail Call an Uber was originally made with dark spirits before he says he “freshened it up” for the Hamptons crowd. “You have vodka, Saint Germain, a little lemon juice, a little blackberry puree, mint and Bitter Truth Falernum. I use Bitter Truth because it has notes of almond, ginger zest, lime and lemongrass. It’s a little more complex and adds more flavor.”
Another clear sign that life is different this year is no longer are there all-night bashes, as The Montauk Beach house stops serving cocktails 11pm on weekends and 10pm other nights. As a result, I find myself walking under moonglow on the beach in preparation for my last sleep here. Bonfires burn in the distance and I smell the ocean air along with the crackle of wood. It’s another safe activity during this time of Covid-19, and proves that while life is no doubt different, that doesn’t always mean it’s worse either.