It was 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, and George Fahrbach, the 23-year veteran bartender at John Duck Jr.’s in Southampton Village, was sitting on the wrong side of the bar, contemplating life on the unemployment line.
In the kitchen, John and Mark Westerhoff, who’d run their iconic family-owned restaurant since 1995, were brushing away tears as they cooked their last batch of duck dinners.
After placing the property on the market a year ago, the brothers had reached an agreement late last week to lease the North Main Street building with an option to buy to Jean Koster, owner of the Clamman seafood market, who plans to reopen the building as a catering hall. Ms. Koster could not be reached for comment.
By the time the restaurant closed its doors Sunday night, John Duck Jr.’s 22 employees, many of whom had met and married while on the job there, would all be out of work.
Elizabeth Westerhoff, Mark’s wife, walked into the kitchen, looked around at her family and shook her head. “They’re lost,” she said. “They’re going to be so lost.”
It was a sudden end to the life of a restaurant that was noted for celebrity sightings, duck dinners and good, old-fashioned German and American comfort food since its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.
The family-owned restaurant traces its roots to a restaurant opened in 1918 by the brothers’ great-grandfather, John Westerhoff. Dubbed John Westerhoff’s Eastport Restaurant and Traveler’s Rest, the restaurant relocated to Jobs Lane in Southampton Village in the late 1930s under the direction of the founder’s son, Ben Westerhoff. In 1946, it moved to its existing location on North Main Street.
The Westerhoff brothers purchased the restaurant from their uncle, Roger Westerhoff, in 1995, keeping most of the staple dishes that had been on the menu since the eatery moved to its final location in 1946. But as the East End scene became more trendy, John Westerhoff said tearfully on Sunday that his restaurant couldn’t keep up.
“We had all the people that work for the rich folks—bankers, plumbers,” he said. “We couldn’t reinvent ourselves to be a place for the summer people, because we’re not that kind of people.”
Throughout Sunday afternoon, members of the Westerhoffs’ extended family stopped by to pay their respects and remember the restaurant’s glory days. It was an abrupt end to careers that, for some of the staff, had lasted their entire working lives. The Westerhoffs had reached an agreement to lease the premises only a few days before Sunday’s closing.
“We feel bad about it, but there’s nothing we can do,” said Mark Westerhoff, adding that he’d relied on loans to keep the business afloat and would be looking for a new job by Monday along with his staff. Still, he said he thought it might be better to close the business quickly than to prolong the pain. “I’d rather have a heart attack and fall over than be in the hospital for months,” he said.
Out at the bar, Rose North was serving up drinks to a tight-knit group of longtime residents and friends of the Westerhoff family, many of whom were downing shots to ease the pain of losing their second home.
Mr. Fahrbach was commiserating with his biggest fan, a man who said his name was “Kamikaze” and who said that the bartender made the best kamikazes in the world.
“He has a long Polish name. You’d never understand it,” said Mr. Fahrbach, shifting a drink stirrer and a napkin around on the bar. He looked up at “Kamikaze” and said, “They want me to buy a bar. I’m 75 years old—I’m too old to buy a bar.”
Terri Westerhoff was reminiscing about the winter days when kids would sled down the hill in front of the restaurant before coming inside for hot chocolate. Late those same nights, the waitresses would sled down the hill themselves on their serving trays.
The closing of John Duck Jr.’s will have a ripple effect on village life, evidence of its community involvement. There will be no more coleslaw, hamburgers and beer at the foot of the hill in a tent during the Fourth of July parade. The firemen, Rotarians and Lions Club members who routinely met at John Duck Jr.’s might stay on at the catering hall, but no one’s had time to make plans.
“This was the place to be when Southampton was very innocent,” said North Sea Lions Club President Bob Beck, as he joined Mr. Fahrbach for a drink. “Each bar has its own personality. We had blue collar workers, white collar workers, the rich and famous from Gin Lane. That was part of the fun of it.”
Dave Griffin, a regular customer and Southampton native, has been coming to John Duck Jr.’s his entire life. “It still is a nice house, a nice crowd,” he said as his eyes welled with tears. “It hurts,” he said, holding a fist up to his heart.
Roger Westerhoff, who’s something of a patriarch in this crowd, heard Mr. Griffin’s comments as he took a seat at the bar and ordered a draft beer. “This was a classy place!” he said. “Elizabeth Taylor and Woody Allen were regular customers. We had all sorts of big shots in this place.”
At the other end of the bar, members of another group of patrons were becoming misty-eyed.
“My family’s been coming here for 60 years. My mom and dad had their wedding reception here,” said Josephine O’Brien, who had joined her friends at the bar for one last drink. “It’s kind of like a funeral.”