Giving it away just to get them in

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’Tis the season for giving. Or, as the East End restaurant business approach to the economic crisis seems to suggest, the season for giving away food.

With wallets tough to pry open these days—and not much in them when you do—it seems as though nearly every bar east of the canal has become a pseudo soup kitchen for the bar crowd. Free eats are the way to get a crowd to belly up these days, and since dining out is suffering from a serious case of the Wall Streets, the speed racks may be the only place restaurateurs will find their profits this winter.

The return of the 10-cent wing was long overdue. This staple of bar specials just about everywhere else had been absent from a good bar out here since Riffz closed 10 years ago. Now it’s back at Townline BBQ in Sagaponack pretty much every day during the happy hour stretch (which may be a bit of overkill, frankly—why not just pick one day to draw in the crowd and leave some for the others?).

While 10-cent wings are virtually free, Cittanuova in East Hampton Village can of course brag that they’ve been giving away wings to Monday Night Football patrons for a couple of years now and Nichols and Rowdy Hall have long been plopping down platters of them, gratis, at Friday happy hours.

The best of the bargain eats? The great free mini-burgers at The Lodge (Wednesday and Fridays), 25-cent sliders at Townline, and the piles of free appetizers spread on the bar at Grappa in Sag Harbor. And I’m sure these specials will expand as winter settles in and other restaurant owners spy the crowds filling bar stools and running up tabs at those places opting to give something back.

The good bar crowd and good reviews of the food at Grappa don’t appear as though they’ll be enough to save Ed “Jean Luc” Kleefield’s empire. From the sound of things, the somewhat goofy and gregarious owner seems to have vanished into the ether as some of the dinner plates he’s been spinning have clattered to the floor.

The old JL East, re-dubbed Prime 103 (spurring lawsuits from the owners of the Prime steakhouses in NYC, which can’t have helped the bottom line) was a total bust over the summer. The nightclub planned for the back room never got off the ground. Madam Tongs had its usual jam-packed late-night scene a couple of nights a week, but was a ghost town the rest of the time. JLX Bistro somehow stayed open despite some of the most offensive service and food I’ve witnessed in a restaurant out here in decades. That won’t last. Grappa was the lone bright spot with good food and good crowd.

Nobody said that running even a single restaurant on the East End was easy. And Jean Luc has four.

I also hear that Pacific East owner Aram Sabet has until March to get the restaurant sold or reopened or the property could lose its special exception restaurant use. The parcel is zoned for residential development only, but the restaurant was grandfathered in. Even so, if the place is closed for 18 months it will lose that exemption, East Hampton building inspector Don Sharkey told a Press reporter recently.

Sabet tells me the restaurant was “open” this past fall while Barry Sonnenfeld was filming his HBO pilot around town. There were some scenes shot there and the crew used the restaurant as its cafeteria, says Aram, who has the Pac East property on the market for $6.5 million while he battles in court with his former partner and chef Michael Castino over the rights to the building. From the way things seem to be shaking out, it doesn’t sound like the craft services biz for film crews necessarily will get the place off the zoning hook.

Maybe Sam Talbot, apparently now the former chef of Surf Lodge in Montauk, will be available for a short stint while he figures out what the heck he’s doing with his career. The one-time “Top Chef” runner-up got decent food reviews at Surf Lodge this summer and since it closed in September has been rumored to have taken on about six different chef gigs in the big city. Most recently he supposedly scrubbed in at Scarpetta (which, coincidentally, is replacing another Hamptons-hint restaurant: Gin Lane). If he flakes out on that gig, maybe the always creative Sabet could have a winter celebrity chef showdown pitting Sammy against K-Grease and Fat Ralph.

Speaking of almost-celebrity chefs, if you were watching the episode of the current season of “Top Chef” when they brought in the applicants who didn’t make the final cut for the show, you might have spied no less than four local line guys.

Have a Merry Christmas everyone. Eat well.

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