It’s not often that a restaurant gets to celebrate its 25th anniversary, according to Mark Smith, co-owner of East Hampton’s Nick & Toni’s.The iconic restaurant, a magnet for celebrities and Hamptonites alike, won’t throw a party this year to celebrate its history. Instead, classic Nick & Toni’s dishes that appeared on the menu over the years are back, and a percentage of all sales will go to local food pantries in Springs and East Hampton.
In April, the restaurant on North Main Street wrapped up a hefty renovation, updating the space just in time for its anniversary.
“It’s a tremendous accomplishment for any restaurant to survive under the same ownership for 25 years,” Mr. Smith said on Friday. “Anniversaries are a weird thing—some guys don’t like to celebrate for a multitude of reasons. But this is sort of a way to mark time and think back to all the people, staff and customers who have helped make Nick & Toni’s what it is today.”
The featured anniversary dishes span across Nick & Toni’s early years, from 1988 to 1995, with recipes like steamed mussels with white wine and garlic, and warm white bean salad with arugula, shaved red onion and Grana Padano cheese.
According to Mr. Smith, Nick & Toni’s is known for its simple recipes, which are very ingredient-focused—a style of food that stems from co-owner Toni Ross’s and late husband Jeff Salaway’s experience living in Italy, where they first met.
When the two got married and decided to start a family, they moved to East Hampton and wanted to open a restaurant that mirrored the atmosphere and Italian dining experience they so loved.
Mr. Smith, who entered the picture 19 years ago as assistant manager for Nick & Toni’s, said the business blossomed over the years because of the personal relationships the staff cultivates with a lot of its customers—a characteristic that both Ms. Ross and Mr. Salaway nurtured from the get-go.
“Jeff was the impresario, the front person, and he enjoyed creating the best, in the food sense, and in ambiance,” Mr. Smith said, noting that for years the restaurant used children’s drawings for check presentation. “Some of the kids who did check presenters when they were 9 are now 34 and they’re coming here with their children. It’s sort of nice to see.”
Mr. Smith said people feel comfortable at Nick & Toni’s, especially its celebrity clientele, which has included faces like Tom Hanks, Nora Ephron and Billy Joel.
Ms. Ross’s father, Steven J. Ross, the former chairman of Time Warner, often brought his famous friends to the restaurant, which is what drew other celebrities in the first place. “Over the years, even after his death [in 1992] and throughout, celebrities still came here,” Mr. Smith said. “We try not to treat them any differently than everybody else. We respect the fact that they want to have dinner with friends and families. Certainly, it’s an element that a lot of people are attracted to. It’s a plus, but for us we hope it’s what we do rather than who we do it for.”
Mr. Smith said that running the Honest Man Group—which owns Nick & Toni’s and Rowdy Hall in East Hampton, La Fondita in Amagansett, Townline BBQ in Wainscott and Nick & Toni’s Cafe in Manhattan—has been a dream come true.
In the early 1990s, Mr. Smith left the hosiery business and dove right into the restaurant business.
“When you move out to a place like this it’s either restaurants or real estate, and I picked restaurants, and there certainly wasn’t a restaurant like Nick & Toni’s on the East End of Long Island at that time,” he said. “I wrote Jeff a letter describing what I wanted to do, and he hired me as assistant manager.”
When O’Malley’s on Main Street closed in East Hampton, Mr. Salaway and Mr. Smith partnered up to open Rowdy Hall and later the Honest Diner, which has since closed, plus La Fondita and Nick & Toni’s Cafe in Manhattan.
Executive Chef Joe Realmuto joined Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton as a line cook three years before Mr. Smith jumped into the business. “Now he’s family,” Mr. Smith said. “He’s passionate, a really giving person, and he’s got a great temperament for the kitchen. The restaurant business is a very demanding business, and for me and for the people in the business out here, we do it because we’re passionate about it or have the service gene.”
Tragedy struck in 2001, when Mr. Salaway died in a car accident on Labor Day weekend, which sent the community and restaurant staffers into a period of uncertainty about their jobs and the restaurants’ future.
“It was a very scary time for everybody,” Mr. Smith said. “He was very much the face of the restaurants. At the time, we had about 100 employees whose livelihoods depended on the restaurants. I had a greater sense of urgency to then build an organization that wasn’t dependent on any one person.”
Since then, Nick & Toni’s has continued to grow in reputation and in scope and has developed ties with local organizations, like the local food pantries, as well as farmers and fishermen. Not only does the restaurant have its own garden brimming with produce, but it has just signed on with Dock to Dish, a community-supported fishery that delivers freshly caught seafood on a weekly basis.
“With bounty between the sea and farmlands, it is nice to be able to know where your food comes from and to have a connection to it,” Mr. Smith said. “I’d like to think if Jeff were around he’d feel pretty good about the way things are going.”