AMAGANSETT, The Hamptons – Sometimes, there is neither room nor time for half measures. I'd promised my teenage daughter a brief (two-day, one-night) getaway in the interregnum between the end of her school year and the beginning of her tour of duty at summer camp. No airplane travel would be in the offing, for logistical and financial reasons; the destination would have to be driving distance from New York City. I had this oddly specific aesthetic vision of what I was after, too: blue hydrangeas, white beadboard, pale linens, hammocks, a huge lawn… a pastoralism so tidy that it would gently anesthetize two city-frazzled souls.
Remarkably, the Reform Club in Amagansett, New York, realized this vision exactly. I had never heard of the place, but when I happened upon its appealingly blue and white website, it was as if I'd conjured it to order. Yet this joyous frisson of precognition — I have found the inn of my destiny! — was soon mitigated by the Reform Club's rate card. In peak summer season, suites begin at $800 a night. Yikes. Plus, it is in the Hamptons.
I take no pleasure in disliking the Hamptons, for they are a beautiful set of villages: rolling aqua blue on one side of the sand, farm-country verdant on the other. If you grew up, as I did, going to the treeless beach towns of the Jersey shore, with their arid pebble yards and bungalows shoehorned within an inch of one another, it's a pleasant sensual shock to discover that the ocean can coexist with lush greenness and meadowy openness.
But, generally speaking, I do dislike the Hamptons, for the same clichéd reasons that most Hamptons-dislikers do: the oppressive traffic, the oppressive status-consciousness, the seasonal infusions of especially awful white people. Furthermore, the Hamptons are not known for their first-rate accomodations. There are the hipsterish Montauk places with nightclub scenes; there are the crazy-cat-lady B&Bs with draperies and breakfasts too heavy for the marine setting; and there are the mildewy Montauk Highway seaside motels that, I must admit, have their charms, but could hardly be described as first-rate. The best place to stay in the Hamptons is generally the place called "Your affluent friends' guest suite," but I didn't want to impose on anyone.
Still, for all the Hamptons unpleasantries catalogued above, I have a soft spot for Amagansett, a hamlet whose loveliness (almost) offsets the abrasive manners of the people who shop in its Eli Zabar-owned Farmers Market gourmet emporium — the only market in which I have ever been literally elbowed aside by a fellow customer. (Some guy in a polo shirt who urgently needed to reach the cash register before me.) And the Reform Club is in Amagansett. So I rationalized: We would be going midweek, when the town has a lower schmuck-to-civilian ratio; this was meant to be a special father-daughter trip; it was only one night; and the place looked perfect. Oh, the hell with it, here's my charge card.
It was a wise decision. The Reform Club is gorgeous. It has a large enclosed lawn bordered by blue hydrangeas. Casting her eyes upon this expanse of green, my daughter instinctively began to frolic: gamboling forward, hopping up and down, finally collapsing in a hammock. I felt like getting up in a tree like Julian Sands in the Merchant Ivory adaptation of A Room with a View and shouting “Beau-ty! Beau-ty!” Fortunately, especially given that I have an easily embarrassable girl, I restrained myself.
With all the intangibles and extras factored in, the Reform Club is actually, if you're traveling en famille, a good deal, if not remotely a cheap one. The inn, just north of the Montauk Highway on a small side street called Windmill Lane, is easy walking, biking, and driving distance from the beach, and its staff supplies you with all the equipment you need: large beach towels, beach chairs, umbrellas, sunscreen. If you feel like biking, the Reform Club has free bicycles and backpack-style beach chairs that you can carry with you. If you feel like driving, the inn supplies, free of charge, parking passes for nearby beaches — which, in the summer, are as valuable as Piemontese truffles in October.
My daughter and I were lazy enough to take advantage of an Atlantic Beach parking pass upon our arrival, but otherwise, we enjoyed a car-free and carefree existence during our short stay. For dinner, we ate well and inexpensively at the taqueria La Fondita, which is pretty much right across the street: fish tacos, soft-shell-crab tacos, and agua fresca on one of the picnic tables that surround the open, indoor-outdoor kitchen.
A short walk to the east is the year-old Amagansett location of my favorite Greenwich Village coffee joint, Jack's Stir Brew Coffee. Its owner, Jack Mazzola, had urged me to check it out. Whereas the Village location is a narrow storefront in a tenement building, the Amagansett version is loft-height and buoy-bedecked, a restrained version of the nautical-restaurant “Arr, matey” style. In the afternoons and evenings, Jack's morphs into an ice-cream parlor. It seems to have already become a busy, convivial anchor of the local community; not a single person elbowed me in the ribs while I was there.
The problem with staying in a scenically situated inn or hotel is that you never seem to have time enough to enjoy the rooms themselves. There are only seven suites in the Reform Club's main building, a multi-chimneyed house in the Nantucket shingle style. This ensures that the place stays quiet and that everyone has plenty of room. Our suite, like all the others, had a wood-burning fireplace, an absurdly large white-tiled bathroom, a flat-screen TV, and all the usual iPod- and WiFi-friendly jiggery-pokery that is required of high-end hostelries nowadays. The food nerd in me was pleased to see that each suite also comes with a Technivorm Moccamaster coffee maker, rated (as we insufferable food nerds know) the best of all automatic-drip coffee makers by Cook's Illustrated. Buy a bag of beans from Jack's and you're in business. There was also plenty of room in our suite for the second bed that the staff set up for my daughter — though, if you happen to be very wealthy and fertile, there are three private family-friendly cottages set behind the main building that run in the vicinity of $2,000 a night.
(Thankfully, the rates drop off towards borderline affordability in the autumn and winter, making a cool-weather escape enticing, especially given those fireplaces. Suites start at $500 per night in autumn and $375 in winter, while cottages start at, respectively, $1,200 and $925 in those seasons.)
The Reform Club, I learned, is only two years old, having formerly been the Mill Garth Inn before Randy Lerner, the billionaire owner of the Cleveland Browns football team, purchased it and spruced it up. (Lerner also owns the restaurant the Meeting House, which is set behind Jack's and will deliver to your Reform Club room if you prefer to dine in.) The day-to-day innkeepers are Erin Harris and Noelle Franey, who are earthy, friendly, and without snooty-hotelier airs.
I was delighted to learn that Noelle is the granddaughter of Pierre Franey, the great French chef, cookbook author, and recipe columnist for The New York Times. Though young Noelle was raised in New Hampshire, her presence confers upon the Reform Club a certain Hamptons-historical continuity. For it was on the bay side of East Hampton that her grandfather and his regular collaborator, the Times's legendary Craig Claiborne, owned houses and worked together to craft the recipes for their “60-Minute Gourmet” column: recipes that, as much as Julia Child's, inspired Americans to take on more ambitious, more French-inspired home cooking.
Noelle, though she attended the French Culinary Institute, isn't doing any cooking beyond the fresh-baked muffins that are part of the Reform Club's daily continental breakfast spread. She told me that she grew up knowing her grandfather was a chef, but only later, after his death in 1996, did she come to understand the breadth of his influence and achievement. Now, at the Reform Club, she's forging her own impressive path, present at the invention of something else great: the nicest, most civilized, most elbow-free place to stay in the Hamptons.
The Reform Club Inn
23 Windmill Lane
Amagansett, NY 11930