We’ll always love Long Island’s South Fork―where the Hamptons are―but this fall we’re craving the North Fork’s gourmet comfort food, cozy inns, and off-season price.

By Carolynn Carreo
October 26, 2009
Tara Donne

It’s a question people have been asking on the North Fork for years, when yet another bistro opens or a B&B debuts. Is this low-key community, which has sustained itself on farming and fishing since the 17th century, on its way to becoming its counterpart, the South Fork, better known as the Hamptons?

Ten years ago, the North Fork―a collection of 11 small towns on the 30-mile peninsula at the northeastern tip of Long Island―was marked by dying agriculture. But in the past several years, as many city-dwellers have decamped New York to open restaurants, inns, and wineries, the North Fork has developed into something more than just the anti-Hamptons. It’s now a tight-knit community of trendsetters with a distinctly quirky, sophisticated style, where words like “seasonal” and “sustainable” are de rigueur.

Visit during autumn and you can expect fewer crowds and lower hotel rates than during peak times. But money aside, it’s simply the best time to visit the North Fork. Once the summer bustle has died down, what is left is sprawling fields peppered by small villages, farm stands, stylish hotels, stellar restaurants, and wineries. Lots and lots of wineries.

North Fork became an official foodie destination in 2006, when Manhattan restaurant celebs Claudia Fleming, who won a James Beard Award for Best Pastry Chef in 2000 at the Gramercy Tavern, and Gerry Hayden, formerly chef of the four-star Aureole, opened The North Fork Table and Inn (57225 Main Road, Southold; 631/765-0177 or northforktableandinn.com). The elegant country restaurant lures many patrons from the Hamptons. Repeat visitors find it hard to resist the restaurant’s tasting menu that might include roasted baby beets with local goat cheese, pan-roasted Long Island duck breast, and a chocolate caramel tart or upside-down caramelized apple tart. After a meal like that, guests can only hope they booked one of the four pretty, crisply appointed rooms.

Expect the unexpected at The Frisky Oyster (27 Front Street, Greenport; 631/477-4265 or thefriskyoyster.com). The menu at this seafood joint, within a Greenport storefront, depends on what the chef finds on the farm truck that unloads its produce in a nearby parking lot. What you can count on getting in the candlelit room, whimsically decorated with framed prints of exotic sea creatures, is specialty cocktails and an inventive menu with dishes such as Oysters Friskasella (a take on oysters Rockefeller with spinach, parmesan, and chipotle), crispy calamari, rib-eye steak frites, and pan-seared sea scallops with local beets and fennel-horseradish vinaigrette. If you can’t get a reservation, no worries. This year, the same owner opened F.O.B. (136 Front Street; 631/477-6720 or friskybar.com). The name stands for Frisky Oyster Bar, and the casual restaurant serves familiar and tasty fare: crab cakes, fried chicken, and a house burger.

Since opening as a retail store in 1974, Bruce’s Cheese Emporium and Café (208 Main Street, Greenport; 631/477-0023) has evolved into a full-service café that is the place to go for breakfast and lunch. The bustling local spot, within a historic downtown building, turns out omelets, French toast, and sandwiches (some named after Grateful Dead songs) in a crowded room where shelves are filled with groceries and old village photos cover the walls.

The Southhampton institution The Village Cheese Shop closed this year, but life goes on for the North Fork incarnation (105 Love Lane, Mattituck; 631/298-8556 or thevillagecheeseshop.com). Inside the brick storefront you’ll find a broad selection of gourmet products and cheeses. Perhaps an even better idea on a chilly afternoon is to sit at one of the café tables and choose from fondues, including traditional Swiss, Normandy, Italian, and Spanish, as well as a selection of North Fork wines by the glass.

The communal table at the center of Love Lane Kitchen (240 Love Lane, Mattituck; 631/298-8989 or lovelanekitchen.com) symbolizes what this restaurant is all about: community and good old-fashioned hospitality. The local favorite has a vintage-country look and an owner, Mike Avella, who scours area farms for the best they have to offer. The menu, written on a giant chalkboard, offers a mix of market-driven fare that includes duck tagine and weekly crespelle (savory crepes) specials and daily pasta specials.

No matter that it’s directly across the street from Starbucks, Aldo’s (103–105 Front Street, Greenport; 631/477-6300), has had a loyal following since the 1970s―and usually a line out the door. As stellar as the house-roasted coffee beans and artfully pulled espresso are here (and try the house-baked biscotti), for many Aldo’s devotees, the draw is equally for owner Aldo Maiorana, known for his wild shock of white hair, white bandana tied around his neck, and, let’s say, unpredictable temperament.

As the days get shorter and colder, the appeal of a place like the Jedediah Hawkins Inn (400 South Jamesport Avenue, Jamesport, rates from $250 per night; 631/722-2900 or jedediahhawkinsinn.com), in an 1860s Victorian mansion in Jamesport, becomes even greater. The stately inn was meticulously restored in 2004 and now has gas fireplaces and flat-screens in each room.

Smack in the middle of a vineyard, Shinn Estate Farmhouse (2000 Oregon Road, Mattituck, rates from $149 per night; 631/804-0367 or shinnfarmhouse.com), built in 1880, was also recently restored. After a peaceful night in one of the four guest rooms, each of which has miles-long views, awake to a breakfast of homemade duck sausage with a cream biscuit, tomato gravy, and soft scrambled eggs. You’ll never look at a B&B the same way again.

In 2001, the North Fork got its first boutique hotel, The Greenporter Hotel (326 Front Street, Greenport, rates from $109 per night; 631/477-0066 or thegreenporter.com), a 30-room, 1950s-era motor lodge redone in modern, minimalist style and offering such luxuries as Frette linens.

A sprawling 19th-century home on Peconic Bay with formal gardens and a private beach and dock, Harbor Knoll (424 Fourth Street, Greenport, rates from $200 per night; 631/477-2352 or harborknoll.com) is picture perfect. The B&B with four rooms plus freestanding cottage is a short walk to the center of Greenport. But with a Prohibition-era bar, communal library, and harbor views everywhere you turn, it’s hard to imagine you will ever want to leave.

The same attention to detail that makes The North Fork Table and Inn (57225 Main Road, Southold, rates from $275 per night; 631/765-0177 or northforktableandinn.com) an exceptional place to eat also applies to its accommodations. The four upstairs rooms in this old Colonial house, painted in pretty, muted paint colors, offer an ideal combination of elegant and comfortable.

Want to settle in, perhaps for an unforgettable Thanksgiving? The North Fork has an array of vacation rentals (631/899-0613 or corcoran.com). Fall offers great deals on “summer” rentals: A waterfront three-bedroom beach house that runs $18,500 a month in August could be yours for $8,000 or less in November. Other homes might be just $2,000.

Visit the White Flower Farm House (2845 Peconic Lane, Peconic; 631/765-2353 or whiteflowerfarmhouse.com), a furniture, garden, and pretty-things store, for vintage French linens, rustic garden furniture, apothecary bottles, ironstone ceramics, antique wicker baskets, and anything else you might need back home to achieve the laidback, urban-meets-country style of the North Fork. Then step next door to A Taste of the North Fork (2885 Peconic Lane, Peconic; 631/765-8760 or atasteofthenorthfork.com), a small shop showcasing local coffee, vinegars, jellies, jams, and pickles.

For many Manhattanites, a stop at Briermere Farms (4414 Sound Avenue, Riverhead; 631/722-3931 or briermere.com) to pick up one―at least―of its famous fresh-baked pies is a weekly ritual. You’ll see why when you enter the shop by a screened door and see the lattice-topped, crumb-topped, and golden, buttery, double-crust pies stacked on shelves. A blackboard announces the selections. It’s a warm slice of the good life, à la mode.

What began as a personal passion for a few has developed into a respectful winemaking region in recent years. With roughly 50 wine producers and 40 tasting rooms open to the public, there’s a lot for the oenophile to get excited about in North Fork. Long Island Wine Council (longislandwinecouncil.com) provides a complete list and a map of area wineries.

North Fork is perhaps best known as a wine region for its Merlots. Standouts include those by Shinn Estate, Paumanok, and Lenz (shinnestatevineyards.com, paumanok
.com, and lenzwine.com). Castello di Borghese (castellodiborghese.com), the oldest winery in the area, founded in 1973, has received numerous accolades and awards for its wines, including Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Meritage, and Chardonnay.

Published November 2009