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Mar 14, 2016 3:07 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Locals Share Hampton Bays Diner Stories

A picture of the diner in Hampton Bays in the 1950s when it was operated out of a trailer. COURTESY OF THE HAMPTON BAYS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Mar 15, 2016 1:03 PM

The abrupt closing of the Hampton Bays Diner last summer marked the end of a longtime family business—and it signaled the end of a culinary era.When Frank and Maria Vlahadamis closed the diner’s doors for good last July, months after filing for bankruptcy, it was the first time in more than 80 years that the hamlet of Hampton Bays no longer had a diner.

The hamlet’s original diner, called The Roosevelt Grill, opened its doors on East Montauk Highway, inside a long-since-demolished building that sat on land now occupied by Salon East, explained Brenda Sinclair Berntson, president of the Hampton Bays Historical and Preservation Society.

The loss of the Hampton Bays Diner, which many locals and visitors alike viewed as a landmark due to its prominence overlooking the intersection of Flanders Road and West Montauk Highway, is still being lamented by many, including those who have made countless memories over the years at the restaurant, both as employees and customers.

“The people who come out from the city on weekends look for it—it’s a landmark,” said Joanne Alberti Breckenridge who worked at the diner in the early 1970s, shortly after it first opened its doors on West Montauk Highway. “It’s a place where everybody would go … Sometimes I worked in the summer from 4 p.m. to 5:30 in the morning.”

She recently recalled working at the diner, when it had different owners, from the time she was a 15-year-old student attending Hampton Bays High School through all her years at college at State University of New York at Cobleskill. After graduation, she waitressed for a short time before getting married and moving upstate. She now lives in Batavia, New York.

But back when she was in high school, Ms. Breckenridge noted that the diner was not operating out of a building. Rather, it was a trailer that was much smaller than the current building, which continues to sit vacant.

“It was a quite a change between the two,” she said. “The little diner was pretty small compared to what they brought in.”

Humble Beginnings

The hamlet’s original diner opened in the mid-1930s—an exact year is not known—but was situated on the opposite end of the hamlet, near the intersection of East Montauk Highway and Ponquogue Avenue, according to Ms. Berntson. The business, which operated from a building that has since been demolished, was started by the Economopolus family.

Members of the Economopolus family, who no longer live in Hampton Bays, chose to open near that intersection because it was always bustling, even back then, according to a hamlet heritage study of Hampton Bays completed by Southampton Town in 2005. That document points out that The Roosevelt Grill was popular among local working men and truck drivers.

As the popularity of the restaurant grew, the Economopoluses transformed their diner into a “first class” restaurant, as per the town’s hamlet heritage study, and renamed it The Good Ground Restaurant. The new restaurant served lobster as well as expensive wines and liquors. Live music was often offered, too, and it soon became a popular spot for dancing, according to the same study.

Although the atmosphere was fancier, business suffered a bit at The Good Ground Restaurant, prompting the owners to go back to selling diner food. That change also had a hand in inspiring them to relocate their eatery to the west, to the old Hampton Bays Diner property—though this time they opened shop in a small trailer. The town study notes that the relocation occurred in either the late 1930s or the early 1940s.

Other known operators of the diner include Alfred Demartin and Anastiaf Bakos, though it is unclear how long they ran the establishment, or if there were any other operators before the business became known as the Hampton Bays Diner. What is known, however, is that sometime in the mid-1970s, the then-owners of the diner replaced the trailer with a brick-and-mortar building—the one that now stands vacant.

Frank and Maria Vlahadamis took over the Hampton Bays Diner in 1983 and, after 32 years of business, were ordered by a bankruptcy court judge to close shop and sell the building to pay off their nearly $1.3 million debt. While they still own the building, the land on which it sits is actually owned by Thomas Charos, owner of Charos Properties Ltd. based in Riverhead.

A Memorable Restaurant

Ms. Berntson, a longtime hamlet resident, fondly recalls eating at the Hampton Bays Diner when she was growing up.

“You went in and straight ahead on the left was the counter, with booths on the side facing the road,” she wrote in an email. “There were also a few booths to the right, but for some reason I remember sitting to the left more often. You could see the kitchen door and pass through when you sat at the counter. They had the best crispy, greasy French fries!”

Ms. Berntson said she would go to the diner early in the morning after seeing bands—including the heavy metal rock band Twisted Sister—perform at the Mad Hatter, a club in East Quogue. One night, she added, members of the band went to the diner after the show, still wearing their heavy makeup.

Others remember the diner as a place to meet up with their friends and colleagues.

“The diner is a better place to meet,” said Isabel Sepulveda de Scanlon of Southampton, who also owns the boutique Isa Consignment on Main Street in Hampton Bays. “It would be a point where I wouldn’t have to let people drive all the way to Southampton, or Bridgehampton, or Sag Harbor, because the traffic was crazy, especially in the summer traffic. And the food is affordable.”

Ms. de Scanlon explained that she would meet with other members of Organizacion Latino-Americana, a Latino advocacy organization that she founded and often referred to as OLA, at the Hampton Bays Diner.

“Before I moved here, we used to come out in the summer—that was the only place we knew to meet,” said Helen Sweeney, originally of New Jersey, when referring to the Hampton Bays Diner. “We’d meet at the diner coming home from wherever we came from.

“It was always our meeting place, and we’d get in there and have breakfast or whatever. It was always that diner. It was like there was no other place.”

Ms. Sweeney, who has since moved to Hampton Bays full-time, said that, for her, she knew she was in the Hamptons whenever she spotted the sign for the diner. “It’s a landmark, you knew you were in the Hamptons then,” she explained.

Teresa Drew, who moved to Bridgehampton from Hicksville in 1952, agreed with that sentiment. She can also easily recall her favorite item the Hampton Bays Diner: the chocolate cream pie.

“Of course, the desserts were always the best,” she said. “They would show them to you as soon as you walked in the door!”

Regular customers, who primarily included local residents, were always welcomed in with open arms as well. Ms. Breckenridge said she always enjoyed working there in the 1970s and even learned the go-to orders for many of her loyal customers.

“You would have your regular customers,” Ms. Breckenridge said. “They would come in and sit in the same spot each time, and you would know what item they were going to order.

“Troopers would come,” she continued, referring to the State Police whose main barracks used to be located up the road from the restaurant. “You knew how they took their coffee—sometimes we made it before they even got there.”

Ms. Breckenridge, who estimated that she bought home between $85 and $90 in tips most nights in the 1970s, said that waitressing was an excellent way to earn money while earning a degree.

A Void Filled?

Today, eight months after the Hampton Bays Diner closed it doors for good, there is new hope that another diner could soon open in the same spot. The family that owns and operates the Moriches Bay Diner, the Nikolopoulos family, said in January that they are looking to buy the Hampton Bays Diner building.

“We’re in the process of buying it,” Christina Nikolopoulos, who owns that diner with her husband, George, said at the time.

The family, which has owned the Moriches Bay Diner for 21 years, will not be first-time restaurant owners in Southampton Town if they successfully purchase the Hampton Bays building. Mr. Nikolopoulos once ran the Trolley Barn in Speonk while his son, Spiro, operated the Oceana Diner in Westhampton; both businesses have since closed.

Mr. Charos of Charos Properties Ltd., and the owner of the land on which the diner building sits, previously said that the Nikolopouloses are his most interested potential tenants. But the ongoing bankruptcy court proceedings with the Vlahadamises could potentially complicate that agreement, as they have been ordered by a judge to sell the building. The diner is still listed by Paul Fetscher, president of Great American Brokerage in Long Beach, with an asking price of $1.25 million.

Another potential complication is the unusual arrangement that the Vlahadamises had made with Mr. Charos. That is because the couple had agreed to not only pay $10,000 a month in rent but also to cover the bulk of the property taxes, which now totals nearly $65,000 annually. In an earlier interview, Mr. Charos said that the Vlahadamises were supposed to cover 78 percent of the property taxes which, five years ago, came to about $17,500 annually. They stopped paying those in 2010, Mr. Charos said, around the same time that the tax bill on the land more than tripled.

The listing for the Hampton Bays Diner building states that the new tenants would pay “approximately $150,000 net per year” for the property.

Locals, meanwhile, remain hopeful that a new diner could soon open its doors in Hampton Bays. Presently, diner enthusiasts say that their next closest options are The Moriches Bay Diner to the west, the Riverhead Diner to the north, and the Princess Diner in Southampton to the east.

Referring to the Hampton Bays location, Ms. Sweeney said, “It was a good spot for a diner.”

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How is is possible reporter Amanda Bernocco who "researched" this article and calls Thomas Charos pumping him for information about the latest updates on his property where HB diner property is so she can write her articles didn't know he operated it from 1951-1969?!? Did she leave this out on purppose or does she need improvement?
By jasmine (9), sh on Mar 17, 16 1:24 PM
1 member liked this comment
Totally agree with Jasmine........Pete & Tom Charos and their families ran the diner (Hampton Grill) from 1952-1969 and all their hard work made the diner a 'landmark' to all ........ local... and visitors to the Hamptons!! It should also be noted that the family also had the diner (Holiday Grill now known as the Princess Diner) at the fork of County Road 39 and Montauk Highway in Southampton. I don't understand how the reporter left out the timeline from 1950-1969. Hopefully, a diner will open ...more
By leo (19), hampton Bays on Mar 17, 16 2:09 PM
1 member liked this comment
Thank Goodness someone else who knows the history has the same reaction, I thought I was in the twilight zone of the SH Press. It has been an incredibly long and difficult road with the most recent tenants and all the legal problems, but we are hoping for resolution.
Thank You
By jasmine (9), sh on Mar 17, 16 2:31 PM
Isn't the bigger picture the $65k property tax bill. Coupled with property and liability insurance, lights and other fixed costs and rent to the Landlord make it difficult for any establishment to go in there. Property taxes are forcing many businesses out.
By The Real World (368), southampton on Mar 17, 16 2:50 PM
3 members liked this comment
Absolutely! Agree agree agree.
By jasmine (9), sh on Mar 17, 16 3:40 PM
This is the second article on the Diner. The first one included the Charos family. I guess they weren't going to repeat what was already said.
By bb (922), Hampton Bays on Mar 17, 16 7:08 PM
So nine months after is closed local people decided to "share" stories about the diner? The writer is,what 24? From Illinois or somewhere?
By fire11 (276), east hampton on Mar 17, 16 8:49 PM
My memories of the Hampton Bays Diner date from the '50s, when my father and I would come out from the city to check out our cottage and see how it had survived the winter. We would have our dinner at the diner. Although it was a big deal for us to eat at a restaurant, which you would assume would add some luster to the memory, my remembrance of the diner is "Meh!", if not, "Blech!" I recall one order of "trout" that was, literally, still frozen at the core when it arrived on my plate. Subsequent ...more
By highhatsize (4217), East Quogue on Mar 18, 16 3:10 AM
There is no way a diner can make it on that property and pay 60K in property taxes plus other overhead.
By Summer Resident (251), Southampton N.Y. on Mar 19, 16 7:31 PM
oh please enough with the property tax complaining. Property taxes are the good kind of taxes they keep the dirt bags and leaches out. Its income taxes you should be complaining about! or are you one of the 47 percent that does not have any skin in that game ?
By They call me (2826), southampton on Mar 20, 16 5:14 PM
Five years ago the taxes were $17K. Now they are $65. That seems nuts. Did the town get a higher assessment to force the diner out of business so they could buy it cheap for a new road to connect from Rte 24 to Good Ground Road?????
Otherwise, considering the decline in the RE market (or at least stagnation), how in hell did the taxes rise so much?
By baywoman (165), southampton on Mar 21, 16 10:29 AM
1 member liked this comment
maybe the taxes are higher for an illegal latino nightclub than a place to get an omelet ?
By Erin 27 E (1281), hampton bays on Mar 21, 16 12:21 PM
How does a place that charged $12.00 for $0.40 of eggs not make it?
By BillyWest (13), southampton on Mar 24, 16 4:47 AM
I would imagine by allocating each $11.60 on a payment for a 65 ft fountain speed boat and god knows what else
By joe hampton (3461), Hamptons on Mar 24, 16 3:01 PM