As Kelly Klein enjoys the crowded, open-air upper tier of Sunset Beach, André Balazs’s Shelter Island restaurant and hotel overlooking Long Island Sound, the downstairs bartender can’t keep up with the vodka tonics, and every wicker chaise situated on the patch of beach out front is occupied. “Actually, it’s pretty dead tonight,” says a Shelter Island weekender, eyeing a brunette in Burberry button-down who is angling to order a cocktail. “I’ve seen the whole place, inside and out, packed. When I say packed, I mean like last weekend – the back parking lot was cleared out, they had a band playing, and 150 people were standing out there.”
This summer, the South Fork crowd says it wants nothing more than to escape the South Fork crowd (“I never go out anymore,” said one Nick & Toni’s regular to another, at Nick & Toni’s). Which is why the studiedly casual watering hole on Crescent Beach that Balazs and his neighbor Dick Tarlow constructed in place of an old scallop house three years ago in an effort to provide locals with a decent meal has become an enviable dinner reservation. The island’s own brand of snobbish isolationism, along with its smattering of barely boldfaced celebrities (Rory Kennedy and Robert Hughes are landowners), brings to mind a simpler Hamptons era, when a beach house didn’t need gold bathroom fixtures. Scenesters savor the proximity of other scenesters nibbling on lobster spring rolls. Everyone, however, experiences an extended frisson from watching the South Fork – and all it represents – shrink in the wake of the five-minute ferry ride. Which leaves Balazs in the awkward position of relishing the success of his oasis (the ever-hip Chateau Marmont and the Mercer hotel are some of his other holdings) while struggling to keep it real as the buzz over Sunset Beach intensifies. “Anything more, and I don’t want to come to Shelter Island. This is it,” says Balazs, who has owned a house on the island for six years. “It’s not about making money. There’s a lot of attention being paid to Sunset Beach, and it’s not because we want it; it’s just happening. It’s welcome for business, but at the same time it’s a delicate balance between keeping up the culture and atmosphere of the island and making a seasonal place work.”
“The first year, it was only island people. It wasn’t trendy at all,” explains a tanned brunette in Tracy Feith turquoise pants who works at Scoop in East Hampton by day. “Now all day I hear, ‘I need a new outfit. I’m going to Sunset for dinner!’ ” she says, sipping the Midori sour she ordered “to match her pants.” “The clubs in the Hamptons are too played out, too cheesy. It’s like, Everyone goes there, but we’re going to go to Shelter Island.” One local publicist even has a standing reservation every Saturday, always employing a car service to avoid the drunken drive home.
At around 9 p.m., as if on cue, the lights dim as Balazs arrives to make the rounds. Handsome in his Coppertone tan and white short-sleeve shirt, he remains relaxed despite a mini-crisis down below: All the bathrooms are flooded, and the pay phone outside them is mysteriously ringing off the hook. He leans in to greet Klein, who’s dining with club promoter Susanne Bartsch, Rita Schrager (the wife of his friendly rival, hotelier Ian Schrager), and a posse of modelesque South Americans. Alex von Furstenberg ambles by to say hello. “Last weekend, André invited me to come out,” says Bartsch, dolled up in a red head scarf and wraparound black shades. “I have friends on the island; Simon Doonan’s here. I love it,” she purrs in a Swiss-German accent. “I’m going to come spend the weekend.” If she can land a room, that is – all twenty in the hotel (Balazs describes it as an “odd hybrid between seventies California motel and New England guest house”) are booked for the remaining summer weekends. As at his other lodges, the Eurocentric staff seems to be more suited to the pages of a Versace fashion spread than to a beachfront restaurant.
By 11 p.m., salsa has given way to Dr. Dre. The crowd of tank tops and flat-front slacks is trying to move with the beat, but there’s not enough room for anything more than enthusiastic head-bobbing. “My main theory is that people with cash like to be with pretty faces, spend a little bit of jake,” shouts a blond gentleman with a buzz cut. One slightly soused local, an investment banker with a house on the island, claims he can differentiate the natives from the day-trippers immediately. “We wear flip-flops and sweatshirts,” he says, puffing on a cigar. He is dressed in khakis and a Brooks Brothers shirt.
As the late shift polishes off its scallops and local corn, the lower level is filling up – a gaggle of first-timers confess they have become island converts. “We were at 95 School Street last night,” says one, glancing at her watch, “and we couldn’t hear ourselves think.” Fishing around in her Kate Spade bag for her car keys, she heads out to meet the remaining members of her South Fork share for the trip home. The last ferry – 1:45 a.m. on Saturdays – is swiftly approaching. “At 1:40, there’s always an exodus,” says Balazs. Then he adds, perhaps only half joking: “That’s when the real party begins.”