Freshly shorn of the mountain man beard that kept him warm throughout the desolate Montauk winter, as he worked to painstakingly remake a former bayside dive into a beachfront restaurant retreat, Franklin Ferguson now sports only a couple of day’s worth of stubble. After months of hands-on hard labor he’s looking much like his soon-to-open project, comfortably weathered but ready for the sunshine. “I wouldn’t mind if I never touched another paintbrush,” says Ferguson, who himself moved from Manhattan to Mountauk to oversee reconstruction of the Sunset Saloon, transforming it into his new venture, Navy Beach.
When the property, sitting on a pristine and remote stretch of Montauk beach alongside what had been a Naval base with a rich history dating to World War II, presented itself Ferguson and co. couldn’t pass it up. But, after signing the lease in late December, they had to move quickly to make a May opening (hence his winter regimen): “We came out, took a look at it, and six months later, we’ve got a restaurant.”
After serving in senior beverage posts for China Grill, Sushi Samba and others, Ferguson, a member of the International Sommelier Guild for six years and an instructor for four, takes the helm at Navy Beach, along with partner Frank Davis and a team that includes his fiance Leyla Marchetto of Scuderia (which sits across the street in the West Village from her father’s Da Silvano). Ferguson says he has been doing openings for about ten years, and that Navy Beach is his seventh. He sums up his role in past as openings simply: “I’m the guy who gets stuff done.”
While in the past his challenges were more on the order of the logistics behind trying to get an elephant into Times Square for an opening, he found the problems posed by the outer limits of Long Island in the doldrums of the dead season more mundane if no less daunting. “UPS and Fed-Ex, for freight, deliver here once a week. That’s it. Regardless if you pay for two-day shipping,” he says. “You can’t go to the store and just buy a butane lighter.” The experience was his first taste of the area, but as a brand-new year-rounder, he seems to have eased into its rhythms, and used it as an excuse to grow that beard.
“Basically what we tried to do was build something like a 1950s yacht club, and super-impose it into today,” he explains, cautioning he doesn’t mean the yacht clubs of ascots, white loafers and toy poodles, but more of a casual easygoing feel. Vintage bathing suits pinned to the walls, and framed photos of era celebs like Marylin Monroe coupled with nautical touches capture the mood. Then there are the beams, made of salvaged wood from the former Naval base just a few seagull swoops from the restaurant’s deck.
When looking for a meal in the dead air that is January to March in Montauk, Ferguson, with his months’ growth of facial hair and paint-spattered clothes, found comfort in local go-to spots O’Murphy’s and Shagwong. “If you’re feeling like you want a really nice dark room and a massive calamari salad then you to Shagwong. If you want to talk to [O’Murphy’s owners] Chet and Jan [Kordasz], then you go to O’Murphy’s and hang out there.” He also calls out the Chowder House, which he says “has great oysters–and they’re cheap–and the bartenders are great.” Besides these, and the occasional barbecue run to Townline, Ferguson’s main local nightlife and dining option has been the IGA supermarket, from where he’d procure the fresh Florida corn he roasted up on the grill in his backyard in the snow. Quite a change from New York, where besides Da Silvano he frequented the Gramercy Tavern (“The bartenders are second to none; Jeremy and Ashley take care of you”), and La Pizza Fresco (“The best Neapolitan pizza I’ve had in my life, smokin’ wine list, and the gnocci is like the tears of Zeus”).
In Montauk friends and family means something entirely different than it generally does in Manhattan. The friends and family previews for Navy Beach were full of the local tradesman and craftsman who helped with construction, Ferguson says, “and the guy at the hardware store, and the guy at the drugstore and the guy at the liquor store.”
New to the area, Ferguson was not well-versed in Long Island vineyards, but as soon as the weather perked up, they certainly found him. “People started showing up like crazy, like at the front door, and I’m sitting here in carpenter’s clothes looking like a woolly mammoth. So, we are doing a bunch of local wines,” he says. But the focus of the wine list, which is concentrated on $100-$70 and under bottles, is to provide an esoteric selection from around the world (to complement the coastal cuisine) alongside local selections from Bedell, Macari, Lieb and others. Ferguson says his goal was to find “little gems.” “You may not recognize nine of the grapes in the wine,” he explains of one such ideal, “but it tastes fantastic, goes well with the food, and is $28.”
Which is not to say the beer list has not come in for some careful consideration as well. And again, it is nothing if not eclectic. Brooklyn and Peroni on tap anchor a lineup that includes Chimay, Pacifico, Corona, Heineken, and the local’s favorite. “You have to do Bud Light,” says Ferguson. This became clear “after debates with the people at Liars’ Saloon about alienating the locals … If you go anyplace that’s packed on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, it’s all fishermen and locals and it’s Bud Light across the bar. Bottles, never tap. And they always put it in a glass.” Then he says, getting his Midwest up, “I’m a Miller guy.” So High Life will be represented as well.