Claudio’s has stood the test of time. Founded in 1870 by a Portuguese whaler named Manuel Claudio, the 148-year-old establishment has been a witness to two world wars, the Prohibition era, the Great Depression, and 27 Presidents. It prospered during the proliferation of oyster farming at the turn of the 20th century, and has served as a barometer of history and culture in Greenport. So when you hear that the beloved eatery—the oldest family owned restaurant in the country—has finally passed hands, you can’t help but ask some questions.
At the helm of this great endeavor is Tora Matsuoka and Stephen Loffredo of Seasoned Hospitality, their consulting and management company with more than three decades worth of experience in the industry. Loffredo has owned and operated Manhattan based restaurants Zoë, Cena, and Jovia while Matsuoka, originally from Tokyo, is the proprietor of Sen Sushi in Sag Harbor, now on its 25th season.
“When I was moving from Tokyo to Hawaii for school, [my father] said that in America children have off in the summer time; he said that was not an option for me,” says Matsuoka. “So every summer I would work for him at Sen doing the most horrible jobs he could think of—and I loved it. I loved the camaraderie, and the people, and the idea of making people happy. And I stayed. After high school I took over the restaurant as a manager, and then I bought the restaurant from my dad… that’s how I got into the industry.”
Still, it is a tall order, taking over a restaurant as popular and legendary as Claudio’s, and it is one that will require a rather challenging balancing act. How does a restaurant grounded in local authenticity evolve enough to survive and thrive as Greenport itself changes?
This is just one of the questions Matsuoka and Loffredo are asking themselves, as they focus on staff training and team building between new and legacy employees. They’re both also actively engaged in research and menu testing as they meet with local purveyors, farmers, and fisherman in order to find the balance between local ingredients, seasons, and pricing alongside the product volume and consistency Claudio’s needs to deliver. While, for instance, you can still get a lobster roll at either Claudio’s restaurant or its sister-spots, The Clam Bar and Crabby Jerry’s, Loffredo has plans to push the envelope when it comes to their menu and wine program while maintaining the Claudio’s legacy experience.“I look at other restaurants like the 21 Club or any of the older restaurants that have been around for a really long time that need to stay current, and we’ve used those for some guidance,” says Loffredo. “Here we’ve talked about what the menu needs to be, and we’re starting to play with things like Duck à l’orange and Tournedo Rossini; we might want to run Lobster Thermidors as a special. Those are older dishes; classic legacy dishes that you might find at Delmonico’s or, again, at the 21 Club, but we’re trying to give them a more modern perspective.”Additionally, Loffredo and Matsuoka have been tasked with learning the Claudio’s property, from the global management of the entire facility, to its repair and maintenance. But, of course, it goes beyond the property. Greenport has grown to become such a food haven on the North Fork. Distinguishing itself from the many other restaurants in the area will be a challenge.“It’s part of our mission to ensure that we continue to lead this community in offerings, in fun, and in product quality and service,” says Matsuoka. “We want to do that. It’s going to take a little time, but it’s a mission because the competition is coming if it’s not already here, and we need to keep up.”
There is no question that Greenport, once a sleepy little village much like Sag Harbor, has come out of its slumber. As new interest and curiosity in the North Fork manifests itself in the arrival of top ranking chefs and visiting hipsters, locals will need to reimagine what it means to be “Greenport”. And those who have been successful in the past may have to reinvent themselves in order to meet a higher demand in product and experience.
Still, it’s the gypsies, the mariners, the nomads, and the pilgrims who have always carried the heart of Greenport. Its character lies in the careful balance between constant flux and adaptability: the very core of hospitality. The change is here, and it’s happening. Yet like a river, for as much as it ebbs and flows, it remains the same: an ever-changing river all the same.
Just relax on the straws.