Written By: Josh Gray | Photography By: Brian Sager
The legendary Club Car changed hands this spring and revealed a whole new look, feel, and flavor.
It’s unmistakable. The iconic train car from the old Nantucket Railroad built into the heart of downtown has been the symbol of fine dining on Nantucket for decades. Before the island became a highly touted culinary destination, the traditional dining room and menu, the classic cocktails and the old school piano bar atmosphere made The Club Car a cherished favorite for thousands of residents and visitors alike.
But as with everything, time and change come calling. The longtime owner of the restaurant, Joe Pantorno, started planning his retirement in the winter of 2015, and he began looking around for someone to continue the legacy he’d begun nearly forty years before. Through a friend, Pantorno began speaking with Ty Costa, a businessman and restaurateur known to many on the island. Costa began in the restaurant business at Straight Wharf in the mid-nineties and is a former partner of the Boston restaurant, The Vault. He began to work with Pantorno to plot The Club Car’s future. He reached out to a couple of long-time collaborators from his days at Straight Wharf, Tanya McDonough and Chef Mayumi Hattori, to ask them to contribute their respective expertise in fine wine and dining.
Feeling ready for a change, McDonough, the wine director at Ventuno and several other fine dining establishments in Boston, took the plunge with Costa first. They knew they wanted Hattori, the then chef de cuisine at Straight Wharf, as a partner who could lead their culinary program. Hattori agreed, and once they established a partnership, the truly difficult work began. They fully renovated the interior; built a new collection of wines, beers, and liquors; and, most importantly, created a new menu. They did not pay homage to Pantorno and the old Club Car through throwback menu items. Rather they carried the establishment’s name forward and, with it, the legacy of fine dining in an immersive environment where families, couples and friends can come together and create memorable occasions.
When it came to the menu, “We knew we had to do something completely different because of that fact that the Club Car was so iconic,” said Hattori. “We knew that not everyone would appreciate that because of how much people loved [the old restaurant,] but we believe that in not trying to replicate it, we honor the memory by doing something that is true to who we are and what we have to offer.”
Incorporating a lot of fresh, locally grown produce that Hattori felt had not been thoroughly explored by other island restaurants, she created dishes filled with herbs and farm fresh vegetables. “I like the idea of sharing food and not being constrained to one large platter of something,” she said. “We’ve seen it here already with places like Proprietors and Nautilus, and I love that movement because it almost feels like a dinner party at your house with plates being passed around.”
Drawing on her Spanish heritage, many of the menu items take their inspiration from that celebrated culinary tradition as well as those of Portugal and the Mediterranean. There are hints of the Middle East, Jewish and Moorish disciplines as well. “The menu really came about through the evolution of my cooking career,” she says. “I wanted to bring in things that weren’t really being represented here on the island.”
Popular menu items include the broccolini, stuffed eggplant and cauliflower dishes. Almost the entire menu is gluten free, and Hattori describes it as healthy “without ramming it down people’s throats.” The food is organic and sourced from sustainable farms. “I’m not a vegetarian and we do serve meat, of course, but I’ve had people tell me that they would become vegetarians if they could eat here every night,” she laughs.
The Club Car is open through Christmas Stroll Sunday with a special closing event going on throughout the day and into the early evening. The owners plan to reopen in time for the 2018 Daffodil Weekend.