The Midnight Rambler : The Changing Face of Montauk

The Midnight Rambler

John Papciak

mtk fly

The Changing Face of Montauk

(Part of an occasional series)

Well, it’s finally here. Tumbleweed Tuesday – The Labor Day Weekend is a wrap, and now places like Montauk have a chance of return back to some state of normalcy. The New Normal.

If you have plans to fish the “Surfcasting Capital of the World” this fall, I wish you all the best. But if you visited this past summer, well, you probably saw enough to have you wondering what the future holds for this once laid back fishing village.

First the bad news.

There is a silent war being waged for the identity of Montauk – or at least that portion of Montauk between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Lots of people pulling at this from different directions, but I see this as a three-way race between the hipsters, the partyers and the families.

Hipsters, in case you did not know, are those young urban dwellers in desperate search being cool, and being in and around all things cool. A fickle bunch, but somehow Montauk is on the list. Long story, but when you have a string of writers who come to Montauk, and after two hours are inspired enough to spin out a story for fellow Manhattan and Brooklyn peeps (Williamsburg to be more specific) well, I guess if enough people read it, they believe it.

Partyers are those 20 to 30 somethings from the island and city, who come to sweat it out in crowded bars, and elbow each other for the opportunity to pay $13 for a drink. Think Jersey Shore, with a college degree and a bit more disposable income.

Montauk has always been that “Quant little drinking village with a fishing problem,” but now some bars come complete with goon-like bouncers with mic and earphones, thumping techno music served up by celebrity DJs, and velvet ropes with guest lists.

Really? Montauk! Who da thunk?


Here again, with a new generation of writers lining up to break the news about the new hotspot Montauk, we shouldn’t be surprised by the results.

And of course, let’s not forget to mention those families, in search of reasonably priced accommodations, close to both the beach and restaurants.

It’s hard to tell which group is winning at this stage of the game, but the families clearly are not.

I think of summer crowds and the associated tensions as sort of like a Tropical Storm. Pretty nasty when it hits, but it blows over quickly once the eye passes. But depending on when you pay a visit, you may see some of the aftereffects.

I may have mentioned this before, but if you stayed at the East Deck in Ditch Plains in the past, you’ll have to find someplace else. I’m is still wondering how a run-down motel in a flood zone sold for $15 million. The new owners – known only as ED40, and who have gone to great lengths to hide their identity – has proposed a beach club, complete with underground parking.

The impact on fishing in the offseason is hard to predict, other than more attention to parking violations, and perhaps some specific problems with beach access in front of the former motel.

But don’t worry your little heads on this one, and please don’t join into a chorus of “It ain’t like it used to be.”

You can actually join up with a couple of local organizations with expertise and energy to take up the fight.

I strongly suggest that you do, actually.


Elsewhere in Montauk, a number of familiar stores in the downtown area will probably close by the end of the year. Johnny’s Tackle and the Willow Giftshop are two prime examples of long-time businesses packing it in. “The people coming to Montauk these days are just not buying the same things that the family people were,” lamented one shop owner.

I get it.

Selling alcohol is higher margin and a very simple business model. And if the weather turns bad over the weekend, business only gets better. Inventory never goes bad. You can change your prices whenever you want, and customers probably will never even ask – probably too drunk to know.

I was riding my bike past the Sloppy Tuna at 6am a few weeks back, and saw the employees hosing down the deck, and then the streets in front of the place. At times like these – a rare moment of absolute clarity – alcohol being converted to urine and vomit, all at a hefty profit.

Now remember, you can’t blame the “partyers,” “citiots,” “hipsters,” and assorted 23-year-old drunks for this transformation.

There is a supply and demand aspect to this equation.

Not every new bar is owned by an outsider, and there are plenty of locals who are quite willing to cash in (or cash out)

Speaking of cashing in, this past summer the focus has been on the rental market. East Hampton (which includes the Hamlet of Montauk) has strict laws concerning short term rentals, and rentals to groups – laws on paper anyway. Homeowners are not permitted to rent their houses by the week, let alone the weekend, and certainly not to groups. But many of them do anyway.

The situation got so bad for one local that she created a Facebook page to document the parties each week.

“There are a growing number of homeowners who seem quite willing to rent to groups for share houses,” stated a long-time local one real estate professional. “They offer their houses online. They charge high prices to kids on a week to week or even nightly basis, and they charge so much they really don’t care if the house gets wrecked.”

While local enforcement has been slow to respond, at least two homeowners are now facing some hefty fines, and there are now Town Hall discussions about a much more formal homeowner rental registration process.

Here again, the impact for fall fisherman should be muted, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the rental market remains just a bit tighter and pricier in the future.

Speaking of delayed local response, Cyrils Fish House, of all places, is in the cross hairs of local officials. Apparently a backlog of building code violations may have caught up with the owners. Now local officials are working that angle to get the liquor license revoked. The Memory Motel is also under scrutiny.

Hard to say how this will turn out, but if the Town is indeed able to use such violations as a way to turn off the booze, that would mean that most of the “New Montauk” bars are vulnerable. Many of these new bars have a stack of violations.

Despite all the changes, there is some good news here.

None of these hipsters and partyers, zero, nada, zilcho, care about fishing. Zero impact on the beaches, not when most of you will be fishing anyway.

The choices for food are also much better than they were ten years ago.

The dingy motels are also being slowly upgraded (but if you are still looking for a cut-rate dive, there are still a few still standing …I’ll hold off on mentioning any here)

Speaking of conflicts, the Montauk Surf Fishing Classic has been pushed back a week, and will now take place from Friday Sept 26th to Sunday the 28th. This is the same weekend as the Montauk Triathlon festival of races, which will feature hundreds of bikers on West Lake Drive, East Lake Drive, and all along 27 to the lighthouse and back, on Saturday and Sunday morning.

Hmm…slide on campers, negotiating in and out of Camp Hero and the Lighthouse lots, when all those racers are going by Lighthouse at 30 mph…that sounds like a hoot.

The Montauk Seafood Festival is slated for September 13-14, at the Montauk Marine Basin over on West Lake Drive

The 2014 installment of the Fall Festival and Chowder Contest will again take place over Columbus Day weekend.

Depsite the summer crowds, and all the changes, each week from here on out will see numbers steadily thinning.

By Veteran’s Day, most of the seasonal bars and restaurants will have closed, and the concern will shift from being able to get a reservation, to simply finding a good place that is still open.

And by December, Montauk will once again be absolutely desolate.

Until that time, if the white bait shows up… or the sand eels… or the peanuts…or the herring and gannets, I suspect we won’t spend a minute worrying about any of these changes at all.


15 comments on “The Midnight Rambler : The Changing Face of Montauk

  1. Tom Capodanno

    I have been visiting Montauk for 25 years on a regular basis,mostly off season for the quiet serenity and quality family time .Over the past 10 years I have spent 7 summer weeks vacationing there and loved it,that is until the prices went so high our double income family could no longer afford the price. You see 3500 bucks for seven nights not including food and beverages or shopping and activities (another 2000) is just too much for most Long Islanders.
    We noticed the trend and saw it coming but could just sit back and watch the beginnings of Montauk’s self destruction as the Hamptons creeped Eastward and the businesses all started jacking up the already modestly high pricing .Now the prices are for the NYC hipster crowd and the people bored of the Hamptons that are looking for their very own “exclusive” reign on summer .Not only has this trend made Montauk pretty much intolerable for most families but the service industry workers have reached a new pinnacle of “shitty attitude” that is evident everywhere you go.They simply can’t wait for summer crowds to go.No wonder the NYC crowd will be looking to take over buying up real estate and bringing in their own workers eventually to replace most of the burnt out veterans of an area that’s poised to spiral out of control in the near future in my opinion.

    It was three years ago when I stumbled upon an place in Rhode Island that reminded me of Montauk in the late 1980’s early 90’s. We now vacation in the Naragansett area and have found some truly great people,super clean beaches ,and accommodations at half the price or better than Montauk.Sure vacation meals and trinkets can still add up but when we pay 1300 bucks for 7 nights in a duplex with a pool,tennis ,basketball,ping pong,two playgrounds and many other great family amenities it makes you wonder “why would I ever go back to Montauk during the regular season?” Well I won’t ever again . I’ll take the off season any day but that all depends on the off season staying “off season” as far as rates go. There are fewer places open and while there are deals in the slower Months I’ve noticed the upward trend here also.The service workers seem to lump you into the super high wealth crowd and treat you like you have endless income to spew on them,good service or not.

    I was recently contacted by a place I used to stay at via email which is a regular occurrence and I noticed it was “just” 500+ dollars for a weekend night in the unit I used to rent for 300/night. Correct me if I’m wrong but the 500+ /night crowd isn’t into surfcasting nor amenable to fisherman surfcasting in ‘their” view etc,etc. I hate to see this ominous trend but I am confident that the quaint little drinking village will now have a bigger fishing problem that will have to be attacked head on . For now I’ll retire for summer vacations just 45 minutes from the Orient Point ferry where the attitudes are better,the guest is not taken for granted and the beach is still an area families can enjoy a great summer vacation and create lasting memories.I don’t mind paying the Entrance fees for Rhode Island beaches because they actually have good quality amenities and don’t take any crap from trouble makers at all.I have not seen one fight or drunk moron the entire time I’ve been there on any of the beaches. I challenge anyone to spend a day in Montauk during the summer at an ocean beach without seeing this behavior rear it’s ugly head before long. Unless you are at Hither Hills ,the last bastion of family values in Montauk or at GIn beach where families still feel welcome.

    It’s such a damn shame the Albies don’t even want to come to Montauk anymore 🙁

  2. R ich S

    John, thanks for putting into words the feelings we have developed over the last few years out east. It’s a real shame what has occurred in Montauk lately, and I don’t think they can stop it no matter what the town tries to do. (too late). Money talks, the fishermen walk.

  3. rfd

    i’d been a montauk visitor since the mid-50’s for what is is – beach, fish, surf, vast exquisite panoramas of sensory delite, the good people and good food – and all those things have changed to ka-ching ka-ching over the decades. there is no longer a respect for the land or sea or even air, certainly no respect for people, either the homies or visitors, with far too many of whom are rude crude at best. there is no more “montuak”, like so many many other places of note. it’s heyday and era has come and gone. so have i.

  4. Adam

    i wanted to say something but my friend local singer nancy Atlas said it best ;
    So today is Tumbleweed Tuesday and was was meant to be a big party in the center of town later today from 4-6pm will have to shift a bit. It’s still on at the Gazebo but I am already thinking of what I will play for such a sad day in our towns history. Trust me, I don’t feel like celebrating a damn thing right now. I can’t shake the feeling that the sudden and shocking death of our unofficial Mayor, Mr. Montauk, Carl Darenberg is somehow tied in with the death of Old Montauk. Old Montauk to me was families walking around with fishing poles and coolers on the back of their car. Fathers and sons with matching sunburns eating ice cream. When someone bumped into you they said “Sorry” and didn’t give you a fucking sneer. The only place people threw up was at Liars, not on cars, on main street and constantly by the toilets across from Sloppy Tuna. There was a respect in the streets as it was working families. I have decided all my angst boils down to this: I love tourists, I hate assholes. Anyway… I digress. I keep trying to separate the two, Carl and old Montauk that is but my head won’t do it. It’s like my HEART keeps going, “Hey this will all get back and it’s just a phase in the economy” and my HEAD is going, “Nope. They’ve found the crown jewel hidden in the back of the box and the auctioneers are all fighting to get in on the action”. So here is what I will say. The original concept for this afternoons “Tumbleweed Tuesday party” was a celebration. Carl would have surely been there in full color. He would have been there because whenever there was a gathering for ANYTHING that had to do with Montauk and it’s families or fire department or education or a house burnt down or WHOEVER NEEDED HELP: He was there. Not just financially but in spirit. In the winter, In the fall, in the spring. Supporting. Dancing. In the front row smiling. Any charity. Any event. Anyone who needed help. He was the guy putting his money where his mouth was. So if you feel up to it please come down today. Free hot dogs and maybe beer if I can convince Lorraine to let me buy a keg in Carl’s honor. Not sure on the legal aspects of that so no promises on the cerveza. Bring your lawn chair and your memories and your piece of old montauk. Lets get together and just say hi, or cry, or just shake each others hand and say hello. That’s what I will be doing. I will be using every ounce of my positive energy to wipe the streets clean and reclaim the beauty and the bliss of this town while it is ours to enjoy. While it is ours to protect. Do you hear me Old Montauk? I am going to fight for you. You are worth fighting for because life is fleeting and while i don’t own this town in any way, shape or form I do hope to have a few more years here and I can surely represent and protect what is beautiful about it… Just like Carl did. I would just like to end this ramble by saying that Carl was one of the most supportive people for live music and I will miss his smiling face and twirling silver streak of hair on the dance floor deeply. Much respect and sympathy to his entire family… which is basically all of Montauk.

  5. Awesome John

    I want to come to Montauk this year an go fishing again.. It is the love of my life… but last time I was there aside from the fact that the fishing sucked I really got turned off to the fact that aside from a few very nice decent people and businesses everyone was trying to shaft me… in the end we spent over $5k for 3 weeks including airfare from Turkey which is a lot of money for a small modest family of two like me and and wife… so I am really thinking about what to do this year?

    maybe Tarpon in Florida is a better idea? New England? Maybe Block island? maybe sir home home and save the cash and the aggravation? This is killing me man… 🙁

  6. Chris

    I am scheduled to be in Montauk the first weekend in October and plan on getting in some fishing in. This will be my first time in Montauk and have looked forward to this trip for many years. I consider this trip of fishing Montauk as a bucket list item. I have read in past of the locals and regulars not liking newbies especially out of state ones at that. So I am not sure what to expect. I am by far from money, nor a hipster, just a fisherman who has always wanted to make this trip. I just hope that I won’t be considered to be one of those people who are helping ruin Montauk for the locals, the regulars and the new to Montauk fishermen.

  7. Jerry

    Sites like AirBNB have become the game changer for Montauk. Not only are owners not incentivized to undergo expensive renovations, but its ultimately best to keep your house crappy. Rent to 10 kids (or more) who don’t know each other for $250 per night.. The owners spends their summer at a primary residence (or the locals goto Rincon, the trailer park at Ditch Plains or live on a boat) The money is unreal, the renters are too drunk to give a hsit about noise, neighbors, traffic or any decency and they are gone in 48 hrs. Anyone can log in to AirBNB, find >20 houses with addresses and owners cell phone number to rent for a day or a weekend to multiple unrelated individuals (law says minimum of 2 weeks but whatever). Enforcement by the town is ZERO, so much easier to ask the temp summer traffic agents to issue parking tickets to all the Range Rovers with NJ or CT plates.

    Will this end? Absolutely not. Ironic that there is an annual tumbleweed Tuesday party on the green in Montauk to celebrate the bags of money that the departing hordes are leaving behind. Faux outrage from Sept. – Thanksgiving followed by the first postings on AirBNB, FRBO, etc for bacchanalia 2015.

    John. You know the story. Everyone in Montauk “knows each other” all the locals are related, are long time friends, went to school, volunteer in the MFD, run the gov’t, the PD, the building dept. Surf Lodge, Montauk Beach Club, Sloppy Tuna are gold mines and no one is going to kill that goose (Surf Lodge settled their violations with EH for $100k, cost of doing business) Join me for a BBC at Cyrils next summer, somehow despite the lack of liquor license and a myriad of violations, Mr. Fitzsimmons and the town will “figure something out”

    Anyway, enjoy the fall. Life resumes. The red/blue 16 oz. solo cups are now re-stocked at 7-11 and all the pink taxi cabs are strangely beginning to disappear. The south side west of turtles is still as enchanting with raw beauty as ever and korkers have replaced fedoras.

  8. JohnP

    Ronnies Deli closed (as well as others) and now we have 7-11. The privately owned Deli did not have reliable hours, and was rarely stocked properly.
    A number of Motels ad Bars/Restaurants were in a very bad state 10-15 years ago, the owners were not willig to invest, and certainly not invest yet keep the same local character. The old Lakeside and Ronjo were prime examples. So some new owners came in, bought them at a hefty premium, and remarketed the establishments. But they are really not marketing theses new establishmens to families, not in the summer anyway.

    I was driving pat the Surf Lodge a few weeks ago. Mobbed. A minivan Taxi puls over and lets a bunch of well dressed you ladies out. They all had drinks in their hands. They each took the final gulp and threw their cups in the grass on the side of the road. I lost it and rolled down the window. I told them to pick their trash up. My wife and kids were laughing, but that image of people coming in, only to drink, and leave behind their sh*t, is something we do have to think about.

    Motauk does need to think long an had about linking too much of their economy to a summer party and drinking crowd. At some point, this goes bad.

  9. Jerry

    Midnight Rambler: 1 – Midnight Revelers: 0 … The character of (summer) Montauk will eventually be defined by that which attracts. Gurneys seems to be transforming itself into a Starwood type destination resort (as does East Deck) Surf Lodge, Rushmeyers, Navy Beach et al need to decide if the profit margin is most optimal between the younger quantity crowd vs the older quality crowd.. and if citizenship and social responsibility can be monetized. The more family oriented attractions along East Lake and West Lake remain very popular and are firmly entrenched. Sloppy Tuna and Memory are what they are, they have that Cancun element that is at least localized to a few block radius that most families and locals tend to avoid after 10am. The old Ronjo is ground zero for the weekend party/hipsters crowd serious about the alchemy of alcohol into vomit, and that is just as well. There are some great, high end restaurants in town.. Harvest has traditionally been a local/family hangout and South Edison has amazing food, as does Coast. Perhaps Montauk becomes the Water Mill or Wainscott of the east with a small localized cancer all within a 5 iron of Paulies. 11954 is also a BIG place, new Montauk and old Montauk can continue to exist and almost never cross paths, or maybe old montauk begins to encroach more into the territory of the Jersey Shore element… No doubt that the parade every March is good, clean family friendly fun and that was never the case before.

  10. Louis DeRicco

    Fantastic John…… Summer in Montauk has become a SAD place. Your piece says what we have all been feeling over the last several years…..and it has certainly come to a head this year. Well done…….

  11. Jeremy Antworth

    Agreed. Great piece and looks like the fisherman can get involved to help. We are natures keepers.
    It is surely not the only place to turn this way. Access is drying up to regular folks in lots places.
    BTW the hipster meme cracked me up, but also scary as hell lol.

  12. HeinekenPete

    …living on the water here on Cape Cod we’re seeing similar problems. As long as sex is more popular than dying, we’re going to have more & more people competing for the same amount of space & resources.
    Basic supply & demand–prices go up. For me, September is the best month to enjoy the fishing, restaurants, & bars without the crowds.

  13. Mike Dean

    I grew up on Long Island and made the annual trip to the lighthouse with my family as a kid. It was just a lighthouse and a long drive for a 10 yr old from a family that really only fished as a summer ritual on a party boat. In August of 2009 my buddies and I rented a place in Hither Hills for my bachelor party. 39yrs old at the time, and slowly becoming a fish head, it was the fishing and the beach that made it our destination. We soon found out the change had started.

    I had never really experienced Montauk as a big kid and even with the new culture trying to take over the town, it was the “famous for” parts of Montauk that made for that love of the town we all have. Fried fisherman’s platter at Gossman’s, a midnight slice at Pizza Village, and a bonfire on the beach aside… I caught my first bass on the Adios, and as intimidating as the locals seem to be I asked one what I was doing wrong casting from the beach. It just happened that local was Gary the Toad, and I have no doubt the fishing gods put me on the beach at the same time he was there.

    It was 5 years this past August and I can’t count how many times I’ve been to the Mecca. Sad that just a few years ago if someone had on a Montauk shirt they either surfed, fished, or had a spiritual connection to the water. Now there’s more of a chance when someone has on a Montauk shirt they’re taking a selfie to put on Instagram.

    I’m sure like most things, the hype will fade at some point, and we’ll probably pick up a few more fellow anglers that will see the light. We need to get the FOV(Fishermen Only Vehicle) lane of 2 7east to happen soon.

    And I still hold true to my promise to the ponytailed d’bag bouncer from the Surf Lodge that I’ll break his clipboard over his head if I ever run into him again.

  14. mike ferdinands

    Sorry to revive this old topic. I’ve been watching a TV series, ‘The Affair’, which is set in Montauk. Its very good – and Ruth Wilson is very watchable indeed – and to a Brit’s eyes Montauk and it’s beaches looks fabulous. However, after 9 hours of viewing I haven’t seen a single surf fisherman. Were you all shooed away by the film crew?
    By the way, you aren’t unique with the booze issue – my own town centre in Yorkshire is pretty grim most nights, but it seems to be accepted as normal these days. The rest of Europe (away from the British holiday centres) no problems whatsoever. It’s depressing.


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