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Island restaurant features local food and staff housing: Léon’s is six months old and thriving

On a recent Saturday night, Valerie Mnuchin was checking coats at her new restaurant, Léon 1909. The dining room buzzed behind her, every seat at the bar was taken, and with a little imagination, you could believe you were about to dine at an open-hearth wine-country restaurant in the Napa Valley.

Only this is March on Shelter Island, when there is no traffic on Bridge Street and most restaurants are quiet.

Like climbing Everest or giving birth, opening a restaurant is not for cowards, especially on the East End of Long Island where expectations are high, the season is short, and affordable housing for workers is nonexistent. Last August, Ms. Mnuchin bravely birthed a restaurant. If her surname sounds familiar, it’s because her brother Steven was treasury secretary in the Trump Administration. 

In its first six months of life, Léon, named for her grandfather, has built a following despite its location in a place with about 2,500 year-round residents. “I really never thought it would take hold and grip so fast,” Ms. Mnuchin said. “I had these nightmares that we would open the doors and no one would walk in.”

Who are these people leaving their well-insulated homes, and fireplaces, to journey to a restaurant? Are they motivated solely by a longing for grilled chicken? Ms. Mnuchin said, “We have a lot of people on the Island who come almost weekly, and there have continued to be Greenport and South Fork people who come in the off season. We’ve had two of our busiest Saturdays in the winter.”

An Island montage in the restaurant’s ladies room. (Credit: Charity Robey)

When you enter, Léon is smiling at you from his portrait near the door. More faces from the past appear on the bathroom walls, which could be the result of heavy winds whipping through the archive of the Historical Society, but are actually antique photos of Shelter Island made into wallpaper. Ms. Mnuchin calls it, “A love letter to Shelter Island.”

Before the restaurant opened last August, Ms. Mnuchin said she wanted it to be a community hub, and judging by the number of cars in the parking lot, it certainly seems to be a hub of someone’s community.

Valerie Mnuchin with Chef Mason Lindahl, center, and General Manager Chris Clark. (Courtesy photo)

She credits Executive Chef Mason Lindahl, whose locavore menu (locally produced food) has found an eager audience. She also praised Executive Sous Chef Armond Joseph and General Manager Chris Clark, whose time at Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton informed his approach, said Ms. Mnuchin.

She graduated from Barnard College, and has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from New York University. Her father and business partner in Léon 1909 is Robert Mnuchin, an investment banker. Ms. Mnuchin’s main base is New York, but she moved to her Wainscott home full-time with her husband and 6-year-old to get the new restaurant through its first year.

“It’s very much still in its infancy,” she said. “This will be our first full summer.”

Ms. Mnuchin said a big part of their success so far has been the decision to offer year-round contracts to some of their employees, and housing for most of their current staff. “We made it very clear from the start that anyone who would work for us year-round, we would welcome that and continue to employ them,” she said. “We had a good number of people who have remained. We were just not seeing local candidates, maybe one out of every 10 or 15. We found that the way to lure people to an island was to offer housing. We got a couple of houses, and a couple of rentals, and lo and behold, we were housing the majority of our staff. I don’t see that changing because that’s the issue for everybody. It’s one of the reasons our food and our service are really good.”

Her current priority is hiring more staff, “That’s the name of the game if we want to do seven dinners and three lunches every week.” 

During dinner service on Sunday night, six or seven local beets hung from butcher’s twine in the hearth, an experiment in smoking and roasting whole beets being carried out by the kitchen. Ms. Mnuchin says the importance of developing and changing the menu to showcase the local foods is something she learned from her chefs.

“I didn’t realize that changing the menu a lot would be a thing,” she said. “We have our core dishes, but aside from that, we’re trying to serve what we can get locally, and we try to stay true to that. We find that the people in the kitchen stay engaged. It’s a way that we keep it fresh. It’s important to Mason for his own creativity. I get that now and I love it. It doesn’t get stale.” 

Ms. Mnuchin feels welcomed, and she’s happy to be here. “Not being a native of Shelter Island, I had this dream of what it would be like, but it was a bit of an ideal,” she said. “In life we’re disappointed so often, but this has been so totally gratifying.”