Vacation in Beautiful Five Towns! Hewlett Beats the Hamptons

Suddenly, last summer, you became persona non grata in the Hamptons. You have only yourself to blame–even you should have known that a meat loaf with an expired sell-by date is not a hostess gift. And now, thanks to your lackluster, botulistic guesting skills, you’re facing summer 2001 with an empty dance card.

Don’t have a conniption. Just forget about the Hamptons and rent a cabana on Atlantic Beach. You’ll save a fortune and, most importantly, you will learn to laugh again. Admit it: That epic weekly drive to the South Fork, and that predictable round of tented dinners (to which you’re not invited) and putrid social events, has sucked the homey fun and spontaneity out of your weekends. Rediscover the Americana and naïveté of your youth–or somebody else’s–at one of the clubs on Atlantic Beach. The Catalina, the Sunny Atlantic, the Silver Surf–there are tons to choose from, and they are all eerily intact and cute as buttons. These beach clubs, with their air of perky Miami Beach-ish 1950′s optimism, are part of New York Jewish and, less interestingly, gentile social history.

Manhattan realtor Kathy Steinberg (sister-in-law of Saul) filled me in by phone from her East Hampton rental. “In the 1950′s and early 60′s, my parents and all their friends lived in the Five Towns,” said Kathy, referring to the cluster of upper-middle-class suburban townships–Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Woodmere, Hewlett and Inwood–just southeast of Kennedy Airport. “Every summer, my parents would rent a cabana at one of the beach clubs. The parents sat all day playing canasta, ordering the cabana boys around and kibitzing, while we girls were looking for boys to push us in the pool and make us squeal–it was very Flamingo Kid .” Mrs. Steinberg was referring to the 1984 Matt Dillon-Richard Crenna movie that depicts the beach clubs as they were in 1963.

In the late 60′s and early 70′s, Kathy’s generation married young and moved to the city. During the summer, they rented houses on Atlantic Beach and found themselves once more cabana-bound. “It was all about a silver reflector and a cigarette, and sitting on a plastic webbed chair while the kids played in the sand. Nobody was into fitness; you didn’t walk further than the next beach club because you knew everyone. It was pure, unadulterated fun–I’m ready to go back.”

At this point, Liz Lange, reigning queen of hip maternity wear and daughter of Mrs. Steinberg, picks up the story of those happy, sunblockless years she spent at Atlantic Beach along with her sister, graphic designer Jane Wagman. “My mom and dad both wore Lily Pulitzer bathing suits. Henri Bendel was the store,” said Ms. Lang. Her mom “loved clothes: John Kloss, Donald Brooks, Zandra Rhodes, Pucci, Chester Weinberg, Jean Muir. The same families would literally move out to Atlantic Beach for the summer, and our dads would commute to the city each day because it was so close. In the early 1970′s, it all changed. My mom went to Bedford–it wasn’t so cozy.”

When you see these adorable, brightly colored 1950′s beach clubs with their snack bars and ping-pong tables–all within an hour of Manhattan–you have to wonder why the hell these good people stopped going to them. Five Towns native and construction honcho Jarid Tollin, who spent summers at the glitzy El Patio, offered a tepid explanation. “It was just too easy to rent a cabana, and sit around watching the kids and smoking cigars with my high-school friends,” said Mr. Tollin. “My wife and I were in our 30′s, and we were in danger of becoming mah-jongg-playing alte kachers . So, in 1995, we moved to Greenwich.”

Not everyone I spoke to during the course of my in-depth probe shared Mr. Tollin’s ambivalence. Universal Studios executive vice president of production Allison Brecker, 34, is an alumna and longtime observer of the Atlantic Beach club scene. (She is also one of the famous Brecker quadruplets.) “My brother, who was a cabana boy at the Silver Point in the 1970′s, is now back at the Sunny Atlantic with his foxy wife and two young girls,” she said. “It’s so much closer and less pretentious than the Hamptons. I had my bat mitzvah at the Sands Atlantic Beach Club. I was a camp counselor at the Silver Point … aahhh, such happy memories.”

Twenty years later, the highlight of development-diva Allison’s year is visiting her mother at the Inwood Beach club. “There is nothing chicer than my mother Rhoda, with her friends Joanie, Elaine, Judy, Sandy and Bobby, having lunch–which they do every day during the summer–in their swimsuits and cover-ups. It’s all about a scoop of tuna salad, no bread, a side of cottage cheese, an iced tea. They push the fattening food on me: ‘Look at her, she’s anorexic! Eat!’”

Ms. Brecker loves the homey vibe. “It’s like Carmela Soprano, but Jewish. Every time I hang out with them, I get five dates: ‘Do I have a guy for you!’ The yenta network is very efficient and far-reaching–they’ve even set me up on dates with guys in L.A.” Single chicks, take note: joining a family-oriented beach club is clearly a far more efficient road to snagging a husband than flaunting yourself at cheesy parties in the Hamptons.

My faves: the tangerine-and-white Sunny Atlantic (516-239-9090) and the aqua-and-white Catalina (516-239-2150). These friendly, well-run clubs are right next-door to each other on Ocean Boulevard. The Catalina has a few cabanas left on the second floor with ocean views for $2,800 through Labor Day. They also have various locker sizes available, as does the Sunny Atlantic. Prices range from $500 to $1,000 per person. Before you commit, check out all the clubs on Ocean Boulevard. They are a visual treat–don’t miss the gorgeous relief mural in the lobby of the Catalina. Caution: don’t confuse the Sunny Atlantic with the Atlantic Beach Club. The ultra-snotty Atlantic, where Donald Trump was a member, is “not accepting applications at this time” and is rumored to have a “restricted” membership. Snotty WASP culture is obsolete, so who cares!

Do not, under any circumstances, return to Manhattan without first checking out the modern architecture in the Five Towns (mostly Cedarhurst, Hewlett Harbor and Hewlett Neck) and then having dinner at one of the local family-owned restaurants. Here is Rhoda Brecker’s guide to dining in the Five Towns:

In Cedarhurst: La Terrazza (142 SpruceStreet,516-374-4949), “across from Marvin’s jewelry store”; Mama Kelly’s (490 Chestnut Street, 516-295-5421), “now across from the train station–they just moved locations–great pizza, spa-ghetti and meatballs”; and the Manhattan Steak House (531 Central Avenue, 516-374-6768). On the top of my list: the spectacular La Viola with its huge Italian families around giant tables (499 Chestnut Street, 516-569-6020).

In Hewlett: La Tavernetta (936 Broadway, 516-374-0993) or Matteo’s (1455 Broadway 516-374-0627). Feeling lunchy or brunchy? Try Bea’s of Woodmere (12 Irving Place, 516-374-9494), formerly Bea’s Tea Room, for the best meat-loaf sandwiches on Long Island.

After you take my advice and join a beach club, how the hell do you get there? Fast Ashley’s in Brooklyn (95 North 10th Street, 718-782-9300) sells virile cars with dual ashtrays that owners Todd Ashley and Christian Camargo drag back from places like Barstow, Calif. The following sassy sleazemobiles are currently on the lot:

1974 Ford Gran Torino: green, 351 Cleveland, all original, Crager rims, 120,000 miles, $6,000.

1971 Pontiac LeMans: white, convertible, Sport Edition, 350 automatic, 52,000 miles, $12,000.

1967 Mercury Cougar: triple black, new a.c., 88,000 miles, $8,500.

1970 Dodge Challenger: burgundy, 383 Magnum, RT Clone, Nakamichi, six-CD player, a.c., 120,000 miles, $16,000.

Your vintage wheels will make a fantastic beach-club-parking-lot ice breaker. Which reminds me: Parking at the beach club will cost you about $400 for the season. If the car breaks down, you can always take the Long Island Rail Road to the Inwood stop.

Driving a sleazy car and dressing sleazy will be misunderstood in the Five Towns–besides, preppy is the new hip. ( The Official Preppy Handbook is out of print, but Bibliofind.com has tons of copies; average price, $30.) Reembrace your inner prep with blue Sebago Docksides, $89.95 from Shoe Mania (853 Broadway, 253-8655). These resort-y shoes, with their unflattering thin sole, are the very essence of tight-fisted preppiness (remember, preppies never spent money on clothes). But rest assured, their innate ugliness is trumped by their preppy resonance–which is more than can be said for that lady who pushed ahead of me in the Barefoot Contessa coffee line last weekend.