Classic Club Car

The timelessness of classic cuisine on Nantucket

by: Marianne R. Stanton

photography by: Terry Pommett

Think of a restaurant on Nantucket that speaks to the timelessness of classic cuisine, continental-style dining and Old World mannerisms, and The Club Car immediately comes to mind.

Steps off the cobblestones at the foot of Main Street, a short walk from Straight Wharf, there is a quiet refinement here, a self-assurance, that whatever else is going on in the world, one can always count on having a terrific meal in a relaxed atmosphere. As one diner commented recently: “There is never any question about the food here. It’s outstanding – always.”

Credit the continuity of Joe Pantorno’s ownership for 31 years, coupled with the cuisine of Tom Proch for 25, who, incidentally, learned at the knee of one of the great masters of cooking, Michael Shannon, and you have a winning combination.

Pantorno, who hails from a shoreline town in Connecticut, started coming to Nantucket in the early 1970s when he was still a student at UConn. He held the usual kinds of jobs, bartending here and there, including a stint at the famous Preston’s Airport Lounge and the Chanticleer in Sconset. But it was the summer of 1976, after he’d worked at the Harbor House with Michael Shannon and Michael O’Mara, that things changed for him.

“We had done the food for the wedding of Walter Beinecke’s daughter Julie at the Harbor House, and Beinecke was so impressed with it that he wanted to move us up to his flagship restaurant on Main Street, The Club Car,” remembers Pantorno.

Beinecke, incidentally, was the managing partner of Sherburne Associates for over 20 years, and owned much of the commercial property in town and the major resort hotels on the island.

In the off-season, Pantorno, like others in the restaurant trade, headed for ski country – either Colorado or Vermont.

One of those winters, in between Nantucket summers, Pantorno met Michael Shannon up in Vermont. That led to a partnership that was sure to cement The Club Car’s reputation for culinary greatness.

“I was a bartender up in Vermont. It was one of those flaky New England winters where there was a lot of rain and no skiing and restaurant people were doing what they do best to beat the boredom. Shannon was working at the Red Fox Inn at Stratton, and we started hanging out and the next summer he came to Nantucket,” said Pantorno.

Michael Shannon was a classically-trained chef who hailed from Ireland. He had a penchant for travel and was legendary in the culinary world. Some of dishes on The Club Car menu today – such as the Octopus in the Style of Bangkok – were inspired by his far-flung trips.

When Tom Proch came to The Club Car after graduating from Johnson and Wales, and with two summers at The Opera House under his belt, he was ready to be a sponge and soak up all the culinary wisdom that Shannon could impart.

“When I was at The Opera House, we would look across the street and see The Club Car as our competition. The type of cooking we were doing was the continental style, where most dishes are based on stock reductions for the sauces. Shannon was a master of sauces, and I thought, ‘If I do everything he does, I can’t go wrong’,” said Proch. “I idolized the guy.

“When I came to work here, I wasn’t handed a stack of recipes – I worked by Shannon’s side and saw what he did and learned that way.

“Talk about old school. His style is what I really got excited about. I’d read through Escoffier and would ask him about certain things I’d find, and he’d say, ‘Oh yes, I’ve done that, or I’ve eaten that’.” You couldn’t stump him. He’d done it all. He’d trained in Lyons, France, the center of gastronomy in that country, and the dishes he prepared were revealing of his talents.”

There is an enormous difference, Proch acknowledges, between learning to cook from a book and at the side of a master. Cooking is about chemistry, and nuance.

“I can give you my recipe for anything we cook here, but it’s not going to come out the same as what I do because during the process I am continually tasting and adjusting,” explained Proch.

That side-by-side apprenticeship Proch had with Shannon paid off for Pantorno when Shannon retired and Proch took over as executive chef.

To this day, the dishes that Shannon created while he was chef de cuisine at The Club Car remain on the menu: Maryland Crab Cake Club Car in a Mustard Cream Sauce, Scampi Dijonnaise, Roasted Almond and Walnut-Crusted Swordfish and Roast Rack of Lamb.

“From time to time we’ve tried to take certain items off the menu – like the scampi – and replace them with something different, but found we can’t,” said Pantorno. “Our customers won’t let us. These are classics. So, if it’s not broke, why fix it?”

“Food doesn’t get any better than this,” added Proch. “It’s the sauces that make these dishes.”

“And the technique,” chimed in Pantorno. “For a dish like the swordfish, there’s the cut of fish – which is very thick, and then how we cook it – which we won’t tell you!” Pantorno said with a laugh. It is truly the best swordfish preparation ever.

The Colorado lamb chops, which are a signature dish at The Club Car, undergo several stages of preparation, from the marinade in garlic and fresh herbs, to time in the oven and then under the broiler where the honey-mustard glaze caramelizes. Then there is the resting stage. The chops emerge succulent and tender, triangulated atop a pool of Madeira sauce redolent of fresh mint.

For the scampi, which is a top-seller, Proch takes jumbo shrimp and sautés them with garlic, shallots, brandy mustard and vermouth, and serves them on a tangle of angel-hair pasta with tomato concassé. It is my favorite dish at The Club Car, and on a night when I want something terrific, but don’t want the whole nine yards of formal restaurant dining, I’ll sit in The Club Car bar at one of the marble-topped café tables and get an order of this with a nice glass of Chardonnay and maybe a crème brûlée and espresso for dessert and feel totally satisfied.

The Club Car bar, an old railroad car from back in the day, is also the scene for sing-alongs with a piano man in the back of the room playing everything from Billy Joel, to Sinatra, to Cole Porter and show tunes. During the day, from noon until 3, The Club Car bar serves up simple sandwiches on fresh Portuguese bread with chips and “chowda.” It is a best-kept secret for a quiet place to get good, simple food with a great glass of wine far from the madding crowd – and the seafood salad is simply the best. A tiny TV at the end of the bar also makes it a place to have a beer and check in on the Red Sox.

In the shoulder seasons, May-June and mid-September-October, The Club Car offers prix fixe tastings of “Shannon’s Classics” – one of the finest gastronomic feasts for the money on-island. These specials are always advertised in The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper.

These four-course meals of better than appetizer-sized portions of Maryland Crab Cake, Scampi, Swordfish and the legendary Lamb Chops are all paired with appropriate wines. Crème brûlée and coffee ends the meal. For $75 you won’t find a better meal and deal on the island.

Sundays in the off-season Pantorno and Proch feature a Classic Beef Wellington dinner for $35, and this year, to boost business during the recession, Pantorno has offered other specials on slower nights as well.

The Club Car is closed from late October until Thanksgiving, and then closes down for the winter after the Christmas Stroll. That’s when Pantorno, Proch and the rest of the crew get some well-deserved time off.

Proch lives on the island year-round with his wife Pauline, the director of the Nantucket Community School, and their children, Sophie and Michael.

For Pantorno, relaxing means getting away to warmer climes and doing some serious fishing with good friends like Jimmy Buffett, whom Pantorno met back in the 1970s one winter in Aspen. The two hit it off instantly and became great friends. Every summer Buffett comes to the island to visit his friend, go fly-fishing on the shoals off Tuckernuck for bass, and get some dinner at The Club Car and hang out at the bar at The Ropewalk, which Pantorno also owns. When he’s here, Buffett almost always drops by unannounced at The Chicken Box, to play a set with the band. It’s a highlight of the summer, and anyone who’s there feels blessed to have been lucky enough to be in the audience that night.

Pantorno’s best fishing trip was last winter, when Buffett invited Pantorno, author Carl Hiaasen and some other friends along on a fishing adventure.

“I couldn’t believe it. Carl Hiaasen? I’ve been reading this guy for 20 years and here I am fishing with him. It was truly the best trip we’ve taken. But all the trips have been great because Jimmy just knows how to put together people on a great trip for a great time.”

Between The Club Car and The Ropewalk, a waterfront bar and restaurant at the end of Straight Wharf, which is managed by Patty Kennedy, Pantorno’s summers are very busy, but he couldn’t be happier about where he is these days.

“It’s great to be able to earn a living on Nantucket and have these two first-class restaurants. We stand on our reputation,” said Pantorno, summing it all up.

The Club Car. 1 Main St. Nantucket, MA (508) 228-1101

Marianne R. Stanton is the editor and publisher of Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821. She writes frequently about food, wine and travel for Nantucket Today.