Springs Tavern Takes On Jungle Pete’s Legacy

New owners hope for community hub
At the Springs Tavern, Dan and Charlene DeSmet have created an atmosphere that recalls an earlier era, when the restaurant was known as Jungle Pete’s, the Birches, and Harry’s Hideaway, among other names. Christopher Walsh

Eighty-three years after opening as the Jungle Inn, a Fort Pond Boulevard watering hole in Springs is once again a restaurant, a place to hear live music, and a community hub.

The Springs Tavern opened on March 30, succeeding Wolfie’s, an entrenched restaurant and bar for almost 30 years, from 1988 until its closing last year. Substantial renovation has yielded a brighter, airy atmosphere and the menu is reasonably priced, attracting a new, fast-growing clientele, fueled mostly by word of mouth, according to the owners, Dan and Charlotte DeSmet. While mounted flat-screen televisions are a nod to current times, the restaurant recalls an earlier, pre-Wolfie’s era.

 The Jungle Inn would soon be known as Jungle Pete’s, for its owner, Peter Federico. It was populated by year-round Springs residents and well-known midcentury artists, among them the painters Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Years later, as the Birches, owned by the guitarist Jim Demitrack, the artists Larry Rivers, on sax, and Howard Kanovitz, on trombone, played jazz there with others late into the night.

Mr. Federico died in 1964. His wife, Nina, with whom he ran the restaurant and bar, sold it in the early 1970s. Over the following decades, it was known as Jungle Johnnie’s, Vinnie’s Place, the Boatswain, the Frigate, and Harry’s Hideaway. Ms. Federico died in 1987.

The DeSmets signed a lease in November. Previously an advertising salesman, Mr. DeSmet said his new career as a restaurateur came “purely by accident” after his retirement. “After we went through one winter out here with me puttering around the house,” he said, his wife told him he had to “get out of the house and do something.”

One day, talking with fellow golfers at Montauk Downs, one asked if he would like to tend bar. It was Gino Bombace,” the then-owner of Wolfie’s. Although he had no experience, he accepted the offer.

Working the day shift, “the customers started telling me the history of this place. Some of them are 80 years old and they’d been coming here since they were kids in their pajamas, telling me stories of their parents carrying them, they’d all have dinner, the kids would fall asleep on the floor, and the parents would dance and party all night.”

Checking with longtime neighbors confirmed its history as not just a restaurant but also a dance hall, music hall, occasional art gallery, and social hub, Mr. DeSmet said. “That was what inspired us to want to do this: We saw that this place has a long history of providing all these roles for the community, and had only been doing one.” Mr. DeSmet said that although he “didn’t know the restaurant business,” he knew business, and “I saw this as an underutilized asset. If we could just clean it up and revive its role, it would probably be successful.”

That the gathering place had been popular over the years is seen in framed photographs. “Actually,” Mr. DeSmet said, “other than the TVs, everything on the walls has been donated by our customers.”

A patron’s first words, Ms. DeSmet said, are often some version of “ ‘I’ve lived here for 40 years, and I haven’t been here for 20 years.’ Often, when people come in, they see their neighbors, they see their friends. As trite as it sounds, it really is a community hub where people collect news, sit with friends. . . .  You can sit here for six dollars for an hour or two and chat with your friends.”

Unlike Mr. DeSmet, Ms. DeSmet comes to Springs Tavern with some experience. A Hauppauge native, she summered at Lazy Point, Amagansett, with her family who, with neighbors, operated Fish ’n’ Chips for several years, a long-ago restaurant on Napeague that later became Cyril’s Fish House, which closed last year. She also worked at the Clam Bar on Napeague and at Bay Kitchen Bar in East Hampton.

The couple said they were enthralled by the tavern’s rich history in the arts, noting Pollock’s regular visits in the last decade of his life, when he lived on Springs-Fireplace Road, and that de Kooning lived nearby, on Woodbine Drive.

The live music continues at Springs Tavern with the recent introduction of country music on Tuesday nights, featuring the Spaghetti Westerners. “That’s going really well. We’re now looking at adding late-night music on Fridays and Saturdays, but it’s tough because we have such a robust restaurant business now. . . . We’ll probably give it a shot more in the fall, when business is a little slower,” Mr. DeSmet said.

“To sum it up, ‘authenticity’ was our motive,” Ms. DeSmet said. “It wasn’t to put up beautiful sunset pictures or tchotchkes that we got from the liquor companies. It was to honor what it’s been, and document it. That really has touched the lives of a lot of people who come in.”

The crowd at Jungle Pete’s in Springs, circa 1973