In 1872, a clapboard building with a spacious porch of turned posts and sawn spandrels was built on Shelter Island. With a kitchen large enough to produce three meals a day for members of The Shelter Island Grove and Camp Meeting Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church, it fed upwards of 100 annual visitors who spent their summers in the kitchen-free cottages that surrounded nearby Union Chapel.
Dubbed only “The Restaurant,” it became The Chequit in the early 20th century, and is now the oldest continuously used public building on Shelter Island. But for the past year, it has been uncharacteristically quiet, except for the inevitable sounds of renovation. A new owner is set to reopen the inn this summer with a vision consistent with its storied past as the social center of the summer community.
When Stacey Soloviev walked through the building shortly before it was to be sold at auction in 2020, she took one look at the porches and the staircase rising from the main floor and fell in love. She stepped outside, called her ex-husband, Stefan Soloviev, and asked him to buy it.
Stefan Soloviev’s company was listed in 2018 as one of the 100 largest landowners in the US, with over 400,000 acres, including about 1,000 on the North Fork. He and Stacey have 11 children together (including a set of quadruplets), aged 6 to 19, and have been divorced for six years. Stacey recalled, “I told my ex-husband, who is also my best friend and business partner, ‘I want the hotel.’ He said ‘Yes, if you’ll agree to run it … as long as you put your touch on it.’ ” They became just the sixth owner/operators of the property in its 150-year history.
Stacey’s mission to bring The Chequit back to the center of island life took shape as soon as the deal was closed. Although renovations — and a pandemic — precluded opening the hotel for the 2020 summer season, she kept the community informed of her progress. Her vision for The Chequit calls for other parts of the Soloviev portfolio — including Santa’s Christmas Tree Farm and the Peconic Bay Vineyards in Cutchogue and several North Fork farms — to operate as an ecosystem with eggs, poultry, meat, produce and honey from her farms served in The Chequit’s restaurants and Peconic Bay wines poured in the wine bar. For the restaurants, The Chequit has partnered with farm-to-table specialist Noah Schwartz, chef of Noah’s in Greenport. By the end of 2020, a pop-up Christmas shop opened on property, a tree and porch wrapped in fairy lights enlivened the center of town and hosted a holiday reception with refreshments for the community.
CHAMPAGNE HIGHBALLS AND CELEBRITY GUESTS
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Shelter Island Heights Association added onto, developed and eventually sold the elegant inn to George and Belle Preston Crook in 1925. It was called The Bayview Inn, and Belle ran it as a sleepy, rocking-chair-on-the-porch hideaway until 1945, when Carletto and Mary Kelly Franzoni bought it.
Carletto was a larger-than-life character with a plausible claim to European royalty by birth and an accent that drew ribbing from the locals, to which he never objected. In the 30 years that Carletto ran the inn, he made it fun. His 1973 obituary was full of tall tales, such as the couple whose highballs (on the house, they said) were made with chilled Champagne instead of soda water when the bar ran out of ice; the woman who preferred to sit on the piano instead of a bar stool, and was allowed to do so; and the time Carletto himself set fire to the roof when newspaper blew up the chimney. He reportedly said, “I only meant to warm up the room and now I have all these grand firemen.”
Many celebrities enjoyed the hospitality of The Chequit over the years, but the same could be said for any hotel on the East End in the days before air travel was viable for a weekend trip, and well-heeled New Yorkers could go by train, car or boat 100 miles east to find Eden. Famous guests, from Mary Pickford in the 1920s, to Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller and the occasional Kennedy, arrived regularly at The Chequit for a meal or a weekend.
One of The Chequit’s legendary bartenders became as great a local celebrity as any of those famous guests: Anthony “Frenchie” Francia. Frenchie, who had worked for Carletto at the Starlight Lounge in Miami Beach, came to The Chequit in the late ’50s, and was still threatening to retire from his spot behind the venerable U-shaped bar in the ’80s. In a profile written by the Shelter Island Reporter’s Mary Fran Gleason towards the end of his career, he reminisced about the early days of his reign: “When I came here, beer was 25 cents and we only sold Rheingold and Shaefer. Now most of the beer is imported … every once in a while, I still make a mint julep for an old customer. She brings in her own fresh mint sprigs.”
In the ’70s and ’80s, bands packed the dance floor every weekend, including The Dory Brothers, featuring “Stan the Man, Rod the Cod, and Robert the Rapid singing some exclusive Elvis, Crosby and Andrews Sisters renditions, and accompanied by the noted Wes Smith.” At times Frenchie said it was necessary to curtail the bands: “We decided to stop because the silverware upstairs in the dining room used to dance right off the tables.”
BRINGING THE INN BACK TO LIFE
After Carletto’s death, his children Phil and Jan Franzoni kept The Chequit at the center of summer island life. “The Dain Curse,” a TV movie starring James Coburn from 1978, featured the inn, including its porch with its distinctive sawn spandrels.
In 1994, James and Linda Eklund, who also owned the Ram’s Head Inn, bought The Chequit and maintained it as an elegant, if somewhat less raucous, summer gathering place for 20 years.
In 2015, The Chequit’s fifth owners, David Bowd and Kevin O’Shea, opened for the season after buying the inn from the Eklunds in the fall of 2014 for $3.35 million. Experienced innkeepers, they upgraded the patio and porch dining, established a relaxed vibe, and opened a restaurant called Red Maple to draw the summer crowd. But by February 2018, Bowd and O’Shea had the hotel back on the market, with an asking price of $9 million.
After Stacey Soloviev won The Chequit at auction for $3.36 million, she discovered it needed more extensive renovation than she anticipated. During a heavy rainstorm, water ran down the walls, and afterward she discovered black mold that required replacement of the interior “down to the boards.” Then a gust of wind took out a window, and an engineer recommended she replace them all. The Chequit has a lot of windows.
In spite of the setbacks, Soloviev has focused on realizing her vision for the place, and is spending as necessary to achieve it. She will open guest rooms in the annex on Memorial Day weekend, and outdoor patio dining by June 1. “When I first bought it, I asked people, ‘what would you like to see come back?’ I heard: the U-shaped bar, the pool table, and the tables on the porch.” Those are all part of her plan. During the summer and into the fall, she hopes to gradually open the main building, including the restaurant, tavern, sushi bar and wine bar.
“I want it to be a place for the community,” she said. “I want to restore it to its glory.”