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If These Walls Could Talk: Four decades and counting at the Stephen Talkhouse

One of Max Honerkamp’s earliest memories isn’t of a favorite toy or family vacation; it’s seeing Sting perform at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett for a VH1 recording in 1996 when he was just seven years old.

“I was sitting behind the bar because there wasn’t enough space. Not because there were too many people, but because they had a big camera rig,” he recalls. “I remember him playing ‘Roxanne’ and ‘Message in a Bottle.’ At the end of the show, I remember the tour bus leaving and for some reason in my head I thought Sting was driving it. He was waving to us and I was waving back.”

Max Honerkamp (Photo credit: Nicholas Grasso)

Now general manager at the Talkhouse, Max has grown up a lot since then. He’s graduated from tending bar to booking bands to paying staff at the club that his father, Peter Honerkamp, transformed from a little local dive bar into a little local dive bar that’s also the most iconic music venue still standing in the Hamptons. 

It seems anyone who’s anyone, from the Pauls — McCartney and Simon — to the Clintons — Bill and Hillary, plus a Secret Service entourage — to Beyonce and Jay-Z has either taken the stage or witnessed the unforgettable performances here. His personal favorite to date: the night blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. played for a crowd that included Jon Bon Jovi, Anjelica Huston, McCartney, Lorne Michaels and Roger Waters.

There is so much more to the Talkhouse than just the legendary stories, though, several of which are immortalized in the multitude of photographs that line the bar’s walls. In addition to its mythos, the venue has persevered through highs and lows thanks to the underlying rule to which its stewards are sworn: except for sound system upgrades, not a damn thing needs to change about the Stephen Talkhouse. 

Consistency in just about everything — the exposed wood, the grounded atmosphere, the bartenders and sound engineers who have worked the hot spot for several decades, the familiar artists who return to the stage and the patrons who frequent their neighborhood watering hole — has been the key to the club’s survival all these years, and will likely guide its future.

Peter Honerkamp was just a young gun when he bought the Stephen Talkhouse in the late 80s. Today, he’s joined by his son Max and daughter Ruby in the business. (Photo credit: Nicholas Grasso)

A Fan Favorite

“I think it’s survived off of its authenticity; it’s that simple,” says Montauk-based performer Nancy Atlas, who estimates to have graced the Talkhouse stage more than 400 times. “When you walk through the doors of the Talkhouse, you are transported into a pure rock and roll honky tonk.”

First erected in the 1834 as a boarding house for whalers, the backdrop of the modestly sized venue’s iconic stage is one of the few known images of its namesake, Stephen Taukus “Talkhouse” Pharaoh, a Montaukett Native American who lived throughout the Town of East Hampton and famed for thinking little of strolling 25 to 50 miles a day. Inside the venue hangs an account of his life throughout the 19th century, from leading the Montaukett Tribe to serving in the Civil War and even making a living as a mailman. 

How Peter came to acquire the Stephen Talkhouse in 1987 could be chalked up to an alcohol-fueled whim. He was a down-and-out writer from Queens who’d lost faith in the novel to which he’d dedicated several years of his life writing while holed up on the East End. One night after a particularly bad bout of writer’s block, Peter aired his frustrations to a friend while tipping back a few, and revealed during the conversation that he dreamt of owning a bar since his youth. The friend told him he was in luck: one of Peter’s favorite local pubs, the Stephen Talkhouse, had recently shuttered due to litigation between its former partners and was up for sale. Thanks to friends and family members turned partners, the mustachioed novelist purchased the bar a few months later.

“I liked it for many of the reasons I still do. It’s very unpretentious, kind of an anti-Hamptons Hamptons hang out. Just a real cool, laid back bar with a very egalitarian spirit. No one’s more important than anyone else,” Peter says of his decision to buy the Stephen Talkhouse. “It was just a really fun bar back in the ’70s and early ’80s. And it was my favorite, [but] it wasn’t a music venue; it was just a fun bar with a great jukebox.”

Inspired by My Father’s Place, the legendary Roslyn rock club known for hosting legends like the Ramones, David Bowie and The Runaways, had recently shuttered, and he mourned its loss as more than just the closing of a great venue. When Peter was 15, his older brother Robert died in a car accident. Robert’s friends then “kind of adopted me and they’d get me into My Father’s Place to see shows before I was 18,” he says. “And I think that had an influence because for all those years … that was probably the most amazing music club that came along.”

A few months after taking over the Talkhouse, he booked his first national act, blues musician John Hammond, then a Springs resident.

“That was really the thing that kicked off live music because the place was packed,” he says. “Because of the agent that John had, I started finding out about other acts and other agents. In the first six months, we had Mose Allison, Taj Mahal, Loudon Wainwright, Richie Havens, Jesse Colin Young, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Albert Collins and Roy Buchanan. So we had this amazing string of acts in this incredibly small place and people came from all over to see them … over 70 people in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have played [here].”

Star Power = Staying Power

Location, location, location is not just the first rule of real estate; it’s the other ingredient in the Talkhouse’s decades-long success story. The Amagansett establishment’s location within the Town of East Hampton grants it access to the abundance of stars who reside there or who travel from faraway lands to visit or vacation in the Hamptons. They either pay top dollar to witness top-tier performers command close quarters, or the Talkhouse charges top dollar for fans to see them. Either way, one price fits all.

“If you put this place in a town this size in Iowa, we’re not getting these acts. It could be a successful bar somewhere else, but we’re only getting this talent because it’s the Hamptons. You get the celebrities that pop in just because they’re here, that adds to the allure,” Max says. 

Star power and prominence also come in handy for the charitable work the Talkhouse has done over the years. Paul Simon once took the stage to raise $18,000 to cover medical bills for a local chef and drummer. The recently deceased musician Jimmy Buffet, a longtime fan of the Talkhouse, helped the club with various fundraisers, including supporting the Talkhouse’s annual soldier ride, which continues to raise millions for the Wounded Warrior Project.

“You really have to care about the people and you have to invest in the community,” says Ruby Honerkamp, Peter’s other offspring in the business, who works as the venue’s brand ambassador. “It takes time to build that trust, and we have that trust. The intimacy and familiarity is why the Talkhouse is successful and is still around.”

But while famous faces are a common sight on the main drags and beaches of the Hamptons, the Talkhouse is respected for not playing favorites. “We’re a little un-Hamptons, not letting the pretty people cut or letting the people with money cut,” says Max. 

It makes Ruby’s job a bit of an unconventional version of the role. “There’s not a glorified announcement. We don’t post on our social media every time someone comes in, because they’re just a regular person. Everybody, whoever you are, you’re treated equal,” she says. “There’s so many times when there’s celebrities in the bar, but you would never know it. They’re not in a VIP area.” 

True enough; there isn’t room for one anyway. The best you can do with money to burn at the Talkhouse is pay extra to sit at one of the tables on the floor in front of the stage, but there’s no preference given to ticket buyers. And everyone else? They pay the standard ticket price to squeeze in at the bar and surrounding nooks and crannies of the venue. But it’s often worth the sardine-can experience. 

Beginning with a Coldplay performance in 2016, each year, the tiny Talkhouse hosts a stadium-level act and broadcast’s the show over Sirius XM.

“We’ve had more national acts than ever before,” Peter says. “Thanks to Scott Greenstein, the president of Sirius who lives in Amagansett, we’ve done some of these mega shows at the Talkhouse, and that’s been really special, and I can’t thank them enough. They did Ed Sheeran this year and everybody was in the audience from Paul McCartney to Bon Jovi to Billy Joel, Michael J. Fox, [Jerry] Seinfeld, John Mayer, Howard Stern, Gwyneth Paltrow, Christie Brinkley and Brooke Shields.”

Since the Talkhouse is approximately 100 miles east of New York City, some touring acts can fit a performance there into a busy schedule. Such was the case of Black Pumas, the critically acclaimed duo with a sound that fuses R&B, psychedelic rock and American roots music, whom Max secured for a performance back in September 2019, just a few short months after they released their debut album. 

While he said his father books acts he’s dealt with for decades, such as Joan Osborne and Loudon Wainwright III, the younger Honerkamp has a chip-off-the-old-block instinct for good music, seeking out hot up-and-comers on the brink of stardom, before their popularity exceeds the venue’s price point. He locked in Black Pumas, for instance, just 16 months before they would count their first four of seven Grammy nominations and perform at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

When the national or even global superstars are not gracing the stage, the Talkhouse still has to keep the lights on and the party going for the community it serves, both music lovers and musicians alike. Any given night you’ll find a local raconteur doing originals or covers, and even some better-known full-time residents who return to the Talkhouse time after time for a night on the beloved stage, like Atlas, Gene Casey and G.E. Smith. 

As for what brought her back literally hundreds of times and counting, Atlas points to the “family-like atmosphere” that brings in repeat customers.

“They have incredible sound men, and when you’re going back you’re not subjected to a change of guard,” Atlas says. “You’re seeing the same faces, and in this society, that really means something these days, especially in the Hamptons.”

One of those faces is head sound engineer Matt Mazzacaro, who has worked at the Talkhouse for 18 years. 

“The thing I love about the Talkhouse, besides the obvious stuff, is the amount of support and care the owner puts into the sound system there — every year he puts me in charge of upgrading in some way, shape or form,” Mazzacaro says. “I feel valued there and that’s why I’ve been doing it so long. It’s the best mom and pop owned club in the world — I’ve had Chris Martin [of Coldplay] come up to me and shake my hand for coming there. I was like, ‘You’re thanking me?!’ ” 

That same treatment is pervasive in all areas of the club. It’s not unusual to find several of the bartenders who’ve worked at the venue two, three, even four decades because “everyone’s making a good buck” says Peter, and “we’re all local people, so we’re all friends. Everyone likes it because the music is great, the vibe is very relaxed, casual, the sound system is great and there’s probably 20 people that have been there for over 10 years.” 

(Photo credit: Nicholas Grasso)

It’s a Family Affair

While Max has worked at the Talkhouse for many years, Ruby’s dedication is more recent. She handles new Talkhouse ventures, such as the Talkhouse Encore ready-to-drink canned cocktails, sold in both retail stores and at the bar, aimed at ushering the club into the long-haul branding future while upholding its nearly 40-year reputation as a guaranteed good time. She’s also currently developing a coffee table book loaded with the photographs and stories that have bolstered the Stephen Talkhouse’s fame for nearly four decades, and could expand its legacy far beyond the Hamptons. She is also curating any available footage from many legendary performances for a potential documentary.

“I think there’s so much heritage and history and personal storytelling that is just so relatable,” she says. “You feel seen and safe within the Talkhouse. I get very emotional when I talk about [it] because my brain thinks of the people and the place and community.”

And while Peter left writing behind all those years ago to start the Talkhouse, he hasn’t completely abandoned the craft. He’s recently completed his autobiography, which recounts everything from his childhood in Queens and his early years writing for The New York Post’s Page Six, to bringing a ragtag charity softball team — the Maidstoners — to Cuba weeks before the Baltimore Orioles famously did in 1999, bolstering the Wounded Warrior Project and the nearly four-decades he’s dedicated to the Stephen Talkhouse.

“Great things are possible if you put your neck on the line and try to make them happen. I’ve had my share of failures too, but a lot of great things happened because I took a risk,” he says. “We get to make people happy for a living.”