MARTHA’S VINEYARD — Business owners eager to attract more young professionals and trendy adults are trying to inject an element of contemporary cool to this quintessential New England island known for dressy-casual style and period Victorian inns.
A sleek new cocktail lounge now serves creative libations such as Thai blackberry lemonade with rye whiskey. A craft beer bar pairs brews with small plates and offers small-batch whiskeys. Freshly updated rooms in one of the island's largest resorts resemble images from a modern home decor magazine.
“It’s definitely not your grandmother’s Vineyard anymore,” said Nancy Gardella, the executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.
Gardella said the Vineyard experienced a tourism heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s, when many businesses flourished by simply opening their doors. Then the recession took a toll on local tourism.
Now some business owners are rethinking how to bring new customers to their establishments. They are trying to appeal to city-dwelling young professionals who may not be attracted to the island’s time capsule of quaint inns and traditional seaside style.
“It’s no longer enough to be a business on Martha’s Vineyard,” Gardella said. “Now businesses are stepping up and delivering service just for that metro crowd.”
This year, the Martha’s Vineyard Food & Wine Festival hired AJ Williams, a popular Boston event planner, to double the attendance of the October event from 1,500 to 3,000 people — roughly the same attendance of the Nantucket Wine Festival in May every year.
Williams aims to meet that goal by offering more events over the four-day festival, holding the grand tasting in a much larger venue than last year and featuring top chefs from Boston such as Jason Santos of Blue Inc. in the Financial District and Christopher Coombs of Deuxave in Back Bay. Chef Filippo Gozzoli from A Voce in New York will be the headliner.
But prior to last year’s wine festival, Williams herself had not visited the Vineyard in several years. She spent nearly every summer weekend on Nantucket.
“There are great restaurants and amazing networking,” Williams said. “You’re always bumping into the who’s who there. It’s definitely a hipper, more fashionable crowd than the Vineyard.”
Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket offer distinctly different experiences. Nantucket is concentrated in one city with many bars and restaurants — a place to see and be seen. The Vineyard is spread across six towns. Oak Bluffs is an eclectic, beachside party town that attracts the island’s youngest demographic of visitors, while Edgartown tends to draw older, well-heeled professionals.
But some residents say that despite the wide variety on the Vineyard, there is a gaping hole in the food scene between the bars that often double as fried fish shacks and the restaurants such as the Sweet Life Cafe frequented by the Obamas during their summer getaways.
“There’s a need for a more mature place to hang out,” said Erik Albert, the 44-year-old owner of the Oak Bluffs Inn. “People need a nice, casual place to go and not have to be around a bunch of college kids getting hammered.”
A gray shingled Cape Cod style building in Oak Bluffs has been transformed to become just that.
Beetlebung is a modern 64-seat cocktail lounge that features black stained wood floors, silver walls, charcoal granite counters, and a dark gray zinc bar that spans nearly the entire length of the building. Turkish hanging lamps and theatrical lighting offer splashes of color throughout the sleek space.
The owners, John and Renee Molinari, want their establishment — which they say is the island’s only cocktail lounge — to appeal to young professional tourists, as well as islanders like Albert who complain that the Vineyard lacks the upscale casual restaurants that dominate cities such as Boston and New York.
“There’s many great restaurants on Martha’s Vineyard for fine dining, but you can’t go out and find the kind of atmosphere where you can order a bunch of different things from all over the world that you share and experiment with,” Renee Molinari said.
Executive chef Jerry Marano, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu and former sous chef in Sarasota, Fla., will serve Asian- and North African-inspired small dishes such as grilled scallops with sweet chili, crème friache, watercress, and parsnip chips. A littleneck tasting offers clams steamed in red, green, and yellow Thai curries.
The couple also hired nationally recognized “cocktail guru” Jonathan Pogash to create the drink menu.
A few blocks away, Doug Abdelnour, the manager of the 54-year-old dockside fish house Nancy’s Restaurant & Snack Bar, teamed up with three other restaurateurs to open 20 by Nine, a craft beer bar, last month.
Another local restaurateur, J.B. Blau, who operates Sharky’s Cantinas in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, opened a pan Asian establishment called the Copper Wok in Vineyard Haven earlier this year.
The Winnetu Oceanside Resort in Edgartown renovated 17 suites in the off-season, replacing a soft blue color scheme and dated seaside decor with a more modern look featuring decor such as sleek white furniture, chevron wallpaper, red-orange gourd lamps, upholstered headboards, and 4½-foot wingback chairs.
“When people take a vacation, they expect things to be up to snuff,” said owner Mark Snider. “The island is more expensive than the mainland and we feel it’s important that we keep our product up to a certain level of expectation.”