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Carolyn Zeytoonian: For Erica, a trailblazer

By September 10, 2021 No Comments

I first met Erica Van Acker at the Station Bistro Restaurant in Water Mill, New York, in the mid-1990s. At the time, I was living in Bridgehampton, on the East End of Long Island – aka The Hamptons. The Station Bistro (which no longer exists under that name) had been part of an old train line, the Long Island Rail Road, that ran through Water Mill.  The abandoned station was wedged into a quiet little corner of the Hamptons, a forgotten sliver of history from the Golden Age of America’s railroad, before everyone had their own automobiles to make their own way out to the exclusive Hamptons.

The station was ghosted for decades by the time Erica and her partner, Gail Soltysik, bought the place. They eventually converted it into a restaurant where the setting was quaint and atmospheric, the food was French (after Erica’s father) and delicious, and the service was  warm and personable.

Every visit began with an enthusiastic welcome from Gail as soon as you were over the threshold. My late dad, Nick, was a train aficionado. In 1997, for his 70th birthday gift, I treated him to a special dinner at the Station Bistro. (What else do you get a 70 year old, but another experience to add to their life?)

Suffice it to say that as a life-long train buff, Dad loved the ambiance, and the dinner was also equally impressive. But he was particularly rapt by the warm, effusive greeting from Gail as we entered the restaurant – and even more impressed when Erica came out in her white chef coat (she did a lot of the cooking) to say hello, and wish Dad a Happy Birthday.  Later that evening, we even got a tour of the preserved 1930s vintage train club car, located next to the restaurant. Dad was in his glory. It was a perfect way to celebrate such a milestone birthday, and a memory I still cherish.

Across the span of our friendship, I would often see Erica in nearby Sag Harbor Village, taking leisurely strolls. Sometimes, we’d bump into each other at Java Nation, my favorite coffee roaster-coffee house in Sag Harbor, in the Shopping Cove on Main St. Whenever we’d see each other, we’d have an instantly warm (albeit often brief) conversation as we waited at the counter for our treasured cups of morning coffee. Erica would always have a smile on her face, and her upbeat spirit was infectious. (She definitely didn’t live up to the cranky-temperamental chef stereotype!) No matter what mood you were in before seeing her, it changed instantly when she shared that smile and told me and whoever I might be with to “Have a lovely day!” She was one of those people who actually meant that – it wasn’t just a platitude to her.

At some stage, I discovered there was so much more to Erica than what I knew of her from her life as a restaurateur in the Hamptons. In the late 1960s, while living in New York, she was attacked and sexually assaulted in the hallway of her apartment building. In 1971, she went on public record, speaking about her personal experience in a groundbreaking documentary about rape. This was hugely courageous, especially given the era. In the years that immediately followed, she became an advocate for rape victims, often working with medical professionals to de-stigmatize sexual assault. After needing a then-illegal abortion after her own rape, she also became an advocate for abortion rights. Still a Supreme Court decision that is divisive in 2021, Erica was vocal in her support of a woman’s right to choose back in the early ‘70s. This was a lot riskier in the pre-Roe vs Wade days, back when second-wave feminism was barely a thing. She was an amazing woman, one who lived many lives.

Years pass and people’s lives meander down different pathways, especially in a vacation-driven place like the Hamptons: people change partners or locations or professions. Sometimes, all of those things. That is part of life’s journey. When September 11, 2001 happened, Erica Van Acker had not long sold the Station Bistro, and was working as a senior consultant for Aon. Her office was in the World Trade Center when she died that day in the attacks. She was 62 years young, and like so many, gone too soon. I’m still so thankful that our lives intersected, and I will always remember her on this day.

To read more about Erica, you can view her NYT Obituary here.