Category Archives: Restaurants

Fish & Chips & Nachos

Two long-established, well-loved — and decidedly not fancy — Westport restaurants made big national “best of” news lately.

Coastal Living named  Westfair Fish & Chips one of the 22 best “Seafood Dives” in the country.

The magazine raved:

Westfair covers all of the clam chowder bases: New England (white), Manhattan (red), and Rhode Island (clear). This tiny storefront, with just five tables and half a dozen stools at a window counter, hides in a strip mall and caters mostly to nearby residents. Fried clams and fried oysters, both lightly battered, are especially tender and juicy.

A tantalizing dish from Westport Fish & Chips.

A tantalizing dish from Westport Fish & Chips.

Meanwhile, the Delish website picked 1 “Epic Nacho Plate” from every state.

Connecticut’s entry? “Nachos with sausage” from Viva Zapata.

Viva Zapata's nachos with sausage.

Viva Zapata’s nachos with sausage.

Congratulations to 2 very popular spots. We can always count — if not count calories — on you.

(Hat tip: Mary Lynn Halland)

Michel Nischan: James Beard’s Humanitarian Of The Year

When Michel Nischan closed his Dressing Room restaurant in January 2014, the farm-to-table chef/pioneer said he wanted to devote his full energies to Wholesome Wave.

That national non-profit — based at the time in Westport, now in Bridgeport –helps underserved urban and rural communities gain more affordable access to healthy, locally grown foods, while supporting the small and mid-sized American farmers.

Michel Nischan

Michel Nischan

“Wholesome Wave is ready to explode,” Nischan told “06880” then. “It’s what I want to do when I grow up.”

In just 15 months, Wholesome Wave has certainly made its mark. And the world is noticing.

On Monday in Chicago, the James Beard Foundation honored Nischan as its Humanitarian of the Year.

The foundation called Nischan — also co-founder of the Chef Action Network — “a trailblazer of the sustainable food movement and celebrity chef with over 30 years of experience advocating for a more local, (healthful, equitable) and regenerative food system.”

Citing initiatives like the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program and Healthy Food Commerce Investments — and its efforts with key decision makers in states, Congress and at federal agencies — the foundation said that Nischan’s organization has become “a model for forward-thinking, imaginative solutions that go beyond charity to focus on economic viability.”

Nischan thanked the Beard Foundation for the honor, adding, “I wholeheartedly agree with James when he said, ‘Food is our common ground.’”

In other food news, Opinionated About Dining may not carry the same cachet as the James Beard Foundation. But the self-styled “leading source of global restaurant rankings for devout diners” has just unveiled its 4th annual “Top 100 European Restaurants.”

Alex Burger

Alex Burger

Sitting at #1 — up 18 spots from last year — is that “champion of sustainability and pioneer of modern Basque cuisine, Azurmendi.”

What makes that spectacularly beautiful and very cool restaurant 15 kilometers east of Bilbao “06880”-worthy is that the chef de cuisine is Alex Burger. He’s a 2004 Staples grad  who took every culinary class he could there. He honed his skills at Daniel in New York, then Asia and Malta.

After starting at Planet Pizza, right here in Westport.

“06880” is indeed where Westport meets — and eats — the world.

(Hat tips: Bart Shuldman and Cecily Gans)

 

Despite Closing, There’s Plenty Cooking At Mario’s

When Mario’s closed last month, hundreds of loyal customers lost a lot: A favorite restaurant. A meeting place. Tradition.

Over 50 employees lost something much harder to replace: Their jobs.

The story of how that happened is coming out now. It’s not pretty.

A former employee emailed me some details. Others who worked at Mario’s agreed with what the worker said.

Mario's, the day after closing. (Photo/Gene Borio)

Mario’s, the day after closing. (Photo/Gene Borio)

According to the email, on April 16 — 12 days after the restaurant served its last meal — a handful of employees were invited to meet new owner Vincente Siguenza to talk about employment. The meeting was set for 9 to 11 a.m.

“The place was cold and dark, with no heat,” the email says. Siguenza did not appear. The former employees thought it might have been a test of their interest.

He finally arrived at 11. “He casually walked into the side room, where everyone was sitting anxiously. It was almost like the first day of school, meeting your new teacher,” the email says.

The meeting lasted 15 minutes. “He stated (while looking at his phone the entire time) he did not know what they were going to do in regards to staying closed or reopening. In so many words, he stated that if they go forward with Harvest” — the new restaurant in the old place — “no Mario’s employees would be hired.”

Dinner was packed, before Mario's closed.

Dinner was packed, before Mario’s closed.

Siguenza told employees to leave their resumes. Only one person had one. “In this business, with the longevity most of us have, it’s word of mouth,” the email writer notes. “One person stood up and said, ’35 years at Mario’s is my resume.'”

Two longtime employees “stormed out,” the email writer says. Siguenza “had the rest stand in line like cattle to sign our names and contact info on the back of the one resume.” Two days later, the writer says, the resume still sat there.

“Many of these employees supported their entire family on their earnings from Mario’s,” the email says.

After that meeting, the writer adds, “the remaining employees huddled outside on the sidewalk, and hugged and cried.”

Three employees have since found work at 323 Restaurant. The others have not been so fortunate.

I called Siguenza this afternoon, to get his side of the story. He began by saying, “I’m not ready to open up. I’m still looking at getting the building into compliance.” He had been hoping to reopen — with the name Mario’s — around Mother’s Day. After 5 or 6 months, Mario’s will transition into Harvest Wine Bar –similar to Siguenza’s restaurant of the same name in Greenwich. Harvest offers modern American custom cuisine with Asian, Latin and Mediterranean influences, plus an extensive wine list.

Harvest Wine Bar & Restaurant in Greenwich. (Photo collage/CTBites.com)

Harvest Wine Bar & Restaurant in Greenwich. (Photo collage/CTBites.com)

“I have no employees yet,” he said.

I asked directly: “Will you hire any former employees?”

“I don’t know if I can hire any of them,” he said. Then he paused.

“Probably not.”

Why not?

“No specific reason,” he said. “I have to put the new staff through training at my other restaurants.”

I asked again: If he’s reopening as Mario’s, why not hire Mario’s staff?

“It’s not that I don’t want them. I’d never say that,” Siguenza said.

“But this is Mario’s in name only. It’s not the same service or menu or wine list. It’s completely different. The only thing remaining is the name.”

He added, “The kitchen staff before was used to one style of cooking. This is completely different. They need a new type of training.”

Mario's matchesSo why is he reopening as Mario’s — but not Mario’s, really — and then closing after a few months to renovate, before reopening once again as Harvest?

“It will take a while to get all the approvals” for Harvest from Planning & Zoning, the Building Department and others, he said. He plans to work on the paperwork now, while operating as Mario’s. Once his permits are in hand, he’ll begin renovations.

Former employees plan a rally — with, they hope, “many loyal customers” — on opening day of the “New Mario’s.”

Villa Del Sol: Here For Cinco De Mayo, And Way Beyond

It’s hard enough to make it as a restaurant in Westport.

The last thing you need is a 2-year construction project next door.

Unless, added to that, is the unfounded rumor that you’re going to close.

That’s what’s happening to Villa del Sol.

Villa del Sol

The popular, family-oriented Mexican spot now shares Elm Street with dust and construction vehicles. When Bedford Square is completed, it will be a boon to the area — and Villa del Sol will benefit.

But it won’t be easy getting there.

The restaurant opened in 1998. While not as long as a previous place — Werner’s — 17 years is still “forever” in restaurant terms.

Owner Joe Osorio emigrated from Mexico at age 23. His background was in engineering, but in the US he entered the restaurant business. He had his own place in Rockland County for a couple of decades.

Villa del sol logoThere were originally 2 Villa del Sols, but the one in New Haven was closed, due to eminent domain. (A school took its place.)

Westport’s Villa del Sol is quite a place. All the furnishings — tables, chairs, artwork — come direct from Mexico. Joe made many trips south, bringing it all back piece by piece.

Joe’s daughters — Jennifer and Colleen — were always involved in the restaurant. He fought pancreatic cancer for 2 years, and worked until just 3 days before his death, in 2011. The daughters then took over.

Their children all help out now too. Jennifer’s husband, Fili Molina, has been the chef since opening day.

Colleen and Jennifer Osorio. Their father brought all the furnishings from Mexico by hand.

Colleen and Jennifer Osorio. Their father brought all the furnishings from Mexico by hand.

The customers are like family too. “They’ve been coming for years,” Jennifer says. “Before they sit down, their drink is front of them.”

The crowd includes plenty of families. Kids and adults alike love the menu — a combination of classic Mexican dishes, and contemporary Nuevo Latino ones.

“We’ve watched everyone grow up,” Colleen says. “And we’ll keep doing it, for years to come.”

Despite the noise, the debris, and the incorrect rumor that Villa del Sol will close.

See you there soon. Hey, Cinco de Mayo is Tuesday!

Image

And This Was BEFORE Going Into The Bar

Black Duck parking

Calling Bartaco. Sort Of.

Bartaco opened nearly 2 years ago. Almost immediately, Linda Gramatky Smith’s fax line rang.

Someone wanted to know something about the menu. That’s odd, Linda thought.

Then the fax rang again. There was a call about reservations. Then another, wanting to know if the restaurant offered takeout.

Linda Gramatky Smith

Linda Gramatky Smith

Linda and her husband Ken have had their fax number for 22 years. (She’s a 1960 Staples grad; together they run Gramatky Galleries, handling the works of her late father, “Little Toot” illustrator Hardie Gramatky.)

The Smiths’ fax number is 203-222-8220. Bartaco‘s number is 203-222-8226. There would not seem to be much confusion — except “8226” is actually the same as “TACO,” on your phone’s keypad. The Wilton Road restaurant paid some pretty pesos for that easy-to-remember number.

Unfortunately — even before a tequila or two — plenty of people read the letter “O” as the number “0.”

Uh “oh.”

You or I would get pretty angry after the first couple of calls.

Fortunately, Linda and Ken are not you or I.

For 2 years, every time the fax line rings, they’ve answered it. Patiently, they explain the situation. Always, the callers are grateful. Nearly always, they compliment the Smiths on their patience and pleasantness.

Bartaco is very popular. That means a lot of people call the wrong number.

Bartaco is very popular. That means a lot of people call the wrong number.

In fact, the Smiths do more than just answer the fax. If they’re not quick enough to pick up — and the caller hears the fax “beep,” and hangs up — the couple calls back and gives the correct phone number. That kindness is always met with awe.

“We like Westport’s restaurants. We want them to succeed,” Linda explains, as if every Westporter who received at least 300 calls in 2 years — her estimate — would be so sanguine.

Bartaco has been responsive. They’ve added the numerals “8226” to their website, which has helped considerably. But the calls still keep coming — a few last week, Linda says. She thinks there are still some places (“maybe Yelp?”) that say only “203-222-TACO.”

The Bartaco website includes phone numbers for all 6 restaurants. Each ends in "TACO" -- er, "8226."

The Bartaco website includes phone numbers for all 6 restaurants. Each ends in “TACO” — er, “8226.”

Actually, Bartaco has done even more for Linda and Ken. The other day, they invited the couple in for a complimentary meal.

The Smiths had a great time. They loved the lively river scene, and the food was great.

Linda and Ken thanked the staff for an excellent meal.

In person. Not by phone.

AAA Leaves Westport — But We Won’t Have Far To Drive

AAA is a great organization. They’re still just a phone call away for road assistance — and now with cell phones, calling for help is easier than ever — while their walk-in offices have adapted well to changing times.

GPS has rendered TripTiks — those cobbled-together map books that showed you exactly how to get anywhere — irrelevant to anyone but your great-grandparents. But these days AAA also offers an important collection of services, like a free notary, passport photos, and the most time-saving, hassle-avoiding life hack you may ever enjoy: DMV services, including drivers license renewals. It rocks — and you don’t even have to be a member!

Recently, AAA studied the number of visitors to its Compo Shopping Center location. They’ve been there 5 years, after 20 in the small Saugatuck plaza across from Dunville’s.

AAA

This location is convenient — and it’s near Gold’s! — but AAA found that most visitors came from Norwalk. The 2nd highest number were from Fairfield. Hometown Westport was 3rd.

So AAA is doing the logical thing: They’re moving to Norwalk. Even smarter: They’re opening a new branch in Fairfield.

The Norwalk office will be at 495 Westport Avenue (Route 1). That’s the Hawley Lane Shoes plaza, across from The Edge and movie theaters. Just 2.2 miles from the current location, the new office will be larger than the current one — and there’s more parking. The move takes place in 6-8 weeks.

The new Fairfield site is 1201 Kings Highway North — the Staples shopping center  off I-95 Exit 24. The target date is June 1.

It seems like a winning solution for everyone. Unless you want a pastrami on rye while waiting for your license to be laminated.

(Hat tip: Sandy Soennichsen)

And So It Goes

The post-Mario’s era begins:

(Photo/Gene Borio)

(Photo/Gene Borio)

Missing Fountain Mystery Deepens

First, “06880” wondered what happened to the early 1900s fountain/horse trough located at the intersection of the Post Road and Wilton Road.

Turns out it turned up next to National Hall. Then it was established that it’s no longer there.

The fountain a few years ago, near National Hall. It's gone now.

The fountain a few years ago, near National Hall. It’s gone now.

Crazily enough, no one knows when it vanished. Or why. Or where it is now. Even though it happened within the last decade.

What’s beyond dispute, though, is that the fountain was there in 1991, when Arthur Tauck gave Westport one of its greatest gifts ever.

National Hall had stood on the west bank of the Saugatuck River since 1873. It was built by Horace Staples — our high school’s namesake — and over the years served many purposes.

It housed Staples’ First National Bank of Westport. It was used as a newspaper office, a coffin-making business, and for many other purposes. Adjacent wharves provided easy shipping to New York, Boston and other ports.

The 3rd floor was used for everything from basketball games to concerts, said noted local historian Eve Potts. In 1884, the very 1st classes of the new Staples High School met there.

Ships lined up near National Hall (right), in this early photo.

Ships lined up near National Hall (right), in this early photo.

According to the New York Times, the bank moved out in 1924. Other tenants followed. By the 1940s — with most commerce being conducted on the other side of the river — the building was sold to Fairfield Furniture.

But that store closed in the 1970s. For 3 decades the building — one of the most prominent in Westport — sat empty.

Fairfield Furniture -- a hulking presence for many years.

Fairfield Furniture — a hulking presence for many years.

It deteriorated. Water leaked in. Tons of bird droppings caused the roof to sag.

In 1989, the area was designated a Historic Design District. That enabled Tauck — president of the high-end tour company founded by his father, which at that time was headquartered nearby on Wilton Road — to redevelop the area, in a historically sensitive way.

Over a period of several years, Tauck renovated National Hall. He’d bought it at auction in 1986, for $1.5 million. At a cost of $6 million, he and Ferris Architects restored the building to its original brick and cast-iron facade grandeur.

Tauck  created the boutique 15-room Inn at National Hall. Every room was different. Each floor included a living room, library and fireplace. A restaurant occupied the ground floor.

The Inn at National Hall, after Arthur Tauck's restoration project.

The Inn at National Hall, after Arthur Tauck’s restoration project.

The manager was Nick Carter. From 1979-85, the former British Navy officer was in charge of royal accommodations on the yacht Brittania.

Tauck also donated the gas lamps on the Post Road bridge to the town.

Reporting on the project in 1991, the Times described “a new landscaped plaza with a fountain as its centerpiece.”

For a variety of reasons, the Inn at National Hall did not succeed. Today, though with Vespa on the ground floor — and offices above — the place is bustling. And the building is a handsome sight for anyone entering town.

But back to the fountain. Sometime — during one of the many renovations of the property — it disappeared.

How could a handsome — and very heavy — fountain simply have vanished? And how come no one recalls when it happened, or where it went?

Where is Rod Serling now that we really need him?

(Hat tip: Elaine Marino)

 

Final Message From Mario’s: Final Day Is Saturday

Mario’s owner Lori Kosut writes:

Our last night will be this Saturday.

It’s bittersweet for our family, but it’s time to turn the page. We are so grateful to our loyal staff and customers, and of course “06880” readers. Thanks for your support!

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)