Category Archives: Restaurants

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)

Historic Fountain Disappears

Monday’s post about Vespa and Neat restaurants included some interesting back stories about their respective locations: National Hall and the Vigilant Firehouse. It included this photo of the intersection of the Post Road and Wilton Road.

National Hall - Riverside - Wilton Rd - early 1900s

Alert “06880” reader Jack Harder wondered: “Whatever happened to the fountain/horse trough in the middle of Wilton Road?”

That got another alert reader — Elaine Marino — thinking. A Google search led her to this photo:

Westport downtown fountain

It was taken on the boardwalk behind — yes — National Hall and the old fire station.

But a caption from October, 2013 on the website she found it on — Panoramio — reads: “This fountain is gone! I am missing this piece and it should be placed back where it was originally!”

That’s right. The fountain has vanished. Which raises 3 questions:

  • Was the fountain on the boardwalk the same trough in the early 1900s photo?
  • When and why was it removed?
  • Where is it now?

Alert readers who know — or who have memories of the fountain — should click “Comments” below.

You Can Still Get Your Steaks At Mario’s

With all the hubbub over the closing of Mario’s, owner-for-at-least-a-little-while-longer Lori Kosut wants her thousands of loyal customers to know: The popular Saugatuck restaurant is definitely still open for business. Not one item on the menu has changed.

When there is a solid date of transfer, “06880” will have all the details.

So, mangia!

Except for Easter. They’re closed this Sunday.

The sun is setting on Mario's. (Photo/Billy Scalzi)

The sun is setting on Mario’s. (Photo/Billy Scalzi)

Keeping History, Adding Excitement To Saugatuck’s West Bank

Bobby Werhane graduated from Cornell’s hospitality school. But he’s the first to admit he wasn’t really into the industry.

A finance major, he did “what every Cornell lacrosse player does,” he says. He went to Wall Street.

It was the summer of 2001. The economy was not great. He got a job with a “chop shop boiler room financial firm,” and an apartment in a brand-new high-rise on Chambers Street.

One morning a few weeks later, he heard a loud crash. He looked outside his window, and saw what he thought was a Cessna piercing the World Trade Center.

Bobby Werhane

Bobby Werhane

He went out on his balcony overlooking the Hudson, and called his father. While on his cell, he saw a plane banking hard to the left. Seconds later, it slammed into the other Twin Tower.

Neighbors poured into his apartment. A man was on the phone, talking to his mother in one of the WTC buildings. As they spoke, the building collapsed.

“I was going to be like everyone else,” Bobby says. “That day, my path diverged.”

A Cornell lax alum hired Bobby to run his popular midtown cafe/bar, Local. At 22, Bobby was bitten by the hospitality bug.

He went on to own, operate and sell 8 different restaurants, bars and supper clubs in New York. One was Gin Lane, in the Meatpacking District. Another was Johnny Utah’s near Rockefeller Center. A 3rd — Scarpetta — earned 3 stars from the New York Times.

Bobby learned about the artisan craft of cooking, and locally sourced quality products. But owning rock-and-roll bars did not seem “genuine” to him.

L'ArtusiHis next restaurant, Dell’Anima, created a real family environment. Then came L’Artusi, which really took off.

But Bobby became a father. Life grew more complicated. He asked his partners to buy him out. He used the profits to open Spasso, a small, rustic Italian place in the West Village.

Six years ago, his wife got pregnant again. “The only people we knew with kids lived in Westport,” he says.

They moved to Saugatuck Shores. “It was a beach shack with no air conditioning,” he recalls. “But it was on the water. We thought it was a palace. We loved it.”

They moved again, to Compo Beach. Hurricane Irene deposited 4 feet of water in their home; Hurricane Sandy brought 8 feet. Their 3rd child was due 3 weeks later. The family moved to Coleytown, then Green’s Farms. All along, Bobby commuted to New York.

One of Bobby’s best customers was a principal in Greenfield Partners. The real estate investment firm is headquartered in National Hall. Bobby and he talked about the renaissance going on across the Saugatuck River from downtown. The arrival of Bartaco, the new development planned for Save the Children, the success of Arezzo and more sounded enticing.

National Hall -- and the west bank of the Saugatuck River -- are among the most iconic scenes in Westport. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

National Hall — and the west bank of the Saugatuck River — are among the most iconic scenes in Westport. Even in snow they are alluring. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

“Growing up, I lived in the Midwest, Texas and Baltimore,” Bobby says. “I wanted roots.”

He found them in Westport. Now he’s digging them even deeper, on Saugatuck’s west bank.

Late last summer Bobby opened Neat. He loved the concept of the Darien spot — lovingly detailed coffee during the day, hand-crafted cocktails at night — and brought it to the former Vigilant firehouse on Wilton Road.

Neat uses the long space of the old Vigilant Firehouse well. There's a popular bar, and plenty of room for tables. (Photo/Riscala Agnese Design Group)

Neat uses the long space of the old Vigilant Firehouse well. There’s a popular bar, and plenty of room for tables. (Photo/Riscala Agnese Design Group)

“Restaurants are all about location. And this location is all about history,” he says. “I want this to be a communal place. There’s nothing more communal than a firehouse. And when it was a pizza place (Da Rosa’s Brick Oven), that was communal too.”

On Christmas Eve Bobby opened Vespa, just a few steps away. It’s on the ground floor of National Hall, occupying the space that once was Zanghi, and then a real estate office mortgage company.

Vespa’s location is even more important than Neat’s. National Hall dates back to the mid-1800s. For well over a century it served Westport as a bank, meeting hall, the very 1st site of Staples High School, and a furniture store.

In the early 1900s, National Hall (seen here from the intersection of the Post Road and Wilton Road) was one of the most important spots in town.

In the early 1900s, National Hall (seen here from the muddy intersection of the Post Road and Wilton Road) was one of the most important spots in town.

It fell into disuse though, and sat abandoned for years. In the 1990s, Arthur Tauck rescued it from the wrecking ball. He turned it into an upscale hotel (and donated the old-fashioned lamps lining the Post Road bridge).

Bobby opened up and brightened the ground floor. He envisioned a sophisticated menu — but also a place where anyone could hang out at the bar, enjoying a bowl of homemade pasta.

He’s succeeded. Vespa is lively. It’s fun. The food is superb. And there are special touches, like a traditional “Italian Sunday supper.” (From 4-8 p.m., the food — antipasti, salads, chicken, fish, whatever the chef comes up with  — just keeps coming.)

Vespa is warm and inviting. This view is toward the Post Road, where it meets Riverside Avenue.

Vespa is warm and inviting. This view is toward the Post Road, where it meets Riverside Avenue. (Photo/Riscala Agnese Design Group)

There have been speed bumps. The horrendous winter kept many Westporters from venturing out. Some  folks don’t realize there is plenty of parking, across the street and in the Save the Children lot.

But Bobby keeps smiling. As soon as  the weather clears, he’ll put tables outside. The very cool Vespa vibe will move outdoors, making the west side of the river even more exciting since — well, the mid-1800s.

How neat is that?

Mario’s: One More Time

Mario’s owner Lori Kosut confirmed this afternoon that the sale of the beloved restaurant will be finalized in “a couple of weeks.”

As reported yesterday, the 48-year-old Saugatuck landmark will eventually have a new look, menu and name: Harvest.

It won’t happen for a while. In the meantime — thanks to Westport native/superb photographer Lynn U. Miller — here’s one more look at the spot that long ago assumed a mythical place in Westport lore.

Mario's front - Lynn U Miller

The menu, in the front window.

The menu, in the front window.

Dinner was packed, earlier this week.

Dinner was packed, earlier this week.

Smiling host Paul Tolentino graduated from Staples in 1971.

Smiling host Paul Tolentino graduated from Staples in 1971.

(Photos/Lynn U. Miller)

(Photos/Lynn U. Miller)

 

Goodbye, Mario’s. Hello, Harvest

The rumors careening around town are true: Mario’s is being sold.

The legendary restaurant/bar — a Saugatuck mainstay since 1967 — will change hands soon. A new name, cuisine and interior will follow. The deal could be finalized tomorrow morning.

New owners Kleber, Nube and Vicente Siguenza own 5 restaurants in Fairfield and New Haven Counties (including 55 Degrees in Fairfield).

Mario's: A Westport legend.

Mario’s: A Westport legend.

Mario’s will remain as it is for the next year. It will then transform into Harvest Wine Bar — similar to the Siguenzas’ 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 supports local, organic farms.

Mario’s — the official name was Mario’s Place, but no one called it that — was opened by Frank “Tiger” DeMace and Mario Sacco. Its across-from-the-train-station location was perfect for commuters looking for a drink and dinner. Wives picking up their husbands stopped in too.

Marios logoMario’s quickly became a beloved family restaurant. Its menu — featuring enormous steaks, popular Italian dishes and large salads — seldom changed. Neither did the comfortable, homey decor. That was part of its charm.

For nearly 50 years Mario’s has been Westport’s go-to place to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and promotions — or commiserate over job losses and divorces.

Mario died in 2009.

Tiger died in 2012. His daughter Lori now co-owns Mario’s, with her brother Dominic DeMace.

“My father told us to keep it for a year, but not worry about having to sell it,” Lori said this afternoon. “The restaurant was his journey, not ours.”

Frank "Tiger" DeMace

Frank “Tiger” DeMace

It’s been 3 years since Tiger’s death. Lori and her husband Fletcher have a 6-year-old daughter.

“It’s time,” Lori said. “I love Mario’s — the customers, the staff — but times have changed. It was a long, hard decision. But my father didn’t make us feel we had to keep it.”

Rumors have swirled for years that all of Railroad Place — with Mario’s smack in the middle — will be torn down, as part of Saugatuck’s Phase III renewal.

Lori and Dominic own the Mario’s building. The Siguenzas will operate Harvest on a long-term lease.

The rest of Railroad Place is owned by a different landlord. What will actually happen across from the station is pure speculation.

Meanwhile — 3.5 miles north — other rumors have the Red Barn being sold to the Westport Family Y.

The Y did not comment.

Marios placemat

Chabad Grows Into Its New Home

Three years ago, Chabad Lubavitch of Westport bought the old, abandoned Three Bears Restaurant. An “06880” story — including neighbors’ complaints of renovation work done prior to the permitting process — drew a record 217 comments.

Three years later, Chabad is preparing a moderate expansion plan. All is going smoothly — so well, in fact, that neighbors are ready to toast “L’chaim!”

Chabad Lubavitch's home -- formerly the Three Bears, as seen from Newtown Turnpike.

Chabad Lubavitch’s home — the old Three Bears, as seen from Newtown Turnpike.

Though it’s called “Chabad of Westport,” the local branch of the international group serves Weston, Wilton and Norwalk too. The old Three Bears property — at the intersection of Wilton Road and Newtown Turnpike — is centrally located for all 4 towns.

It was Chabad’s 1st true local home. The organization — whose aim is to enhance Jewish life through programs, social services and worship — had rented a variety of sites for 18 years, including Ketchum Street, the Westport Woman’s Club and Camp Mahackeno.

Chabad has flourished. It runs a religious school, teen and adult programs, and a summer camp (at Coleytown Elementary School). Recently, they hosted a festive Purim party.

Another view of Chabad, looking toward Wilton Road.

Another view of Chabad, looking toward Wilton Road.

The new addition will enhance Chabad’s services — and the neighborhood — say Rabbi Yehudah Leib Kantor and Peter Greenberg (a Chabad member and partner in Able Construction, who is doing the project at cost). The architect is Robert Storm.

The historic nature of the building — including, importantly, its street-facing facade — will be protected. New construction will be in “the New England vernacular” — fieldstone and shingles — blending in with what’s already there.

The additions and renovations — enlarging the current 9,000 square feet by 4,000 more — will take place in the back. A new 300-person sanctuary will double as a function hall for holiday events, and bar and bat mitzvahs (right now, Chabad rents the Westport Woman’s Club.) The religious school will be housed in the lower level.

A rendering of the addition.

A rendering of the addition, as seen from Newtown Turnpike.

Also planned: a new lobby, kitchen and elevator. The interior of the existing building will be “freshened up,” Greenberg says.

The 100-car parking lot entrance closest to Wilton Road has been closed. That should ease traffic by the light.

The back of the parking lot, meanwhile, will be raised slightly, to protect nearby wetlands.

Another rendering -- parking lot view.

Another rendering — parking lot view.

Chabad has already presented plans to Westport’s Flood and Erosion Control Board. Ahead are more panels, including Conservation, and Planning & Zoning.

A variance for coverage will be needed from the Zoning Board of Appeals. This is routine, Greenberg says, for nearly every church, synagogue, school and commercial property.

“This is a community project,” the rabbi notes. Funding comes entirely from area residents. Feedback from neighbors has been very positive, he and Greenberg say.

Chabad hopes for approvals within 3 to 4 months, with construction completed by next spring.

From their lips to you-know-who’s ears.