Category Archives: Restaurants

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.

SoNo Baking Company Opens Wednesday; Geiger’s Closes

SoNo Baking CompanyWord on the (Church) street is that Sono Baking Company will open tomorrow Wednesday at 7 am. Moving into the funky space previously occupied by Java, they’ll offer a limited menu this 1st week.

Meanwhile, Geiger’s Home & Garden Center has closed its Post Road East location. That’s the end of a long era. For several decades before Geiger’s, it was known as Parsell’s Garden Mart.

Redevelopment plans for the 2-acre site include a commercial/residential complex with 12 residential rental units — 2 of them classified as “affordable” — plus a retail building and bank.

Geiger’s is still open in Fairfield, New Canaan, Greenwich and Mamaroneck. And consultation services are still offered in their Sconset Square location.

From which — starting tomorrow — employees can walk a few steps over to Westport’s newest coffee shop, Sono Baking Company.

Geigers

Bogey’s Is Back!

The good news: Bogey’s — the popular, casual North Main Street restaurant/bar that fell victim to Hurricane Irene’s 2011 floodwaters — is reopening.

The bad news: It’s not in Westport anymore.

The good news: It’s not far away. The new location — where doors open later this week — is 2 Wilton Avenue, Norwalk. That’s a mile south of Stew Leonard’s, straight down the hill.

The owners are the same: Jim and John Stablein.

The ambiance will be just as great too.

Even the logo’s the same:

Bogeys

 

This Old House Is … Tavern On Main

On Wednesday, “06880” introduced a new feature: “This Old House.” Every Wednesday we’ll post a new photo of an old house. We hope to identify 12 of them prior to a Westport Historical Society exhibit on the preservation and change.

We started with a practice shot — one that exhibit curator Bob Weingarten had already identified:

Lost house 1 - March 4, 2015

“06880” readers placed it (literally) all over the map. Guesses included Kings Highway, Cross Highway, Long Lots Road, Baker Avenue, Hillspoint Road, South Compo Road, Avery Place, Canal Street, Riverside Avenue, Myrtle Avenue, Partrick Road, Woodside Avenue and Wilton Road.

All were wrong. As Morley Boyd, Maureen Aron, Wendy Crowther and Kevin Martin noted, it’s on Main Street. Today we know it as Tavern on Main.

Tavern on Main 2

According to the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism’s Historic Resources Inventory, the building was constructed in 1813 for grocer Levi  Downes. A former wing on the east elevation was occupied by the Downes School for Ladies, run by Levi’s daughter Esther.

The area lacks ownership documentation for the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, it is shown on a famous 1878 map of Westport this way: “River Side Institute for Ladies, Sophia V. Downes, Principal.” And the WPA archives identify the 1930s owner as “C. Van Wyck.”

Downs House - Tavern on Main

The Historic Resources Inventory says that by the early 1940s, the building contained several apartments. By 1948 they had been converted to offices. The 1954 town directory lists a gift shop, clothing store and 2 real estate offices at the address.

By 1965, part of the building became Chez Pierre. That famed restaurant remained in the space through the 1980s. Since 1996, it is the equally renowned Tavern on Main.

Morley Boyd adds this information: “In the 1920s and ’30s, buildings in the downtown area shuffled about with some regularity (Spotted Horse, Red Cross, Avery medical building, Christ & Holy Trinity parsonage [now up on Compo North, I think], the (lost) house on Gorham Island, the houses in back of Colonial Green, etc. What couldn’t be moved in whole was deconstructed and used in new construction (houses on Violet Lane).”

And, Dan Aron says, in the 1st half of the 20th century the building was the home of Robert and Marie Lawson. He was a noted author and illustrator of children’s classics like “Rabbit Hill” and “The Story of Ferdinand.”

There you have it: Everything you ever wanted to know about 146 Main Street.

Or whatever it was called then.

Hola, Tierra!

On Monday, an “06880” reader emailed that Tierra — the Latin-inspired restaurant in the basement of the old Town Hall — had closed. I called, but the phone just rang and rang. No answer; no message about hours, reservations — nada.

Yesterday afternoon around 2 p.m., I called again. Same thing.

I went down, to the alley entrance between Spruce and Restoration Hardware. The entrance was not well shoveled. I peered inside. All was dark. I took a photo.

This was the entrance to Tierra, yesterday afternoon.

This was the entrance to Tierra, yesterday afternoon.

I checked the website. It said, “Siesta menu daily, 3-5 p.m.” I looked for a Facebook page. There was none.

I posted a story saying Tierra was closed.

It drew 17 comments, about the food and service. Reviews were mixed. No one said, “no! It’s open!”

Tonight, WestportNow reports, Tierra was open for business. There’s a photo too (and a caption, saying they no longer serve lunch).

Tierra is definitely open.

But there’s still no sign outside.