Category Archives: Restaurants

The West Lake Restaurant: Chinese Way Before It Was Cool

Today, Westport is awash in Asian restaurants. There’s Little Kitchen, Tengda, Rainbow Thai, Matsu Sushi, Shanghai Gourmet, Tiger Bowl, Westport Chinese Takeout, and probably others I’ve missed.

In the 1950s, though — and continuing for more than 25 years — our choices were limited. There was West Lake and Golden House.

Golden House was located in Compo Shopping Center — where Little Kitchen is now, interestingly.

West Lake was on Main Street, near the Post Road. Today it’s a retail outlet. But for many years, Westporters thought it was one of the most exotic restaurants around.

The West Lake restaurant (left) in 1976, a year after it closed. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

The West Lake restaurant (left) in 1976, a year after it closed. The stores next to it — Liverpool and Welch’s Hardware — are also long gone. The Westport Y’s Bedford building is on the opposite side of Main Street. (Photo/Fred Cantor)

West Lake lives on in memory. Now — thanks to Elizabeth Lee (granddaughter of the owners) and her cousin Beverly Au — it also lives on in a website.

West Lake Restaurant is a fascinating look — in words and photos — at long-gone Westport. It describes its founding in 1950 by Eddie and Frances Lee, as the 1st Chinese restaurant in Fairfield County.

West Lake, circa 1965.

West Lake, circa 1965 (back view, from Parker Harding Plaza).

West Lake took over the bankrupt Talley-Ho Tavern, which featured a grand piano with lounge singers. Because Parker Harding Plaza had not yet been built, a dock ramp led from the back door straight down to the Saugatuck River.

The Cantonese menu was “probably too far ahead of its time,” the website says. “When the cheaper and more common Chop Suey and Fried Rice style competitors opened, many patrons went to them.” (In deference to diners who did not eat Chinese food, in the beginning West Lake served steak and potatoes.)

The regulars came every week or so. Eddie Lee knew them all by name. Famous regulars included Paul Newman and Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas. Mariette Hartley was a hostess there, while a student at Staples. She told Frances Lee, “I’m going to be an actress!”

The Lees met at NYU. Eddie majored in banking and finance. They married in 1930. He climbed the banking ladder, in the US, China and Hong Kong. In 1942 the Lees and their children were repatriated to the US in a diplomatic exchange.

But Eddie could not find a job in banking. After working for a tool company, he opened his restaurant in Westport.

Eddie Lee with customers. A brave woman gingerly tries chopsticks.

Eddie Lee with customers. A brave man and woman gingerly try chopsticks.

The average chef lasted 8 months, the website says. Though the waiters and waitresses stayed much longer, there was a rapid turnover among the cooks and dishwashers. They spoke only Chinese, and rarely mixed with Americans.

They lived above the restaurant, in barracks. “Every bed seemed to have a tiny nightstand with a fancy camera,” the website says. “They toured the country by working in a different Chinese restaurant every 6 to 9 months, sending home money to their families in China, and taking pictures of their travels.”

West Lake was open 7 days a week. Though it closed in 1976, it had something in common with its Asian cuisine successors: December 25 was one of its busiest days of the year. Even in the 1950s, Jews ate Chinese food on Christmas.


Oyster Crabs: Yummmm Or Yecccch?

Alert — and hungry — “06880” reader Andy Yemma writes:

We like to eat fresh oysters, especially in summer, and get them from a variety of spots. Last Sunday we stopped in at Westfair Fish & Chips, across from Stop & Shop. They were doing great business selling delicious fried oysters, clams, oysters on the half shell, lobster rolls, fries, etc. I bought a dozen nice-sized blue points for $12.

Later that evening while shucking them I came across something new. I’ve shucked a lot of oysters but had never seen this. And you’ll never see it in a restaurant.

It was a pea-sized object of some kind, I thought — maybe the beginnings of a pearl. I scraped it off into the trash, and went on to the next oyster. Hmm, another one of these tiny things. I took out my reading specs for a better look.

Damn if it wasn’t looking back at me! It was a tiny crab with a tiny crab face, pincers — the works.

I showed it to my wife. She acted like she’d seen a mouse.

An oyster crab -- though not Andy Yemma's. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

An oyster crab — though not Andy Yemma’s. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

I did what any alert “06880” reader would do: I googled “Oysters with tiny crabs inside.” Damn if they don’t have a Wikipedia entry: “The oyster crab, Zaops ostreus, is a small, whitish or translucent crab in the family Pinnotheridae. Found specifically in oysters, it is an edible sea food delicacy.”

Edible? Apparently they were well received by the food critics of the New York Times – about 125 years ago! The Oyster Crab Salad: “A dish that is as pleasing to the eye as to the palate.” Well, that was in the heyday of New York Harbor’s oyster business (before pollution killed most of them off).

I found oyster crabs in 3 more shells. Didn’t have the courage to nibble them. As far as pleasing to the eye, not so much. But neither are oysters for that matter.

We ate our dozen oysters with a tiny bit of trepidation. They were delicious as usual. And no repercussions. I kind of wished I’d saved the buggers.

Next time.

Westport Gets 2 New Beaches

As the weather gets nicer — though it’s taking its own damn time — Joey’s gears up for another season.

For over 20 years, Westporters have flocked to the very popular Compo Beach restaurant. For almost as long, some cool old photos have hung on the walls.

But until very recently, no one looked too closely at them.

Very alert “06880” reader Christine Cullen did.

She loved the shot of the old wooden bathhouses, extending where the playground is now:

Compo Beach bathhouses

She was also intrigued by a 2nd shot of the beach back in the day, with all its rocks:

Compo Beach - old

But when Christine looked closely, she saw that the top photo says “Campo Beach.” And the bottom one is labeled “Longshore Beach.”

During all these years, nobody noticed the errors.

We’re too busy enjoying Joey’s, and all the other pleasures of Campo (aka Longshore) Beach.

Staples Culinary Grads Cook Up A Storm

Staples graduates achieve great success in a dazzling variety of fields: Music. Theater. Engineering. Finance. Media. The law.

It’s what you’d expect from a high-achieving high school in an affluent suburb.

But — quietly, creatively and in high numbers — Staples alums are making their marks as chefs, caterers and restaurant owners too.

For over a decade, the school’s culinary program has been as dynamic as its academics, arts and athletics.

Recently, “06880” profiled Alison Milwe Grace. A highly regarded instructor — one of 3 formally trained chefs in the culinary department — and owner of a catering company, she reached the final round in the Food Network’s “Kitchen Casino.”

Josh Litvinoff

Josh Litvinoff

Last month, 4 of Cecily Gans’ former students earned degrees from  Johnson & Wales University‘s prestigious culinary program. Kelly Powers, Becca Nissim, Brandon Hans-Lemus and Josh Litvinoff now move on to the next stage in exciting careers.

Josh — who joined Kelly in starting a college catering and demonstration business — says it would not have happened without Gans’ help and guidance.

“She continues to check in on us,” he notes. “She even comes to Providence to catch up.”

Gans is proud of her 4 former students. Kelly — who worked with Bill Taibe at The Whelk — honed her writing skills at Staples, then began a Culinary Journalism Club at JWU. Josh completed his senior year in high school and 1st year of college at the same time. Brandon did an internship at the Dressing Room, stoking the passion first ignited in the Staples kitchen.

Gans calls JWU “the right fit” for all 4. One reason: the support given to them in Westport by this “very progressive, very supportive school system.”

The Staples curriculum is “college-level,” she says. “We individualize the program to meet every student’s needs. There’s baking and pastry. In Culinary II we do international and American regional cooking, in a professional setting. We work with the Farmers’ Market. We stay current, and pay a lot of attention to local and seasonal foods. So students who go on to culinary school have a great foundation already.”

Cecily Gans and her culinary students prepare to enjoy one of their own meals. (Photo/Ben Reiser for Inklings)

Cecily Gans and her culinary students prepare to enjoy one of their own meals. (Photo/Ben Reiser for Inklings)

Gans cites other graduates. Alex Burger is cooking at 1 of the top 50 restaurants in Asia. Jose Olmeda works with a leading Philadelphia chef. John Nealon, his wife Sophie Potash and Rob Krauss opened the highly regarded Fortina in Armonk, New York. Kat Leong was most recently the catering director at Carnegie Hall.

Other graduates are pursuing related careers, like nutrition.

“If that’s what’s in their heart, we help set them up for success,” Gans says. “That’s our goal. We want to see them find their passion, thrive and feel fulfilled.”

Most of Gans’ students, of course, do not go on to culinary school, or careers in that field. That’s fine. She is happy to give them a lifelong appreciation for food — and the knowledge of how to prepare it.

“This is an incredible school system,” Gans says. “Like everyone else here, I’m glad I can help kids figure out their next steps.”

Montage Makes A Move

Montage — the 3-year-old, quirkily funky antique-and-artwork store on the Post Road and Turkey Hill South — has gotten very successful, very quickly.

In fact, it’s so busy it’s leaving town.

With its internet business taking off, the Westport location is no longer big enough. So owners Tom Roth and Robin Babbin are heading just over the Norwalk border.

On June 1, they’ll move into 5,000 square feet on Lois Street (off Westport Avenue, by McDonald’s), next to Westport-owned Sugar & Olives restaurant.

Montage will use one part of the building as a showroom, with constantly changing art. The other part will be filled with new items, as-yet-unrestored pieces, and knickknacks that for whatever reason can’t make it out onto the floor.

And because no one likes to move a lot of stuff, Montage is offering 20 to 50% off all Westport inventory, through the end of May.


Montage, in Westport. The name is a combination of "MOdern" and "viNTAGE."

Montage, in Westport. The name is a combination of “MOdern” and “viNTAGE.”

“Jackass”: Starbucks Parking Lot Edition

In the TV show “Jackass,” contestants tried to outdo previous dangerous, dumb and antisocial stunts.

In Westport’s Post Road Starbucks version of the game, drivers engage in increasingly rude, self-centered, entitled behavior.

First they park on the grass. Then they block one of the entrance/exit lanes.

Yesterday, it came to this:

Starbucks - Diane Lowman

The driver just stopped. Plopped her car in the middle of the lot. And waltzed into Starbucks, preventing everyone else from getting around.

Diane Lowman — who took the photo — told the driver when she returned, “This was a really inappropriate place to park.”

The driver got nasty. Diane took a picture of the car and plate, and called the police. The driver accused Diane of threatening and harassing her.

Diane adds, “The police officer (who was very nice, and whose time I felt badly about wasting ) said they are called daily to this location, which should never have been zoned for so many cars in the first place. He said he’s made several arrests over belligerent confrontations.”

And, Diane says, “Starbucks says it has no control over the lot, as it doesn’t own the building.”

So, she wonders: “Whose ‘problem’ is this to address, and solve?”


CT Bites. Chew On That One.

If you’ve lived here a while, you know that in many ways, Connecticut bites. (Just check out the comments here last week, about a survey placing our state 49th in a poll of places residents would most like to move out of.)

But we do have a fairly robust (and ever-changing) food scene. And CT Bites covers it like guac on nachos.

The clever, wide-ranging, sometimes-irreverent-but-always-interesting look at food in Fairfield County includes information on restaurants, recipes, cooking classes, food festivals, wine tastings, chef comings and goings, teaching kids to cook, family-friendly spots, gadgets, and of course a chance to “dish” on whatever readers want.

A typical CT Bites page includes plenty of information.

A typical CT Bites page includes plenty of information.

Now, editor-in-chief/founder Stephanie Webster and executive editor Amy Kundrat have collaborated on a handsome — and very handy — new book.

It’s called Extraordinary Recipes from Fairfield County Chef’s Table, and it features recipes from over 50 excellent restaurants.

Westport is well represented:

  • Bobby Q’s (Brisket and Beef Burnt Ends; Pit Beans)
  • DaPietro’s (Ravioli Alla Campagna with Salsa on Burro a Nocciole)
  • LeFarm (Burrata with Sweet & Sour Summer Squash; Brined Pork Chops with Corn & Pepper Chow-chow)
  • Matsu Sushi (Ruby Angel; Salmon Confetti Salad)
  • Michele’s Pies (Apple Raspberry Crumb Pie)
  • Saugatuck Grain & Grape (New Beginning)
  • SoNo Baking Company & Cafe (Caramel-Apple Tart)
  • Tarry Lodge Enoteca Pizzeria (Pizza Margherita)
  • Terrain Garden Café (Buttermilk Fried Chicken & Apple-Corn Bread Waffles)
  • The Whelk (Shrimp & Grits with Jalapeño Butter & Tennessee Country Ham; Seared Scallops with Farro, Corn, Beans & Bacon)

There’s also a recipe from The Dressing Room (Goat Burgers with Bacon & Apple Marmalade), which goes to show that putting together a book takes a loooong time.

Clockwise from upper left: the book; Amy Kundrat; Stephanie Webster; Sugar & Olives' pancakes.

Clockwise from upper left: the book; Amy Kundrat; Stephanie Webster; Sugar & Olives’ pancakes.

The recipes are great. The photography is fantastic. But there’s much more.

Each restaurant and chef gets an in-depth write-up. Sidebars cover food charities; farms and farm dinners; “diners and dives”; coffee roasters; frozen treats; burgers; food trucks; juice bars; noodle bars; pizza — even train station eats (who knew?).

Whether you make Seared Ahi Tuna and Lime-Chutney Polenta with White Chocolate, Jalapeño & Cilantro Sauce (Chocopologie) — or just reservations — for dinner, this book deserves a place at your table.

Martha Stewart: “Eat” your heart out.

(To purchase a copy, click here. This Saturday — May 17, 1 p.m. — Stephanie Webster and Amy Kundret will be at the Westport Barnes & Noble for a book-signing and Q-and-A. They’ll be joined by chef Jon Vaast of Norwalk’s Sugar & Olives, who will bring his Chocolate Pancakes with Bourbon Whipped Cream recipe.)

Redding Roadhouse Blues

Nearly 2 years ago, “06880” meandered north — up Route 53, past Devil’s Den  and the Saugatuck Reservoir — for a story on the Redding Roadhouse.

Staples grads Colleen Cook Stonbely and Wirt Cook were 2 of the 4 new owners. The others were Wirt’s wife Karen, and Colleen’s husband Ted (who would have been a Stapleite, had he not been shipped off to the Gunnery).

The proud owners of the Redding Roadhouse (from left): Ted Stonbely, Colleen Cook Stonbely, Karen Cook and Wirt Cook.

The proud owners of the Redding Roadhouse (from left): Ted Stonbely, Colleen Cook Stonbely, Karen Cook and Wirt Cook.

The quartet had big plans. The place definitely rocked, with music from local favorites (and owners’ friends) Dylan Connor, Mark Mollica and Merritt Jacob. 

But this Saturday night (May 14) marks the end of the Roadhouse. Today, the owners announced that they have been unsuccessful in negotiating a lease with their landlords.

“The unfortunate results,” the Roadhouse team wrote, “are the closure of a small business, the demise of an iconic restaurant and Redding landmark, and, most importantly, the loss of 30 jobs.”

The Redding Roadhouse

The Redding Roadhouse

The owners worked closely with the community, partnering with the Mark Twain Library, local schools and other organizations. They raised money for good causes, and bought from local farms and artisan businesses.

They’ll open at 4 p.m. for the rest of the week for a less-than-happy Happy Hour. When they close, remaining inventory will be donated to the Connecticut Food Bank and other area pantries.

Westport’s Dylan Connor plays his final gig on Saturday.

It’s a sad day for Redding, the Roadhouse — and the 4 great owners. But you can’t keep good young folks down. They’ll be heard from again.

Selfishly, I hope their next venture is right here in their hometown.



Last Call For The Bar Car

For decades, it’s been an enduring image of suburbia.

The business executive lingers over a 3-martini lunch. Later, he (it’s always a man) boards the train to Connecticut, heading straight to the bar car. In Westport he steps off the platform and rolls into Mario’s.

You can still order 3 martinis at lunch (unless you have a job). Mario’s will be here forever (we hope).

But — as of Friday — the bar car is gone. It’s joined the coal car and steam engine in that great switchyard in the sky.

Bar cars in 1968 (left) and 2010. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

Bar cars in 1968 (left) and 2010. (Photos courtesy of the New York Times)

Metro-North‘s bar car — part of the commuting experience since the 1930s — fell victim to (of course) progress. Their design was incompatible with the railroad’s new M-8 cars, which have gone into service at the same time Metro-North has done 2 things previously believed impossible: take longer, and be less reliable.

Yesterday’s New York Times assured readers (and riders) that drinks will still be available at Grand Central, via carts near the tracks.

“It’s a rebranding,” said MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan. He’s a Staples grad (Class of 1994), so he may or may not have 1st-hand knowledge of the bar car.

But tens of thousands of Westport commuters do. Click “Comments” to share your memories. Due to the what-happens-in-the-bar-car-stays-in-the-bar-car nature of this topic, we’ll allow anonymous comments just this once.

Lunch Box Soon To Be Empty

Sure, this is “06880.” But occasionally we wander up to 06883. Westport and Weston are pretty closely connected — especially at a place like the Lunch Box, in Weston Center.

But after today, that connection will end.

Alert reader Sarah Gross says this is the last day of the popular restaurant. It closes tomorrow, for 5 weeks.

Then a new owner takes over — and turns it into a new place. No one knows if the employees — many of whom worked there since colonial times (just kidding) (sort of) — will have jobs when it reopens, as something new.

Sarah is one of its many heartbroken customers. She just brought the devastated crew daffodils from her garden.

That brought a few smiles. Otherwise, today’s mood at the Lunch Box is as gloomy as the weather.

The Lunch Box.

The Lunch Box.