Back To The Big Top

I’ve been accused of glorifying the Remarkable Book Shop — making the Main Street store (now Talbot’s) into a symbol for a long-ago unique, mom-and-pop downtown now replaced by faceless, corporate chain stores.

But whether you think I’m a starry-eyed, stuck-in-the-past romantic or a long-time Westporter recalling a funkier community, I dare you to look at this picture and tell me that what’s there now is an improvement.

That was the Big Top, sitting coolly at the corner of the Post Road and Roseville.

Today it’s McDonald’s.

Through the 1960s and ’70s, the Big Top was the place to go for burgers, dogs, fries, onion rings, ribs, chicken and shakes.

An enormous range of people went — teenagers, lawyers, local workers, college kids. Pretty much anyone except mommies with little kids. They hung more at Chubby Lane’s. If burger places were music, Chubby’s was the Beatles. Big Top: the Stones.

(Carrol’s came later. It was the Monkees.)

Ours was not the only Big Top — there were others, with the same funky sign and striped roof, in New Haven, Bridgeport, Monroe and Greenwich. But ours might be the most famous.

Jay Leno has referenced it at least twice. Once, in 2005, his guest was Paul Newman. Almost immediately, the talk turned to the Big Top. Here’s the clip:

A few year’s earlier, Jay’s guest was Michael Douglas. The talk turned to the early ’60s — and the Big Top.

Michael lived almost behind it — down Roseville, left on Whitney, left on Webb Road. Leno said he always stopped there, on his way to and from wherever.

A few years ago, a fan spotted Leno in California. “Greetings from Westport, Connecticut!” he said.

Leno immediately replied: “Big Top hamburgers!”

I don’t think anyone ever felt that way about McDonald’s.

Ours, or any of the other 32,736 on the planet.

44 responses to “Back To The Big Top

  1. They had some awesome ribs also and the cooks were the coolest dudes in town. Miss the big top big time.

  2. Great article Dan, I have very fond memories of the Big Top, which was within walking distance of my house on Spicer Court. My younger sister had her first job there, as I expect many other Westporters who grew up in that era did too.

  3. Dan — “whether you think I’m a starry-eyed, stuck-in-the-past romantic or a long-time Westporter recalling a funkier community” and God love you for it. Sigh – and I’m right there with you.

    When I visit Westport each summer, I longingly drive by the current establishment and sigh. I grew up in the same neighborhood as the family who started this restaurant — Big Top — it was a Big Deal back in the day. We had a lot of young restauranteurs/chefs in our neighborhood. We had the guy who made the donuts at Coffee An — he then opened his own place. I played with both Big Top children in this family every day and every summer night — playing wiffle ball, kick ball, hide and seek. My memories of driving home from Compo after a long day in the surf and sand in the evening twilight, and hitting Big Top — unreal. The smell of the burgers on their grill, the soft ice cream, the french fries — unequaled. I can still remember it now. Sitting outside, inside, in our car — it was all happening — it was all going on in Westport.

    Big Top was a Big Deal! It lives on with some of us when it was all going on in Westport.

  4. Fried clams!

  5. I miss the Big Top!

  6. So, why did it close?

  7. Their ribs and char broiled chicken served in a red and white checked paper basket, both served with a duck sauce….fries devoured with long wooden skinny forks. Being back Big Top and the town will be the better for it!

  8. Love them ribs n basket plus the fries!

  9. A ps in your mentioning Carrol’s. Have to say, their fries had a distinctive taste all their own that I loved. The whole Carrol’s experience is one that is worth mentioning as that was also a twilight post beach trip. The fries alone were amazing. I wonder how we stayed so skinny back in the day?? We were all a bunch of skinny ’60’s kids.

  10. Big Top definitely had the best French fries.

    • Yeah — you’re probably right but I still have a clear memory of those Carrol fries — there was something about the flavor that I still remember but possibly did not have the the good snap of Big Top’s or something. It’s all subjective but I have to agree — overall Big Top fries win for taste and texture.

  11. Great photo, Dan. Loved the Newman clip. Loved Big Top. You’re the best blogger ever!

  12. …and for all of us who appreciate Dan’s humor, there’s a reason he’s calling it The Stone[r]s…it was the 60’s

  13. Re Michael Douglas–I didn’t know about Webb Road but to the best of my knowledge he lived with his mom and stepfather at one point on Whitney Street right near Roseville.

  14. longing for their food

    So many great memories of Big Top. It was a dark day in Westport when they closed and were replaced by Roy Rogers 🙁 Growing up in Westport in the 70’s Big Top was just as much a part of the landscape as Carvel, Friendly’s and Dairy Queen. I still tell my kids stories about Big Top when we drive by.

  15. I’m having a very vivid sense memory right now. I’m flashing on what their food tasted like. It was luscious.

  16. You forgot the “CREST” the best place for teens to meet!

    Good article!

    Richard Sigmund Staples HS 1964

  17. “The Crest” came to prominence earlier than the Big Top. It was owned and operated by Andy Klein and worked by three generations of “Kleins” (no relation to Stanley and family on Main St.). I left Westport in ’64 and came back in ’82 to find both establishments gone. I believe the “Crest” was closed when Playhouse Square was developed.

  18. Carmine is right about the “Crest”. I ran into Andy Klein in the 1980’s while doing a fishing story aboard a party boat out of Bridgeport. He was happily catching lots of porgies and we had a great time talking about the hey-day of the Crest. Even before the Crest, we relics of the 50’s remember Banfe’s Drive-In also located where Playhouse Square is now. I remember Saturday nights with lines out the door of Staples kids stopping for a hamburger after watching the submarine races at Compo. I think Banfe’s was owned by an airline pilot, who eventually sold the restaurant to the owner of what used to be Viva Zapata in Saugatuck. It eventually burned down, the result of a domestic dispute and Viva ended up in Saugatuck. By that time, the 18-year old drinking law was going strong and it became a big night spot for Staples and the college crowd. – Dick Alley

    • Eric Buchroeder

      Dick, I don’t know if this story is true, but I’m pretty sure you would. My late brother in law Bert Scofield formerly of the WPD always told a story of throwing three Bridgeport rowdies through a plate glass window at the Crest on a busy Saturday night in the late 50’s, early 60’s. I had asked him (I was 12 at the time) if he had ever drawn his Colt .357 Python in the line of duty and he said “No, i never had to but the closest I came was throwing these three guys from B’Port who pulled a knife on me through the window at the Crest.” Bert was a very big man, used to put quarters through his ring finger easily. Can you vouch for him on that? Thanks, Eric B.

  19. MMmmmm, charcoal-favored burgers and super thick chocolate milkshake.

  20. Dan there was one in Waterbury also! The owners of that one severed their franchise agreement with the Meadows family, who owned the chain. We all worked and hung out there in high school.

  21. Loved the Big top. Parking lot full of Staples kids. Wish I could have a cheeseburger right now.

  22. Does anyone else think it is ironic that Paul Newman is wearing a McDonalds sponsor shirt. I miss Big Top and Carols too !!

  23. So nice that, after the vitriolic comments on Baron’s South and the Y, we can have a nostalgic discussion about Big Top…oops, I hope I didn’t overturn the apple cart!

  24. I look at that photo of the Big Top and can’t stop myself from drooling. In the 60s the Crest and Big Top generally attracted different customers: the Crest attracted the car gys/gals, the Big Top drew the “hi si’s” (high society). Both had great burgers, etc. so there was customer crossover. Both were great and both are missed by my taste buds.

  25. Eric Buchroeder

    As much as I ate there, I never got tired of either place. I can still taste those ribs/chicken combo baskets and its been 45 years.

  26. Eric Buchroeder

    Also, the Crest hot dogs with the bacon in the bottom of the buns and sauerkraut. Andy was a helluva nice guy.

  27. When Art’s Deli re-opened my first comment was that all I needed was the return of the Big Top (and Lums) and I would come back every week instead just once or twice a month for Shake Shack.

  28. The best thing about Big
    Top is…… I meet my dearest friend Christie Parket while working there.. The whole belly clams weren’t so bad either!,,
    Traci Weber

  29. In your opening remarks when you mention that the Remarkable Book Shop is “now Talbots”. More precisely it is now an “empty closed Talbots”. Who has some Pepto-Bismo Pink paint? Seems like a real good Halloween prank to have someone give it a fresh coat.

  30. What about the Thunderbird? And the two kinds of soda at the back of Carmine’s smoke Shop, cherry, and birch beer.

  31. Eric – I don’t remember that particular incident, but Bert was more than just a “big guy”. He was one of the strongest and toughest guys on the Department and was certainly capable of taking on any three guys on any given night. He was a good friend. -Dick

    • Eric Buchroeder

      Dick, I’ve often wondered about the veracity of his story. Bert could also tell a great story but he was a great friend and a super B-I-L.. Thanks, Eric

  32. Westporter4ever

    Oh the beloved Big Top…I remember it well! it was so sad when it closed.
    I grew just a few doors up from the Big Top..once upon a time I believe a family member owned the property…In any case…I have fond memories of getting money from my mom, walking through my yard..hopping onto my Uncle’s stonewall, (to stay off Roseville Rd) and walking along to the end and leaping off into the parking lot of the Big Top…back then it was really my brother who leaped…I sat down and mostly fell off! LOL then on the way brother would scale the wall, and be a look out while i ran…Cocunut bar or Toasted Almond in hand..back upto my Uncle’s driveway (yes, we lived on a family compound…3 family houses with neighborign property). The best were the days we al walked down to get Lunch or dinner..the only treat better than that was a trip to Overton’s or Lumm’s!!!

  33. Jennifer Purdy

    I miss Paul Newman

  34. Dan,another great post.Hoop I get the humor a lot of connections made there…… it was the 60’s..Fond memories. Fried clams were great! Thanks!

  35. My mouth waters just thinking about sitting at the window shelving (aka counters) with my 2 young sons, devouring that incomparable “cremated” (extra char-broiled) chicken. The milkshakes were as delicious as the sides of corn and french fries.

    I must have been the only mommy who took her “babies” there for dinner at least once a week. 😉

  36. Big Top! Celebrating “graduation” from Coleytown Elementary in maybe 1961 or ’62. Ribs and chicken basket. Wonderful.

  37. John Gaynor

    The Big Top briefly closed and later became Hagers. Pretty much the same menu, but less popular. There were several police busts in the parking lot so kids stayed away.