Fine Dining, With Steaks And Shirley Temples

Alexander Lobrano knows his onions. And every other food.

Alexander Lobrano (Photo/Steven Rothfeld)

The Westport native — and, since 1986, Paris resident — was European Correspondent for Gourmet magazine from 1999 until it closed in 2009. He has written about food and travel for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, Departures, Conde Nast Traveler, and many other publications. He has won several James Beard awards.

His blog is called Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 102 Best Restaurants, but he ranges far beyond France. Alexander reviews eateries all over the world.

When he looks back on his culinary youth, Alexander is not your average Joe. And — as you would expect on a blog called “06880” — it all comes back to Westport.

Recently, he wrote:

When I was growing up in Westport, Connecticut in the ’60s and ’70s, the default “good” restaurant was a place down near the train station called Manero’s, an Italian-American owned steakhouse with a brick walls covered with shiny copper cookware and jovial older waiters with accents of indeterminable origin. [NOTE: Manero’s is now Rizzuto’s.]

This was where Grandmother Drake would take us for a birthday dinner or sometimes just a special night out, and with her pretty green eyes, Titian blonde hair in up-swept French Twist chignon, good jewelry, faux leopard jacket and quick wit, the waiters adored her.

The running joke at almost every meal was that it was her birthday, and they’d often bring out a baked Alaska with a candle in it for her after we’d eaten the exact same meal we always had: cocktails—bourbon for the adults, and Shirley Temples for the girls or Horse’s Necks for the boys, the difference being in name only, because they were the same concoction of ginger ale and grenadine syrup with an orange slice and a vivid Maraschino cherry (oddly enough, the concept of children’s cocktails seems to have gone completely out of style…can’t think why), shrimp cocktail, steak with onion rings, baked potatoes wrapped in foil, and salad with blue-cheese dressing.

If the food at Manero’s was good, no one could ever have accused it of being interesting, but then in those days no one wanted food that was interesting.

To be sure, Westport had an excellent Chinese restaurant, West Lake, and the Italian food at the Apizza Center in nearby Fairfield was wonderful, too, but aside from a couple of New England-y seafood places—The Clam Box [NOTE: now Bertucci’s], etc., and a “French” restaurant downtown where they flambéed everything, but most of all the bill, the town offered slim pickings for anyone who really loved good food with the exception of the rather mysterious Café Varna [NOTE: actually Cafe Barna, on the site of what is now Mitchells of Westport], which served, rather amazingly in retrospect, Bulgarian food [NOTE: actually Hungarian].

The local restaurant pulse quickened in the ’70s with the opening of places like Viva Zapata, a Mexican place that Grandmother Drake heartily disapproved of — “Barbara,” she’d say to my mother, “You shouldn’t feed food like that to growing children” — and a fun little café called Bon Appetite.

During a recent trawl through southwestern Connecticut, I thought of this long ago gastronomic landscape and couldn’t help but be amazed by the variety of ethnic eating now on offer in the area, a reflection, I think of how Americans have become so much more adventurous at the table than they were 40 years ago.

That’s the introduction to his review of a New York restaurant called The Left Bank (“er, um, well, not quite,” Alexander writers, referring to its French aspirations).

It’s also a great introduction to a long-ago dining scene that long-time Westporters recall with a bit of fondness, some amusement, and much embarrassment.

22 responses to “Fine Dining, With Steaks And Shirley Temples

  1. Long-time Westporter

    A nice trip down Memory Lane. But those poor waiters! I guess it could be worse; instead of hanging on the wall with the copper pots, they might be out shooting elephants in their pajamas.

  2. I can’t believe he neglected to mention Big Top–just kidding. There’s no question the quality of restaurant choices and food in Westport (and the ‘burbs in general) has significantly improved over the years–and I think this point was brought up in a past 06880 story on the positive changes that have taken place in Westport in the past decades.

  3. Fond memories — dinner at West Lake early, a movie at the Fine Arts across the street, and dessert after the movie at the Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor.

  4. Michelle Scher Saunders

    I loved your post card of the The Clam Box. It really brought back fond childhood memories for me. My grandparents bought a summer home in Westport during the early 70’s and The Clam Box was always their “go to” restaurant with our family. I still remember their clam chowder, fish and of course, fried clams. Before the site became Bertuccis, it was Tanglewoods, an uninspiring restaurant with lots of greenery and hanging plants. I’ve lived in town for about 20 years now and I still think about The Clam box from time to time with it’s iconic New England fare. I don’t think we have any restaurant in town that reflects it’s simplicity.

  5. Ah, Porky’s (we never say Manero)….. it was an instituation. Who can not forget this affable waiter, Frank? He sort of looked like Alan Alda. Always on the move, he was able to please everybody at once.

  6. No one ever mentions Cafe de la Plage, which I probably didn’t even spell right. Or La Normandie.
    I was just a kid, but I DID think the food at Manero’s was interesting. I’d never seen Chateaubriand for two before, and I didn’t know what Gorgonzola was before I went there. And the steaks were spectacular. I had a younger brother, though, who would always order “Tid Bit Plate, well done.” I thought that was insane.

  7. Having only been a Westport resident since 1995, I’ve missed most if not all of these places. The Clam Box looks like it was great. I definitely would’ve patronized Hilltop, and Manero’s? Fughedaboudit. Was it the same Manero’s that was also in Greenwich for all those years? That place was fan-freakin’-tastic. Best fried onions ever.

  8. The original Manero’s (in Greenwich, owned by Nick Manero), was completely different from the Westport Manero’s (owned by Nick’s brother Porky). Different decor (Porky’s with the red flocked wallpaper looked like the inside of a whorehouse), different meat, different gorgonzola, different garlic bread. Porky’s wasn’t even close.

  9. a bit off topic but was there really a fuddruckers in town at some points? if so when and why did it close?

    • Yes — where the Westport National Bank is now, across from the Getty Station on the Post Road near Maple Avenue. Not sure when or why it closed.

  10. Memories, memories – Every Friday night at 7 O’Clock, from 1981 until it closed in 1992, my wife and I showed up at Manero’s. It was our scheduled ‘night out’ when the kids were young. When we sat down, our drinks were on the table, and our regular meal appeared. We had kid’s birthday parties there, and once showed up with Fred Astaire-like top hats and canes.
    When Manero’s was sold, the new owners had Frank and Mario wear outrageous outfits – with short pants. I felt sorry for them and furious at the new owners. I think Mario retired and Frank went to work at De Rosa’s, which recently closed.

  11. Restaurant History of Westport is good stuff!
    RE: Mr. Lobrano’s comment above “and a “French” restaurant downtown where they flambéed everything…” Well I will go out on a limb and aver that this would be either Chez Pierre or La Bibliotheque…most likely the latter. I waited tables there a bit in high school working up the ranks from pot scrubber. An odd New York crowd descended on it in summer…sited on Elm with its kitchen doors facing the back entrance of the Y and the upstairs “Office Supply” entrance to Kleins…looks like there’s a place called Villa del Sol there now. That single location likely accounts for more started and failed restaurants in Westport history

  12. No love for Le Chambord?

  13. Who is this guy? No Arrow, Cafe de la Plage, Red Barn?

  14. Ah don’t forget Werner’s on Elm Street. When we first moved into town in 1965 we ate there frequently. Our then 4 year old had frogs legs for an appetizer there and I was introduced to escargot.

    More on Porky’s…garlic bread would be ordered with the drinks…great great steaks, prime rib and chateaubriand for 2…gorganzola cheese salad (take home containers for the kids)…and Solly..who mark the kids “present” on their paper placemats…I almost forgot the martinis and gimlets delivered in glasses with a “dividend” in a small glass container “on the side”

    Those were the days (sigh)

  15. Don’t forget Panco Villas.

  16. “Pancho”

  17. my family moved from Ipswich MA (home of the original clam box) in 1978 only to find that they had one in Westport where they drove the clams down from MA. Wild coincidence. Didn’t last too long before it became tanglewoods or was there one in between? I feel like there was…

  18. I don’t believe anyone mentioned Allen’s Clam House, which had some decent seafood and a look across the Old Mill Pond. Manero’s was indeed amazing, and vastly superior in EVERY way to the Greenwich avatar. The salad was a work of art, and it remains legendary to this day. It was not a blue cheese dressing, but rather had either blue cheese or gornazola chunks in a simple clear dressing. Patrons were addicted to it… my father and I used to always order a second bowl. A secret that was imparted in the kitchen to my mother was that the cheese was kept in the freezer and shaved at the last minute, and every bowl of salad was custom-built. The waiters were as professional as their profession can be… fast-moving, unflappable, graceful, long-serving… and remembering all the regulars, so that many people (my parents included) never had to look at a menu or order. They sat down, and tall frosty metal cannisters of Tangueray martinis arrived, and soon would come the salad, then shrimp cocktail, then steak and baked potato. I always had two salads, a baked potato and onion rings (a vegan in the making). Not far away was another very Westporty restaurant… Mario’s… which served absurdly huge helpings of steaks, chops and pasta, and continues to do so to this day. A visit to Mario’s is like a glimpse into a certain time in the mid-1960s, as much as a viewing of TV’s Madmen. The 60’s mod logo above the door and the bar speak from a moment in time. The menu cover, apparently unchanged after 45 years, still has a mid-1960s Datsun Z-car on it, along with trains, tennis racquets and other images meant to show the type of patron they hoped to attract, and a legend about being the place “Where Active People Meet and Eat.” It’s not all nostalgia… some of the fun carries forward.

  19. Greetings from Paris, and please forgive me for omitting Chubby Lane’s, the Pepper Mill, oh, my, the list is long! I’d also tip my hat the amazing cooks who made the hot-lunch food in the cafeteria of the Greens Farms Elementary school–best meatballs I’ve ever eaten. I’ll be back in CT for T’giving, so would love some tips on good grub today in my old hometown. Cheers, Alec