Alexander Lobrano knows his onions. And every other food.
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.