Food, Glorious Food

Some restaurants close, and everyone notices. That’s what happened to Cru, late last month. The Dressing Room‘s demise had everyone talking; earlier, so did V’s.

Others quietly shut their doors. That’s the story with La Villa, the longtime Bay Street spot with a steady, seemingly loyal clientele.

I included them in a list of nearby restaurants — along with Post 154, Finalmente and Blue Lemon — in a story about Westport Pizzeria moving in around the corner. They were already closed. One reader commented that she “thought” it was gone; no one responded.

La Villa was one of the 1st Westport restaurants to have pop-up seating 2 years ago. It seemed kind of weird, dining on Bay Street. But they added 5 more tables, in front of the indoor space.

La Villa, in its sunnier days.

La Villa, in its sunnier days.

No restaurant is forever. The Clam Box, Manero’s, Allen’s — all met their end. And who knows what will happen to Mario’s, when the next phase of the Saugatuck Center development begins on Railroad Place?

So, “06880” readers: Let’s hear from you. Knowing the run will end eventually, what can a Westport restaurateur do to maximize his or her chances of success? What works in this town? What restaurants consistently do it right?

Play nice. Don’t dis. Use full names (yours, as well as restaurants’). And dig in!

16 responses to “Food, Glorious Food

  1. bobbi essagof

    Hasn’t La Villa closed before? A few times? It’s like a cat with nine lives!
    I think the question is “How many restaurants can a town this size sustain?”

    • The original La Villa on Bay Street moved to Norwalk and a French restaurant took their space. Neither worked out so La Villa moved back to their original location. I had dinner there last year but was surprised to see that they had closed. It is hard to patronize so many fine restaurants in this town! Since moved here in 1988, the only restaurants that I can think of that are still the same are Viva Zapata, Dunvilles, Black Duck, Marios, Mansion Clam House (although they have been through a few transitions), Red Barn (I am not including pizza joints). Anything else I am missing?

  2. A new restaurant comes into town and we all go gaga over it…fight for parking spots and then six months later abandon it like yesterday’s trash… Sounds like a recurring theme in Westport. Remember trying to land a coveted parking spot at 5 Guys or Shake Shack? Never need to wait for a spot now. Other restaurants keep fiddling with their menus in hope of fine tuning it for the optimum palate pleasing tastes for Westporter’s …good luck with that! I do miss the Dressing Room. And yes I agree… Keep the menu simple and uncomplicated. The simpler…the better and yes the Duck is simple and uncomplicated….and it has what so many other Westport Restaurants never achieve….History…nostalgia…and it is certainly a warm reminder of simpler times all around!

  3. Bobbie Herman

    V did everything right The food was excellent, the staff courteous and helpful and the ambience lovely. What went wrong was that the landlord raised the rents (I heard it was doubled) and it became unaffordable to continue. As for the others, there is a saturation point. Fairfield manages to keep many restaurants going at once, and they seem to last for a long time. Westport has been trying to emulate Fairfield for some time, but the rents are much higher here.

    • Jack Whittle

      With all due respect, Westport has more restaurants, per capita, than Fairfield; and (as far as I know) there is no effort underway in Westport to try to “emulate” Fairfield. Those who chose to open restaurants do so freely with regard to location, style and price-point, and Westport has always had a vibrant, and constantly changing, dining scene with a few places that seem to survive for long periods and become “institutions.”

      As Dan’s post suggests and as we all know, the restaurant business is a tough one; studies have shown that one in four restaurants close or change ownership within their first year of business, which rises to three in five over three years. Looking forward to reading the thoughtful comments about success factors, I dine out in Westport myself at least once a week (not counting Pizza!)

      • Bobbie Herman

        Maybe one of the problems IS that Westport has more restaurants per capita than Fairfield. As for my comment, which you refuted, about Westport trying to emulate Fairfield, the previous First Selectman said a number of times that he would like Westport to be a dining center like Fairfield. He made efforts to attract more restaurants.

  4. Though not Westport, Pasta Nostra in SoNo will be 30 years in business this December. Parking is a pain, only open Wednesday through Saturday nights. It’s never been cheap (they were the first to go into double digit appetizers in the late eighties). The food is as good now as it was when they opened. To paraphrase the line: “It’s the food stupid.” It is consistently superb. The staff are a wonderful crew and have been there a long time.

  5. To me, one Westport restaurant has the formula for lasting success. Tarrantinos provides a very high quality meal every single time and equally importantly treats their customers like family. You are welcomed warmly whether they are jammed or empty. Some of the newer spots, particularly when busy, do not connect with the customer early on and you don’t forget that.

  6. Sandy Soennichsen

    It seems like too many people who want to open restaurants in town figure its a good spot because the income here is so high. Well, how often do people go out to dinner? Once, maybe twice a week? And if its more than once, the other times are probably at less expensive places. After all, if I go out to dinner 4 times a week at $100 per couple easily each time, I could take that money and hire my own chef or cook and have what I want, when I want it. A few comments are made here about Westport vis a vis Fairfield. Gotta realize, Fairfield has a much larger younger generation there, a lot from the colleges, and they do go out a lot, but most of the places there don’t charge what Westport restauranteurs charge either, for numerous reasons. Look at some of the places in Westport that have survived many years, Mario’s, the Red Barn (but the Nistico’s have always had the formula for success). My personal feeling is, when a new place opens, I check out their menu, if either I feel the prices are a rip-off (too high for what they could possibly offer), or if I don’t understand what their menu is, or can’t pronounce it, I’m probably not going there. Furthermore, my preferences are simple, sorry, but I’m part of that generation brought up on meat and potatoes.

  7. Laurey Tussing

    We’re new to Westport, recently moving here from Chicago. Since we arrived, I’ve been surprised and sad to see many restaurants close their doors before we had an opportunity to dine there. The Dressing Room comes to mind. We’ve enjoyed many restaurants that are new to us. A restaurant survives with a combination of excellent food, outstanding service and a huge plus for me – takes reservations! The Whelk is a perfect example. A few others that stand out are Tarry Lodge and Pane Bene. Thanks for your column Dan. It’s been a great way for me to learn about the in’s and out’s of Westport.

  8. Bart Shuldman

    Let’s be honest. Two things involve a restaurants success in Westport.

    First The consumer decides which restaurant will continue to stay open. Pricing, food, environment all help the consumer to decide. Mario’s has been here for years. Right next door is Tarantino’s. Two Italian restraurants that have different formulas but successful ones.

    The 2nd that can help restaurants in Westport is attacting a consumer to our town. a vibrant town with good shopping will bring people to Westport. However we have some on our P&Z that have opinions on this. Urban outfitters with a store over 10,000 feet has brought many to our town. Then they need a place to eat. We can help if we so this right. If not, and people find another town to shop, then our restaurants will close. Westporters alone cannot support all the dining.

    Outdoor dining was a nice touch. There P&Z was a help. But continue down a path of making our town not friendly to store, we could find this a much different situation. Make the Y an indoor mall and the consumer will decide if that is where they will shop. We have had one experience where it did not.

  9. Lori & Fletcher Kosut

    In response to your Blog, “Food,Glorious Food,” and any future development of Saugatuck Center, as the owners of Mario’s we have been thrilled by the expansion of our immediate area. New apartments, new businesses and new customers have created an exciting time for us and brought a new energy to Saugatuck and to Mario’s. Mario’s has been serving Westport patrons since 1967. Now with its new generation of family owners we look forward to continuing the tradition of excellent food, drink and value in a family run restaurant in the town that we know and love.

    Lori & Fletcher Kosut

  10. Since you mentioned Mario’s – I just had dinner there and I think it’s better than ever. The drinks are always generous and the steaks are terrific. I love going to Mario’s and having their home-made meatballs and spaghetti. It’s a special place run by great people who care about food – and their customers.

  11. Alison Bayer

    Stop the rumor mill!! Mario’s is almost 50 years young.. New construction and new customers will only confirm what we already know…Mario’s is part of what Westport is!!!

    • Frank opened my housecharge when I was 17. Now, a few years later, after hosting many great meals, and then, convincing my Bride of now 30 years to say “Yes”. I agree, the food is great. The portions are huge. It’s the “Club without dues.” I miss the original faces but Mario’s is still the best in Westport.

  12. Holly Wheeler

    I (a Fairfield born, former resident of Saugatuck/Cos Cob/Norwalk) and a friend from Westchester used to meet downtown at least once a month for years for a movie at the Fine Arts and a hamburger at Onion Alley. We would park once and walk. We would stroll and shop. Life in downtown Westport was simple. And fun. And cheap (or reasonable). We spent a lot of money in Westport and had fun doing it. We did this until the Fine Arts closed.
    I don’t go to Westport anymore. The ‘designer’ food is too expensive, and often lousy, the stores are chains for the most part and nothing out of the ordinary. There’s no draw for me. Are the rents so high in Westport that any new and unique stores can’t even dream of opening there? Are the restaurants and other stores just after the “Westport Buck”?
    I don’t know what the answers are, but I used to love living and shopping in Westport. Now it’s a ghost town to me. Except for my Playhouse subscription.