Viva Viva’s!

Shortly after Viva Zapata opened, Paul Newman stopped in. He ordered a beer.

“Sorry,” the waiter said. “We don’t have a liquor license.”

The actor pulled out his checkbook. He signed his name, leaving the amount blank.

“Here,” he said. “Get one.”

That’s just one great story from the Mexican restaurant’s history. There are plenty more.

And why not? Viva’s — you don’t need to add the 2nd name — is a Westport icon. It’s been here for 50 years, making it the 2nd oldest restaurant in town. (Westport Pizzeria opened a few months earlier.)

It doesn’t get more classic than this.

Viva’s celebrates half a century serving enchiladas, fajitas and (of course) margaritas on Saturday, July 27. The full day of festivities includes the dedication of a Westport Historical Society plaque at 2 p.m.

That’s right: Viva’s is officially historic. Since 1969 it’s gone from a curiosity (a Mexican restaurant in Westport!), to the go-to place for celebrations (birthdays, reunions, especially the night before Thanksgiving), to a shrine. Countless relationships and marriages began at the bar, tables and patio (some probably ended there too). It’s gotten to the point where parents — and grandparents — share it-happened-at-Viva’s-bar stories.

Though it’s anchored Saugatuck seemingly forever, Viva’s actually started on the Post Road. Duke Merdinger — an actor (and onetime roommate of Dustin Hoffman) — already owned Tortilla Flats in New York. He figured a spot near the Westport Country Playhouse (today, the entrance to Playhouse Square shopping center) was fertile ground for a second restaurant.

Mexican cuisine was new to the area. Merdinger went to an unemployment line, and asked if anyone could cook Mexican food. A woman did; he hired her, and based his recipes on what she liked.

In 1969, Mexican food needed explanations.

The Post Road restaurant burned down soon after it opened. Merdinger moved Viva’s to a private residence on Riverside Avenue. It was built in 1870 by Rufus Wakeman, who ran a mattress and church pew cushion factory across the street (the current site of Parker Mansion).

Viva’s prices have changed. The menu really hasn’t.

In 1981, Norwalk native Bob O’Mahony was a waiter at the Inn at Longshore. The Viva’s crew came most Sundays, for brunch. Someone said they were short-staffed. O’Mahony took on some Viva’s shifts.

Eight years later, Merdinger sold half the business to him. Thirty years on, O’Mahony still owns it. His partners now are his wife Maryellen, her sister Ann Brady, and Ann’s husband Harry. The O’Mahonys’ son Sam, 27, is a bartender.

Bob and Maryellen O’Mahony, outside their restaurant.

The secret to their success, O’Mahony says, is “good food, good service, good atmosphere.”

“And margaritas,” his wife adds. (That’s how the couple met: at the bar, over that signature drink.)

Another secret: Don’t change what works.

A few years after buying Viva’s, the O’Mahonys made some renovations. When they were done, a customer said, “You didn’t do a thing!”

“Thank you,” the owner replied. “That’s what we wanted.”

A familiar scene, for 50 years.

But not changing doesn’t mean nothing happens.

Viva’s was the scene of a movie shoot (“Hello, I Must Be Going”). A few years earlier, a man with a chain saw carved his initials in the bar floor. That made national news.

Another time, a woman went into labor right at her table.

Every St. Patrick’s Day, Viva’s changed its name to Helen McNamara’s Pub. (It’s Merdinger’s mother’s maiden name.) They stopped that tradition because too many people thought the Mexican restaurant was replaced permanently by an Irish pub.

O’Mahony also recalls the night he saw 6 big guys with shirts off, in the patio. One stood on top of a table, screaming, “Who got the money?”

It was Drew Bledsoe. He had just been drafted, and was driving cross-country with his buddies.

He tried to pay his tab with his brand-new New England Patriots gold card. O’Mahony said, “Drew, we don’t take American Express.”

O’Mahony said if he took a picture with the waitress and signed his tab, he’d be good to go.

That photo — of Bledsoe holding up the waitress — and the signed check are still in O’Mahony’s office. “I’ve been a loyal Pats fan ever since,” he says.

The bar has hosted 5 decades’ worth of stories.

Robert Redford, Sigourney Weaver, Michael Bolton and Jose Feliciano are all fans. No one gives them a second look. They’re just part of the Viva’s vibe.

That laid-back atmosphere is what draws people back, year after year, decade after decade.

They know they’ll see the same faces — and not just friends. Many employees have been at Viva’s for a long time. Waiter Dan Dillaway and cooks Emil Rodriguez and Jorge Builles began working when Merdinger owned it.

“All roads lead back to Viva’s,” O’Mahony says proudly. Staff and customers may leave, but often return.

He can’t count the number of former Westporters who make it a point — whenever they’re back home — to show Viva Zapata off to their spouses and children. And now, grandchildren.

¡Felicidades! Viva’s: “06880” raises its margarita glass to you.

(Viva Zapata’s 50th anniversary party is Saturday July 27. Festivities include a DJ, bouncy house, t-shirts, and raffle for prizes like Yankees and Pat Benatar tickets. For more information, click here.)

46 responses to “Viva Viva’s!

  1. Holly Wheeler

    50 years ago Viva’s was an outdoor summer watering hole for some of my pals … Especially a few who worked at the late and great Fairpress. Happy Birthday Viva’s !!!!

  2. Such a true story. Does the jukebox still play “Secret Agent Man?”
    My Mom turns 93 on Aug 21 and she wants me to take her to lunch .. at her favorite place .. Viva’s!!

  3. And Gold’s? It was here before Westport Pizza.

    • I would call Gold’s a “deli” rather than a restaurant. A restaurant (in my mind, anyway) is open at night, and people go there for dinner.

  4. First place we ate when Denslow and I arrived in Westport in 1973. The marriage didn’t last. The wonderful experience teaching at Coleytown Jr HS/Middle School didn’t last. For that matter, looks like the school itself won’t last much longer. My forever in Westport—or even CT—didn’t last thanks to wonderful beckonings.
    But we will be coming thru next weekend and will make it a point to have a margarita at Viva!
    And will hang at Westport Library Cafe, Sunday, 7/28, afternoon to see who stops by!!

  5. My father was born in that house in 1920. At that time it was a du-plex, my grandfather Frank and his family lived on one side and my great uncle Bill and his family the other side. In the early 1930’s my grandfather purchased land from the Wakemans off of Crosshighway. Building a house at the end of what is now Silent Grove Rd.

    • Sharon Paulsen

      Wow, that’s interesting history. So, you’re of the Jeff Northrop/clam’in/charter fishing family clan?

      (Sorry if that should seem obvious to most … I only knew of Jeff N. briefly via printing some of his promo materials at Quick Copy/Quality Printing, several years back).

  6. Dennis Jackson

    IIRC the original location had its own funky character. The long, narrow cinder block building painted deep red was previously a car wash, and the floor was covered in sawdust. They offered the first “Mexican” many of us ever had, and it was great from day one. The location was across the parking lot from The Crest drive-in, just up from the Calso station. Many a souped up Chevy or Ford peeled out of that lot!

  7. And let’s remember it in the 70’s, when at one time it had the lowest health Dept rating allowed and still be able to operate…and the floor covered in sawdust to quickly absorb and remove all the regular vomiting that occurred at the bar. That still puts it in a special place and time in Westport History and fondly remembered!

  8. Eh 2.5 stars on Yelp not exactly a ringing endorsement. Haven’t been in a while- will have to check it out again and see whose right.

    • Arline Gertzoff

      Does anyone remember a Mexican Restaurant on the second floor on Main Street not far from current arcade.Thought it was an early Viva Zapata?

    • no offense but consulting Yelp before visiting Viva’s kinda misses the point, or you’re too young to understand . . . perhaps have a few of their Margaritas and it will all makes sense

    • I stopped going to Vivas a few years ago. Food became meh, drinks became meh, service meh, and there was this crazy hostess woman who would actually go crazy on people. They did not allow dogs anywhere even on the outside patio. Not only did they not allow it, the hostess woman was condescending, nasty, and rude about it. So many rules to follow at this restaurant including where you can have drinks only, appetizers only, dinner, etc. I probably dined/drank at Vivas dozens and dozens and dozens of times over the years but had enough and havent returned.

    • John L Krause

      Who’s
      😉

  9. Eileen Fanning

    Yes that’s always a fun summer night

  10. I am glad its Mexican. I am glad its named after a famous Mexican

  11. I went to Key West with my late husband Louis Odice around 1992. I was surprised and pleased to see Viva Zapata there…We of course went in, the bartender was Duke’s wife…She remembered us from Westport and proceeded to get us totally wasted on Strawberry Margaritas 🙂 It was worth the hangover !

  12. my sister met her husband at Viva’s and I asked my wife out for our first date at viva’s…… still love that place, brings back awesome memories. My friend Edwin Gragg used to work in the kitchen too…..

  13. Great story, Dan, and as always with you, a memorable local history lesson.

    And I can’t think of a more auspicious way to start a marriage than over margies at Zapata’s bar. I’m sure Bob and Maryellen are a happy couple!

  14. JOHN SANTELLA OWNED THE PROPERTY WHERE RIZZUTTOS IS NOW. I THANK HE ALSO OWNED “THE VIVA” PROPERTY

  15. Sharon Paulsen

    This is such a great post, that before I read any of the comments, I just want to say that this has brought up way too many good memories and anecdotes to even begin sharing!

    Maybe I’ll jump in here and there with commenter’s feedback … later, LOL!

  16. Sharon Paulsen

    Dan, this is such a good article, with so many nuggets of interesting facts and tidbits, that I can hardly wrap my head around my own memories of this place, almost too numerous to dive into!

    It was something special there, even when it fell into a sort of “not so great” status, perhaps briefly and many moons ago. (Rumors of horrible kitchen conditions, food poisoning, whatnot).

    But I never personally encountered bad food or drinks there … only rock solid awesome experiences!

  17. Sharon Paulsen

    Holy cow, I went to the keys with my fiancé in the early 1990’s, and after reading your comment, I believe I saw a Viva Zapata there, went in, had margaritas … and never made the possible connection to the Westport one of the same name. Or, maybe I did, subconsciously, LOL.

    Who knew?

    Too many cocktails.

    • Sharon Paulsen

      This was meant as direct reply to Jill Odice.

      Man, I’m having soooo many issues tonight trying to comment here! Ugh. 🤪

  18. Great story Dan. I loved working there and had some of the best nights of my life at Vivas-especially the night I met my wife-12 years and counting!

  19. Adam Pomerantz

    I worked at Viva as a busboy in 1977 or so. I remember Duke

  20. Terry Santella Anzalone

    John Santella didn’t own Rizzuttos, he owned Viva Zapata and rented the building to Duke. (When I was born, my father moved us into the building and I spent the first night home from the hospital there. My mother wanted to go back to our home on Saugatuck Ave., so that was only for a night. I also had brothers and a sister who lived there for a short time in the main house or the little one behind the restaurant.)
    While Duke was renting the house, John Santella then turned over the property to his children and they continued to rent to Duke.
    I worked for Duke for a long time starting in 1972 and was both his employee and landlord. We had a great group of people back then that were both employees and friends. Lots of stories………

  21. Elizabeth "Bette" Popovich, SHS '65

    Back in the day….I went to school in the ’50s with a girl (Donna R.) who lived in the above mentioned “private residence on Riverside Avenue.” Fun times were had by all!

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