Category Archives: Restaurants

Pic Of The Day #828

Yesterday’s rainbow, as seen from Bartaco … (Photo/Erik Ostbye)

… and the Levitt Pavilion, for the great concert by Our Native Daughters … (Photo/Claire Bangser)

… and over Cockenoe Island (Photo/Sharon Lipper)

After 41 Years, Martin O’Grady Ducks Out

This Saturday, Viva Zapata celebrates 50 years as a Saugatuck institution.

But that’s not the only party in town.

Martin O’Grady

A few yards away, the Black Duck will bid farewell to Martin O’Grady.

The popular bartender is retiring after 41 eventful years at the Riverside Avenue instititution.

He’ll serve his final drinks on Saturday (July 27) from 12 to 5 p.m. The Duck invites Martin’s many fans to wish him well.

Plus, the Duck says, “this is your last chance to show him what a good tipper you are.”

New Construction At Old Mill

Neighbors and beach lovers have watched warily, as a new home rises on the site of the old Positano — and before that — Cafe de la Plage restaurants.

It’s not yet finished.

But the house at 233 Hillspoint Road has just come on the market.

Artists’ rendering of the house going up at 233 Hillspoint Road.

The 4,200-square foot residence — on a 5,663-square foot lot — will includes 4 bedrooms, and 4 1/2 bathrooms.

The listing price: $7.5 million.

(Hat tip: Dave Dellinger)

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.)

Newest Menu Item: Valet Parking

Bartaco, OKO and the newly opened Meatball Shop are 3 very different restaurants.

But they share 2 things: popularity and parking.

The Mexican, Japanese and Italian-American spots are packed, for lunch and dinner. The National Hall and nearby parking lots are often full — especially during the day, when spots are reserved for employees of nearby offices.

There’s a parking deck across the street. But for various reasons — some people don’t like driving up the narrow ramp; crossing Wilton Road can be dicey; others may not even know it’s there — that option is underutilized.

The other day, representatives of the 3 restaurants sat together. Instantly, they agreed on a solution: valet parking.

The old Vigilant Firehouse on Wilton Road is now OKO restaurant. The Meatball Shop is behind is on the right; Bartaco is behind on the left. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Working together — and with the blessing of the new owner of the entire complex — they hired We Park, a Wilton-based firm.

Just as quickly, the service began. Valet parking is available 7 days a week, for lunch and dinner.

You don’t have to tell the valet what restaurant you’re going to. In fact, you don’t have to eat at all. The service is there if you just want to stroll along the boardwalk, admiring the river and lights.

A beautiful boardwalk connects OKO, The Meatball Shop and Bartaco. (Photo by Anne Hardy)

“We’re all in this together,” says Brian Lewis, owner of OKO. “We want everyone who comes here to feel our hospitality. We all have the same goals: to take care of our guests. Whatever brings people here is good for all of us.”

He says that — like the other owners — he appreciates (and dines at) the nearby restaurants.

The owners appreciate too the receptiveness of the new National Hall owners. They’ve already repainted the lines in the parking lot, and added directional signs.

Coming soon: More signs for the valet service.

Though probably not in Spanish, Japanese or Italian.

Menu Moments: What To Eat At The Duck

Everyone loves the Black Duck. But admit it: With its wings, stuffed burgers, fried shrimp, po’ boys, onion rings and beers, it’s no one’s first choice when someone says, “Let’s eat healthy!”

Yet that doesn’t mean you can’t join the gang at the barge. Today, dietician Heather Bauer offers tips on the best, healthiest dishes to order at the Saugatuck landmark.

Appetizers:

Small house salad (the best option for vegan/vegetarian); oil/vinegar dressing

The Duck’s raw bar (6 oysters or 6 littlenecks)

Shrimp cocktail

Lobster cocktail ($20, but delicious)

Steamers (skip the butter on the side)

The Black Duck’s littleneck steamed clams (go easy on the butter and beer!)

Fish entrees

Broiled salmon (ask for a veggie side, instead of rice or potatoes)

Large house salad with shrimp or salmon on top (the best dressing option is oil/vinegar)

Steamers (skip the butter on the side, or go light)

1 1/4-pound steamed lobster (skip the butter and potato if you can; depending on the market price, this may be a great deal — it comes with a house salad) 

Meat entrees

Large house salad with grilled chicken or flat iron steak (the best dressing option is oil/vinegar)

House hamburger (choose the English muffin, and make it “topless” — take the top off, and eat with a fork and knife; ask for extra lettuce and/or tomato, and a side of coleslaw instead of fries or tater tots)

Turkey burger (again, order it “topless”; eat with a fork and knife; ask for extra veggies)

Take the top off a burger. (And avoid the sour cream.)

Vegetarian options

Iceberg wedge (without the bacon and blue cheese; ask for oil/vinegar dressing instead)

Veggie Burger (order it “topless”; ask for extra veggies and avocado on the side)

Bonus dining tip from Heather

Snack or not before you go?

You might think that a snack before you go out is a good way to avoid overeating, but it’s not always true. Be honest with yourself. Think about the times you’ve done this. Did you actually eat less at the restaurant, or was your overall intake that much more? Sometimes your pre-meal snack can increase your appetite, and decrease your self-control.

A Westport favorite, for decades. (Photo/Chou Chou Merrill)

Will Hamer’s Bean N’ Batter

Will Hamer is still in his early 20s.

But already he has:

  • Played rugby at Staples High School
  • Left Staples after 2 years to row for the Dublin School in New Hampshire, then rowed 2 more years at Iona College
  • Worked as a floor whip at the 2016 Republican convention
  • Joined the National Guard
  • Sold ads for a radio station and Hearst Media
  • Worked for candidates in Michigan
  • Gathered voting data throughout the Midwest (and lived out of his car while doing so).

Will Hamer, in a rare moment of relaxation.

Will loves Westport; it’s “artsy, accepting, nice and friendly.” His parents are still here. But having seen so much of the rest of the country — and meeting so many different people in Walmarts, campgrounds and other places — he knows this town is a bubble.

So when he heard about a crepe shop next to a comedy club in New Jersey that was making a killing, he had an idea for his next venture.

Ta da!  Will is now the owner of Bean n’ Batter. The waffles/granola/coffee bar opened earlier this month.

In downtown Bridgeport.

At 855 Main Street — directly across from People’s Bank headquarters — it’s already drawing raves. It’s one more piece in what Bridgeport boosters hope is the long-talked-about, hopefully-here-at-last renaissance of the once-thriving city.

Will has hopped on the Bridgeport bandwagon. One corner of the restaurant is filled with photos of the historic past, including colorful mayor P.T. Barnum, and John F. Kennedy’s raucous rally 2 days before the 1960 presidential election.

Bridgeport, in an earlier heyday.

Nearby residents and office workers alike are making Bean n’ Batter their place. They like the food, and the homey vibe.

“People are so receptive to what we’re doing,” Will says. “They like our prices — and that we’re not Starbucks.

The Crunchy: strawberries, blueberries, bananas, granola and honey drizzle.

“This is a great city,” he adds. “There’s so much going on — like the amphitheater next to Webster Bank Arena.” That’s just a few blocks away — under the I-95 overpass — from the new hot breakfast spot.

Before opening Bean n’ Batter, Will admits, he did not know much about Connecticut’s largest city — just a few miles from his hometown.

Now he urges Westporters to discover Bridgeport — and not just attractions like the Barnum and Discovery Museums, Beardsley Zoo and Seaside Park. Will has discovered fantastic restaurants like Pantanal, a Brazilian BBQ and buffet place on Frank Street.

Mayor Joe Ganim and several City Council members came to Bean n’ Batter’s grand opening. So did State Senator Will Haskell. His district does not include Bridgeport — but he was there to support a new business in a nearby city (and one opened by a fellow Staples grad).

Will Hamer (far left), Mayor Joe Ganim (2nd from right) and others celebrate the opening of Bean n’ Batter.

Which leads to one final thought: If Bean n’ Batter really takes off, it may expand.

Perhaps to Westport.

You know: the other town — besides Bridgeport — that has Will Hamer’s heart.

Prime Real Estate Listing Offers A Piece Of The Pie

The commercial real estate listing sent shock waves through Westport.

“Exceptional 2,516 square foot downtown property now available for sale!” it read. “New to market, for sale at only $1,425,000.

“Significant potential for many other retail oriented uses. Long-term first floor commercial tenant and second floor, income-producing apartment. Call to inquire now before it’s too late!”

The address is 143 Post Road East.

But you know it better as Westport Pizzeria.

143 Post Road East, Westport.

The beloved institution — which celebrated its 50th anniversary last October — moved from Main Street to the former S&M/Joe’s Pizza location in 2014.

Founder and owner Mel Mioli had bought the Post Road location a couple of years earlier. It was a fortuitous hedge against a non-renewal notice from his Main Street landlord.

But don’t worry.

Mioli says he’s just testing the market. And even if he sells, he’s keeping the pizzeria.

Grazie!

(Interested in the property? Call Tommy Febbraio at 203-247-3516, or email Tommy@CBCFG.com. Hat tip: Sal Liccione.)

Welcome To Westport(s)! Step Right Up! Book Your Tour Now!

Among our many claims to fame, Westport was once the center of the luxury tour industry.

Tauck — whose founder, Arthur Sr., virtually invented the group tour concept in 1925 — was headquartered here for many years. They’re now in Wilton, but family members still live in town.

Lindblad Expeditions was here too, just down Post Road West from Tauck, before moving to New York. Their handsome building at the corner of Sylvan Road North now houses the Pierrepont School.

Both companies specialize in providing great adventures for high-end travelers, around the globe.

Westport is not one of their destinations. In fact, we never think of ourselves as a “tourist” town.

Try telling that to WestportSTourS.

They use that awkward capitalization, and odd name, for a reason. They offer tours to “FIVE of the Really Great WestportS of the World.”

In case you’re wondering, those Westports are in Ireland, Ontario, Massachusetts and New York.

And of course, Connecticut.

(I had to scroll down pretty far to find the Bay State one. The website — whose fonts, colors and layouts appear to come from the early days of MySpace — lists only 4 at the top.)

But WestportSTourS is pretty excited about being one of the niche-est of all niche travel companies.

They say:

Our Boston-Based staff has visited ALL FIVE (5) of the Westports mentioned here. Not just “visited”, but taken folks with them on Group Tours to EACH of the Westports – one Westport, hundreds of times – other Westports, several times each year.

The other Westports offer attractions like one of the oldest county fairs in the US (New York), canals (Ontario), and a large clock in the central square (Ireland).

On the surface, our Westport does not sound much different from the others. We are all on water (hence the name). Several Westports boast live theater and/or “quaint shops and boutiques.”

Despite the map on the website, Westport, Connecticut is NOT in Westchester County.

But it seems that WestportSTourS really likes our Westport best. We’re featured often on the home page, with photos of our “Rubber Ducky Festival,” holiday lights on the William Cribari Bridge, and colorful flags on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge. (So what if the website claims that different nations’ flags fly on “International Flag Day, June 14,” which does not exist? That’s American Flag Day. International flags fly on jUne Day, the last weekend of that month.)

Hey — no biggie! I’m sure the tour guides are much more accurate once they actually get here, and take guests all around town.

They’re enticed, I bet, by this info on the website. (I have kept the Trumpian capitalization and breathless text verbatim.)

This is the Westport  that is in the News almost Every Day –

This is the FUN  Westport where there are 80 Restaurants (number changes daily and We do  try to keep track) plus – World-Famous theatre,The Westport Country Playhouse, that dates-back to the early days of Summer Stock and the Straw Hat Circuit – Westport 06880, where there resided more Celebrities than anywhere else in the World (except Beverly Hills) by Zip Code.  Join US.  We can show you just about  EVERYTHING.

Two more views of our town, from the website.

This Westport is the home of the World’s largest Hedge Fund (if that means anything to you ?) and also this is the Westport where the commuter trains to New York City (47 miles to the West) – commuter trains stop 78 times EACH weekday – give or take.       Ask for “Gart”

There is MORE = LOTS more –

Gold Coast – The Tour .  This Tour is available ALL-YEAR.  Groups ONLY – perfect for your Wedding or Party Guests when you want them to see YOUR town – ALSO perfect if you are passing thru Westport on Interstate I-95 between New York and Boston.  YES, you can schedule to arrive in THIS Westport by Train.  YES you can enjoy REAL Salt-Water beaches.

 There’s much more on the tour too: the cannons. Positano and the Black Duck (“Definitely a Local Hotspot in Westport as seen  on TV’s Diners and Dives”). Even the “Compo Sailing Team.”

I’ve lived in Westport my whole life. I never knew we had such a team.

Hey, you’re never too old to learn something new. Sign me up for the tour!

After all, as the WestportSTourS website says: “We do All the Work. You have All the FUN.”

(Click here for the landing page. Click here for the Westport page. Hat tip: Elaine Marino)

 

Photo Challenge #235

With everything going on last Sunday — beautiful weather, the opening of the Westport Library, the Tom Petty Project at the Levitt — “06880” readers can be forgiven for not having the “time” to spend on our Photo Challenge.

“Time” is in quotes because Lynn Untermeyer Miller’s image showed a big, handsome, old-fashioned clock. (Click here to see.)

A couple of people thought it was at the train station. A smart guess — but wrong.

Then came many more stabs. I hinted it was “near” the station. More wrong guesses: Bistro du Soleil. The fire station. Bridge Square. Viva’s. Nope!

Finally — on Tuesday afternoon at 3:01 — Jonathan McClure admitted he was guessing, and said: Rive Bistro.

Bingo!

The clock (which is broken — stuck at 12:26) is on the patio outside the Riverside Avenue restaurant. It must be one of those landmarks we all pass, but never notice.

I don’t know why it’s there — or where it came from originally. If you do, click “Comments” below.

And click for this week’s Photo Challenge too. It’s a beautiful house — and still standing. Do you know where?

(Photo/Peter Barlow)