Category Archives: Restaurants

Rabbi Orkand: Oscar’s Was A Link To Westport’s “Covenant” End

For 31 years — from 1982 to 2013 — Robert Orkand was Temple Israel’s senior rabbi.

Rabbi Robert Orkand

Rabbi Robert Orkand

He and his wife Joyce now live in Massachusetts, near their son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. But Rabbi Orkand keeps close tabs on Westport, through “06880.”

The closing of Oscar’s sparked the same nostalgia and sadness many Westporters feel. But he has a special perspective on the history of downtown’s famed delicatessen. Rabbi Orkand writes:

The closing of Oscar’s is, in many ways, the end of an era. Locally owned businesses such as Oscar’s are, sadly, becoming a thing of the past.

There is an aspect to the story of Oscar’s, and many other businesses, that is not told often enough. But is a piece of the history of Westport that reflects its diversity and uniqueness.

When I arrived in Westport in 1982, there were a number of businesses that had been founded by Jews — Oscar’s, Gold’s, Klein’s, Westport Hardware, Silver’s, to name just a few. What few people know is how Jewish ownership became possible many years ago.

Gentleman's AgreementUntil the early 1940’s, many real estate agents in lower Fairfield County signed on to an unofficial “covenant” not to show property to Jews, or to discourage them from moving into certain neighborhoods. (The movie “Gentleman’s Agreement” depicted this practice.)

Even though certain cities, such as Norwalk and Bridgeport, had Jewish residents, many towns did not (and in a few places that is still true). Westport was one of the towns in which the “covenant” was enforced.

Before he died in 2009 at the age of 97, Leo Nevas told me how the real estate “covenant” ended in Westport.

He was the 7th and youngest son of Morris and Ethel Navasky, Lithuanian immigrants who met and married in the United States. They settled in Norwalk, and operated a small chain of grocery stores in the area.

Leo earned a law degree from Cornell University in 1936 and joined his brother, Bernard, in the practice of law in South Norwalk. Upon Bernard’s death in 1942, Leo opened an office in Westport. He continued to practice law for 73 years, until his death.

Leo Nevas

Leo Nevas

When Leo purchased the building in which his law office would be located, a local real estate agent inquired about renting an office in the building. Leo said that he would make a deal with her: If she agreed to ignore the informal “covenant” that made it difficult for Jews to purchase homes in Westport, she could have an office rent-free for a year.

She agreed. She began showing homes to Jews, which forced other agents to do the same. As Jews began purchasing homes, merchants opened stores and other retail establishments. One was Oscar’s, founded by Oscar Sisken and his wife, Sally.

While Westport’s Jewish community is strong and thriving, the retail establishments founded by the pioneers who helped establish that community are, sadly, gone. The memories of those pioneers will, however, remain with us.


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The Original Oscar’s

As Westport grapples with the closing of Oscar’s — the last mom-and-pop place on Main Street — alert “06880” reader Jim Gray sent along a photo of the original deli, a few doors down.

Oscars - original

Oscar’s next-door neighbor — Westport Hardware — burned to the ground in 1976. It’s now the site of the 3-story Gap building.

Jim recalls:

Oscar’s started out with a real Oscar. Oscar Sisken and his wife, Sally, ran it for many years along with Sally’s brother, Benny. They drove in from Bridgeport, and were open every day from 8 am to 6 pm with the exception of Wednesday.

On Wednesday Oscar came in early, and made potato salad and cole slaw for the week. I believe he also made his own pickles, which he sold for a nickel each! In those days the rolls and bagels were 5 cents each. A loaf of rye bread was 29 cents.

In later years Benny was unable to work so Sally’s nephews, Peter and Harold Epstein, helped Oscar. (Their father, Sid Epstein, managed Maxine Furs diagonally across the stree.) When Oscar was ready to retire he sold the business to Joe Milici, a hair dresser who worked at a salon a few doors down the street.

Joe ran the business from the original location for several years, and hired Lee to help him. When a rumor circulated that Gold’s Deli was considering opening on Main Street, Joe decided to expand before Gold’s came in and took over. That’s when he moved Oscar’s to its present location. When Joe retired and moved to Florida, he sold the business to Lee.

The Last Pastrami

Hundreds of current Westporters, former Westprters and work-in-or-pass-through Westporters streamed downtown today.

They joined employees, former employees and family members of Lee Papageorge at Oscar’s, the Main Street deli/gathering place/home away from home he’s owned since 1971.

Lee is hospitalized, battling lung cancer. Today is Oscar’s last day; it closes tomorrow.

One longtime customer said, “It was a place where millionaires sat next to homeless people. And no one knew the difference. Lee treated them all the same.”

As the large crowd honored the history and heritage of Oscar’s — and the man who, for more than 4 decades has made it a warm welcoming and wonderful place — it was clear that, in a town not known for agreeing on much, one thing is certain:

Main Street will never be the same.

A typical scene, seen for the last time.

A typical scene, seen for the last time.

For decades, this mural has depicted a group of 1970s-era regulars. Lee Papageorge is on the left.

For decades, this mural has depicted a group of 1970s-era regulars. Lee Papageorge is on the left.

Westport's movers and shakers have long gathered at Oscar's. This morning, former 1st selectman and WestportNow publisher Gordon Joseloff chatted with town arts curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz.

Westport’s movers and shakers have long gathered at Oscar’s. This morning, former 1st selectman and WestportNow publisher Gordon Joseloff chatted with town arts curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz.

Oscar's was a regular gathering place for many other Westporters too.

Oscar’s was a regular gathering place for many other Westporters too.

Ali Papageorge -- Lee's daughter -- sported an Oscar's t-shirt.

Ali Papageorge — Lee’s daughter — sported an Oscar’s t-shirt.

A paper plate on the back of the barber chair where Lee regularly sits read, "Reserved for the king."

A paper plate on the back of the barber chair where Lee regularly sits read, “Reserved for our king.”

Oscars - 7

 

 

Oscar’s Ends Its Run

Oscar’s Delicatessen — the last “mom-and-pop shop” on Main Street — will close on Monday.

The only casual dining spot on the street — which dates back more than 50 years, when it opened a few doors away from its current location — has been owned since 1971 by Lee Papageorge. He’s currently battling lung cancer.

The announcement on Facebook included this photo of the barber chair in which owner Lee Papageorge traditionally sits.

The announcement on Facebook included this photo of the barber chair in which owner Lee Papageorge traditionally sits.

A brief announcement on Oscar’s Facebook page says:

After 42 years Oscar’s will be shutting their doors permanently on Monday, August 1.

On Sunday morning customers will be sharing memories and stories with each other.

Thank you for always supporting local family run businesses.

Thank you Lee Papageorge for giving people second chances and for always loving your extended family.

Thank you.

It’s an abrupt end to a Westport icon. “06880” joins Lee’s countless fans and friends in sending thoughts and best wishes to him, and his family.

Oscar's owner Lee Papageorge.

Oscar’s owner Lee Papageorge.

 

Mary Allen’s Historic Mill Pond Bench

Alert “06880” reader — and amateur historian — Wendy Crowther writes:

Mary Riordan Allen grew up on Hillspoint Road, a few houses away from the iconic Allen’s Clam House.

In the early 1900s, Walter “Cap” Allen opened his clam and oyster shack on the banks of Sherwood Mill Pond. The oysters came from beds in the pond and nearby cove. Cap often hand-shucked them himself. Over time he grew Allen’s into a rustic family eatery.

Recently, Mary returned to the property — now the site of the Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve. It was a special occasion: to meet her bench.

A year ago, she asked Sherry Jagerson — chair of the preserve committee – how she and her family could contribute to the spot that meant so much to them. (A photo on the plaque — and below — shows Cap Allen holding a baby: Mary’s husband, Walter Allen.)

Captain Walter Allen (far right) with his wife Lida, daughter Beulah, holding his son Walter Ethan Allen (Mary’s future husband). The photo was taken at Allen's Clam House around 1911.

Captain Walter Allen (far right) with his wife Lida, daughter Beulah, holding his son Walter Ethan Allen (Mary’s future husband). The photo was taken at Allen’s Clam House around 1911.

Several months later, Mary came to Westport from her home in Maine. Sherry, I and other committee members walked the site with her, to pick out the best spot for the Allen family bench.

Mary Allen, at Sherwood Mill Pond.

Mary Allen, at Sherwood Mill Pond.

After returning home, Mary sent me old photos. One showed her son Chris sitting on what may have been the same boulder from decades earlier.

Mary said that Chris loved feeding the swans close to shore. In early spring, they came to the marsh, rebuilt their nest, laid their eggs and raised their cygnets.

Mary Allen's son Chris, with Sherwood Mill Pond swans.

Mary Allen’s son Chris, with Sherwood Mill Pond swans.

In high school, Mary clammed at low tide on the mud flats, and sold them to Cap. She also sold horseshoe crabs. He put them in floats where he kept his fresh clams; they kept the water clean.

Cap Allen and his wife Lida, in front of the clam house.

Cap Allen and his wife Lida, in front of the clam house.

The Clam House and Mill Pond were Mary’s summer playground. She and her friends rented Cap’s handmade rowboats, to catch blue claw crabs and have adventures. They swam at the gates at high tide — a “challenging and dangerous activity” that today she would not allow.

In winter, the pond froze over. The ice skating was wonderful.

Years later — after she married — Mary’s own children enjoyed similar activities. They also ate quite well at Allen’s. After all, she was family.

Cap’s son, Walter Ethan Allen, had a 35-foot ketch-rigged oyster boat. With a shallow draft and long, shallow centerboard and rudders, it was perfect for oystering. For better ballast, Walt asked neighborhood kids to sail with him.

When Walt returned from World War II, he asked Mary — a Staples High School student — to help. Eventually, ballast turned to romance. They married when she was 18. He was 30.

Walt and Mary Allen had 5 children. This photo shows Abigail, their oldest (Cap’s grandchild), in front of the barn that once stood tight against Hillspoint Road on the edge of the Clam House property. The barn -- which still stands -- was rustic inside, but furnished with a full kitchen and a 2nd-floor loft. Cap used it as a popular summer rental property.

Walt and Mary Allen had 5 children. This photo shows Abigail, their oldest (Cap’s grandchild), in front of the barn that once stood tight against Hillspoint Road on the edge of the Clam House property. The barn was rustic inside, but furnished with a full kitchen and a 2nd-floor loft. Cap used it as a popular summer rental property.

Cap owned a 1934 Ford Phaeton convertible. He drove it to the bank every Monday morning, to deposit the week’s proceeds.

Mary enjoyed hanging out at the clam house. Cap was “quiet but friendly and affable, and had a nice sense of humor.” A cigar smoker, he recovered from throat cancer. In 1954, age 75, he died of arterial sclerosis.

His sons — David and Mary’s husband Walt — tried to keep the business going, hiring help while they held their own jobs. Finally, they decided to run the restaurant only. The Uccellinis — 2 generations of their own family — did a magnificent job too.

Allen’s Clam House was a hugely popular summer place. Over time though, the building wore down. Environmental restrictions made it financially impossible to continue.

The restaurant closed in the mid-1990s. The land was ripe for sale. Developers — hoping to build 3 houses — made lucrative offers. Westporters mourned the loss of what had always been a favorite view. They urged the town to buy the land.

Mary worked closely with First Selectman Diane Farrell, and negotiated a special deal. Though it took many years, the site was eventually rehabilitated by volunteers. It officially opened as a preserve in 2010.

The Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve is one of the most tranquil spots in Westport. (Photo/Katherine Hooper)

The Sherwood Mill Pond Preserve is one of the most tranquil spots in Westport. (Photo/Katherine Hooper)

For the dedication, Mary’s daughter Bonnie Allen wrote:

A special acknowledgment is due to my mother, Mary Riordan Allen, the last remaining owner of the Allen’s Clam House property. 11 years ago, in the spirit of Captain Allen’s concern for the Mill Pond and its meadows, she turned down high purchase offers from developers in favor of selling the property to the town at a price it could afford.

With generous matching contributions from like-minded Westporters (Paul Newman, Harvey Weinstein and Martha Stewart among them) the town of Westport bought the property, and honored my mother’s wishes that it be preserved in its natural state, dedicated to my grandfather, Captain Walter Dewitt Allen.

Last week, Mary and Bonnie returned to Westport to meet their bench — a gift from Mary and her children. The plaque honors Mary’s husband Walt, who died in 1982, and Bonnie’s son, Sebastian Katz, who died in 2000 at age 20.

Mary and Bonnie Allen, on the family's bench.

Mary and Bonnie Allen, on the family’s bench.

The plaque on the Allen family bench.

The plaque on the Allen family bench.

Mary’s bench is the one that Sherwood Mill Pond visitors gravitate to most. I suspect that’s because it provides the same views and sense of peace that first drew Cap to this special piece of the Mill Pond, and inspired him to raise a family and a business on its shores.

Thanks to Mary and her family, this site is a wonderful place, where both nature and history are preserved.


Click here for “06880+” — the easy way to publicize upcoming events, sell items, find or advertise your service, ask questions, etc. It’s the “06880” community bulletin board!

Love To Lee

Like many Westporters, Lynn U. Miller is a huge Lee Papageorge fan.

Yesterday — as the popular Oscar’s owner battles lung cancer — the noted Westport photographer stopped by his Main Street deli.

“Lee fills every room with his goodwill, kindness, generosity, wonderful smile, and genuine interest in and concern for everyone,” Lynn says.

She’s learned a lot from him. She wanted to show Lee and his family how she — and many others — felt about him.

She gathered 7 of Lee’s staff — Harry, Joyce, Cris, Javier, Joachim, Devan and Wally (Imis was off) — for a heartfelt, loving shot.

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

(Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

50 years of Lee’s customers share the sentiment.

Long May She Wave

I sure screwed up yesterday’s post about a “missing” AED. (It wasn’t stolen from Winslow Park at all – it had never been installed. I also misidentified the donor — it’s the Gudis Family Foundation and Norwalk Hospital, not the Adam Greenlee Foundation. Click here to see how many times I could be wrong in one post.)

This one is on the money.

A year ago, Tarantino owner John Paul Marchetti installed an American flag outside his Railroad Place restaurant.

He’s a proud Marine Corps Reserves veteran — he served in Iraq — and was honored to fly it 24/7.

Tarantino flag

Yesterday, he and his brothers — co-owners of the popular Saugatuck spot — noticed the flag was gone.

Marchetti was angry. “This country gave my immigrant parents everything,” he said. “The flag is a symbol of freedom. Someone stole that symbol.”

I told Marchetti I would post the story on “06880.” We’d ask the thief to return the flag, no questions asked.

Meanwhile, Marchetti posted a photo on social media.

Westport Hardware Store owner Richie Velez saw it. He promised to bring a replacement over, as soon as he got off work.

So, if you’re the flag thief, do the right thing. Hand it off to someone who can fly it as proudly as Marchetti, and cares as much as Velez.

(Hat tip: Johnny Carrier)

Starbucks Parking Problem Solved: The Follow-Up

Supposedly in Seattle, 2 Starbuckses squat directly opposite each other, across a street.

That’s not happening in Westport. But it’s close.

As reported first on “06880” last October, the Starbucks near the Sherwood Diner is moving. Its new home is across the Post Road, the former Arby’s. That puts it even closer to another Starbucks: the cafe in Barnes & Noble, a few yards away.

Arby's

Arby’s is empty now (nothing new). After refurbishing, the site — formerly Burger King, and before that Carrols — will be open.

It will include a drive-through, for vanilla mocha pumpkin toffee nut latte-lovers who don’t even want to park.

Not that they ever could.

 

The Latest On Lee Papageorge

About a year ago, Joel Smilow went to Oscar’s for lunch.

A longtime Westporter, and the former chairman and CEO of Playtex, he’s also a noted philanthropist. He made a transformative gift to Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Smilow Cancer Hospital, and donated medical research buildings at NYU and the University of Pennsylvania (among many other endowments).

Lee Papageorge — the popular owner of Oscar’s Delicatessen — was struck by a sudden thought.

“After all you’ve done for people,” Lee asked Joel, “has anyone ever bought you lunch?”

Lee was happy to do so.

Two months ago, Lee received a tough diagnosis: lung cancer. It was particularly devastating because he never smoked — not once in his life.

Lee is now undergoing immunotherapy — at the Smilow Cancer Hospital.

“Those people are fantastic. They’re geniuses,” Lee says with awe. “They know how to talk to you. They treat you so well. They’re the whole package.”

Oscar's owner Lee Papageorge.

Oscar’s owner Lee Papageorge.

Lee — who is 65 — has been a part of Oscar’s since the actual Oscar hired him at  16. Working in the original store — a few doors down Main Street, now part of Vince Clothing — Lee earned $1 an hour. “I had $20 in my wallet. I felt fat!” he says.

(Lee was not the 1st Papageorge who fed Westporters downtown. His grandfather and father opened the Club Grill in 1927. It later was known as Muriel’s, on the Post Road at Taylor Place across from what is now Tiffany.)

In 1967, Joe Milici bought Oscar’s (from Oscar). Lee kept working there. Four years later, he became a 50% partner. They moved to their present location soon thereafter.

The ’70s and ’80s were exciting times on Main Street, Lee recalls. There was always something going on.

He and store owners like Bob Hertzel, Stan Klein, Drew Friedman and Dan Coughlin were prime movers behind the Westport Downtown Merchants Association. They loved the area, the town and their customers. They supported each other, too.

Now, Oscar’s is the oldest — and last — “mom-and-pop” store on Main Street.

Oscar's Delicatessen (Photo/Videler Photography)

Oscar’s Delicatessen (Photo/Videler Photography)

As he battles cancer, Lee has been buoyed by the support of “very strong women.” Susan Gold, of the Westport Historical Society, has been particularly helpful.

Since he was 16, Lee has been a part of Oscar’s. And Oscar’s has been a part of downtown.

Lee’s many customers — and friends — send all their best wishes to him.

Oh My 06880 — Photo Challenge #80

The next time you’re stuck on Hillspoint Road, at the Post Road light, look left. You’ll see a picnic bench, in the woods by Sakura.

That was last week’s photo challenge. Only 1 “06880” reader was alert enough to nail it. Congratulations, Marcella Lozyniak! (Click here for the image — and all the incorrect guesses.)

Oh My 06880 - July 10, 2016

(Photo/Jaime Bairaktaris)

Perhaps readers will have better luck with this week’s challenge. If you know where Jaime Bairaktaris found this shot, click “Comments.” (Click on or hover over to read it more clearly.)

If you’ve got a back story, add that. There should be plenty of good info on this one!