Category Archives: Saugatuck

Pic Of The Day #841

Train station tower (Photo/Tracy Porosoff)

Al Fresco At Romanacci’s

Plenty of commuters pick up dinner to go at Romanacci Express.

But many people also eat in, at the popular pizza-and-more spot directly opposite the train station

Now they can also eat “out” — literally — on Railroad Place.

The restaurant received a permit to use one parking spot directly in front for al fresco tables. The view is not quite Roman — but it’s pleasant, breezy, and great for people-watching.

The idea was encouraged by town officials, eager to enliven Westport’s dining scene.

Tarantino and Harvest may follow soon.

Pic Of The Day #837

Saugatuck River and the I-95 bridge, behind Saugatuck Sweets (Photo/Dan Woog)

Despite Denials, Hiawatha Lane Housing Proposal Still Lives

Folklore says that cats have 9 lives.

The proposed Hiawatha Lane housing development has been rejected 8 times by town officials.

Its developer is betting the 9th time’s the charm.

In June, Westport’s Planning & Zoning Commission struck down Summit Saugatuck’s plan for 187 units on the narrow road nestled between Saugatuck Avenue and I-95 exit 17. Board members cited concerns about access by firefighters and first responders, as well as traffic and pedestrian concerns.

Applications for sewer connections were denied earlier, by the P&Z and/or Board of Selectmen, in July and September 2007; January 2015; July 2016, and February 2017.

A text amendment and zone change were voted down in November 2016. The text amendment, map amendment and zoning amendment request defeated this past June was the 8th request.

Every denial was unanimous.

Summit Saugatuck’s plan for Hiawatha Lane.

But Summit Saugatuck principal Felix Charney will be back again. Because the proposal is submitted as an 8-30g application — meaning it falls under the state’s “affordable housing” regulation — it’s been re-submitted. A public hearing is set for September 12.

The plan would include 130 market-rate units, and 57 deemed “affordable.” Hiawatha Lane already includes many homes that are among the most affordable in Westport.

The 8-30g statute mandates that 10% of a town’s housing stock be “affordable,” under a state formula. Westport is currently at 4%.

However, only units constructed after 1990, and those that are deed-restricted for 40 years, are considered. Most Westport units serving lower-income groups do not fall into either category.

In March, Westport received a “Certificate of Affordable Housing Completion” from the state Department of Housing. The result was a 4-year moratorium on 8-30g.

The moratorium was granted “based upon the significant progress Westport has made in supplying affordable housing,” 1st Selectman Jim Marpe. Yet the moratorium does not preclude more submissions, like the one Summit Saugatuck is proposing.

Summit Saugatuck and Garden Homes — another developer whose proposal to build on untenable land was denied by the town — tried to get the state to vacate the moratorium. Their petition was denied on Monday by Connecticut’s Department of Housing.

1177 Post Road East helped Westport earn a 4-year moratorium on 8-30g proposals.

The town has received “moratorium points” for these units:

  • Rotary Centennial House, 10 West End Avenue (6 out of 6 total units)
  • Bradley Commons, Bradley Lane (4 of 20)
  • Saugatuck Center, Riverside Avenue (5 of 27)
  • Bedford Square, Church Lane (5 of 26)
  • 20 Cross Street (3 of 10; a portion of all others also earn points)
  • Coastal Point, 1135 Post Road East (2 of 12)
  • 1177 Greens Farms, 1177 Post Road East (29 of 94; a portion of all others also earn points )
  • Sasco Creek, 1655 Post Road East (31 of 54)
  • Hidden Brook, 1655 Post Road East (4 of 39)
  • Hales Court (38 of 78).

As noted earlier, that does not count any affordable housing built before 1990.

(Hat tip: Carolanne Curry)

Bistro Du Soleil Serves Up Fine Food — And Art

There are 2 types of excellent restaurants in Westport:

The ones everyone talks about. You know what they are.

And the ones that don’t get much buzz at all. Like Bistro du Soleil.

Tucked away in a corner of the old Saugatuck post office — on Riverside Avenue just before the train station, next to now-departed Westport Auction — the Mediterranean-with-a-French-flair spot is beloved by everyone who knows it.

But not everyone does.

Bistro du Soleil is a family affair. Owner Maria Munoz del Castillo works alongside her parents, Soledad and Bernardo. They came to the US in the 1980s.

Soledad was trained as a French chef. Bernardo — a craftsman as well as a restaurateur — lovingly made every table, the outdoor seating and handsome wooden bar. He’s also a playwright and poet.

Bernardo Munoz del Castillo (right) hand-crafted this handsome wooden bar.

Bistro du Soleil is more than a great restaurant. Since it opened 2 years ago, over 200 local and international artists have had their work highlighted on the sunflower gold walls.

Next up: Peter Saverine. A public reception to meet him, see his art, and enjoy wine and treats is set for this Sunday (August 4, 4 to 7 p.m.).

Like Bistro du Soleil, Saverine is a strong believer in giving back. He wants his art to be affordable, so he’s priced it at $20 to $450.

One of Peter Saverine’s works …

When he offered to donate a portion of his sales to a local non-profit, Soledad asked him to choose one supporting women and girls. Saverine selected Project Return, the Homes with Hope facility on North Compo Road that helps homeless young women rebuild their lives.

Like Bistro du Soleil’s owner, Saverine has an intriguing background. Professionally he’s director of philanthropy at STAR, the non-profit serving area residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

But he’s also a self-taught artist. His seascapes capture familiar scenes along Long Island Sound, Cape Cod and Nantucket. Compo Beach is a frequent inspiration.

… and another.

Saverine also authored a children’s book about a mermaid: “Jenny’s Pennies — A Nantucket Tradition.”

Great food and wine; fine (and affordable) art; a wonderful cause — it’s all there Sunday.

Whether you’re a Bistro du Soleil fan or never heard of the place, this is a wonderful reason to stop by.

Pic Of The Day #833

Not Italy. It’s the Westport train station. (Photo/Breno Donatti)

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.”

Pic Of The Day #826

Saugatuck Rowing Club sky, last night (Drone photo/Ward French)

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.)

Another Storm. Another Huge Tree Down.

This morning’s storm was nowhere near as intense as yesterday’s.

Or the one 2 weeks ago Monday. Or the one the day before that.

Nevertheless, it did some significant damage. A tree fell at Mystic Market. Two employees’ cars were heavily damaged.

(Photo/David Griswold)

No one was injured. But be careful.

It’s a jungle out there.

(Photo/Darcy Sledge)

(Photo/Darcy Sledge)