Opening a new restaurant in Westport is never easy.
Opening in the midst of a pandemic is especially tough.
But Hudson Malone did it. The steakhouse-and-more is drawing raves with its menu, Westport-themed decor, and comfortable, COVID-conscious ambience.
Hudson Malone took over the former 323 restaurant — named for its Main Street address, across Canal Street from Coffee An’.
That’s been the site of many restaurants. Before 323, it was Bogey’s. And before that, Oliver’s. And before that …
… well, that’s this Friday’s flashback. If you can name all of Hudson Malone’s predecessors — or even any of the others — click “Comments” below.
BONUS QUESTIONS: How about all of the restaurants that once occupied Shake Shack? Or the Sotheby’s real estate office at the Post Road East/Myrtle Road intersection, which for many years housed many eateries? Dig in!
Bia Hittman’s parents first met at Crossroads. Back in the 1970s, it was a lively restaurant with a young crowd.
The other day, Bia’s mom and dad celebrated their 41st anniversary. Crossroads is gone. So is its most recent replacement: 323 restaurant.
But Bia’s parents are still drawn to the area. In the small shopping center across Canal Street, Bia and her husband Seth are hard at work. They’re opening The Grapevine — a modern and very cool liquor store — in the space known to generations of Westporters as a different Crossroads: Ace Hardware.
Crossroads Ace Hardware closed last year.
Bia grew up in Trumbull. But her parents brought her to Westport often. They ate at Onion Alley, shopped at Henry Lehr. She tasted her first matzo ball soup at Oscar’s.
Seth is from Nyack, New York. He’s a tech entrepreneur and investor. They lived in Manhattan, with 2 kids and 2 dogs.
But, she says, it was “Westport or bust” for her. “It was always my dream to live here.” The restaurants, shopping, beach, great schools — all drew her in.
Four years ago, the Hittmans moved here. He commutes a couple of days to New York. But almost immediately, they began looking for a way to become part of the community.
Bia Hittman, in her new store.
They thought about real estate. Then they had another idea: a liquor store.
They searched for an opportunity. A few months ago, she says, “the stars aligned.”
Ace Hardware closed. The owners of Parkway Liquors — on the other side of Coffee An’ — were looking to sell.
The Hittmans bought Parkways’ liquor permit. Then they went to work.
The Grapevine’s open, inviting interior — and new ceiling.
They dropped Ace’s loft, and got rid of the side stairs. They added a cathedral ceiling, with handsome trusses. They put in new flooring, and painted brightly. The Grapevine — the clever name — is now the only bi-level liquor store in the state, Bia says.
The entrance has been moved to the north side. There’s plenty of parking there — and the new orientation will be great for a Grapevine innovation: curbside service. Orders can be placed online; when you drive over, it’s ready.
The 3,000-square foot store is open and inviting. The Hittmans are focusing on craft and gluten-free beers, and organic and gluten-free wines. They’re vetting their vineyards, ensuring that “organic” is not just a word on the label.
The Grapevine’s staff will provide advice on building and stocking your wine cellar. “We’ll do everything from soup to nuts,” Bia says (invoking, perhaps, her parents’ days at Crossroads).
She, Seth and partner Joe Annunziata — a longtime veteran of the wine business — look forward to partnering with the Westport Downtown Merchants Association on events.
They are excited about their location. “People drive by coming into and out of Westport,” Bia says. “We’re the entrance and exit.”
The former side of Ace Crossroads is now the main entrance to The Grapevine.
The Grapevine’s soft opening early this month will be followed by a grand opening the first weekend in May.
Meanwhile, the little shopping center’s newest tenant is getting to know the neighbors.
“Everyone has been so welcoming and kind,” Bia says. “Especially Coffee An’.”
Which raises the question: What wine goes best with a glazed donut?
323 — the Main Street restaurant opposite Coffee An’ — closed suddenly today.
Employees arriving for work were given no notice. Neither were musicians who had been booked for upcoming gigs.
323 was known for live music. Last month, Aztec Two-Step played there.
Last summer, 323 made headlines when the bar featured a drink called the Tuskegee Experiment. There was no connection at all between the cocktail, and the shameful 40-year period in American history when US Public Health officials tracked the progression of untreated syphilis in black men.
A representative of the landlord said, “There is lots of interest in this property. Something will open here soon.”
In 2013, this sign said that 323 restaurant was coming soon. Five years later, it closed.
What does the Tuskegee Experiment have to do with Westport?
On the surface, nothing.
But the infamous incident — in which the US Public Health Service and the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, spent 40 years tracking the progression of untreated syphilis in black men — popped up as the name of a cocktail at 323 restaurant.
According to a report on the Eater food blog, “It’s unclear what the cocktail — featuring ‘Myers dark rum, Malibu, pineapple juice, fresh lime, pineapple & jalapeño mash, dash tabasco’ — has to do with this disturbing period in American history.”
Westporter Eric Armour posted a photo of the specialty drink menu — including other names like Sucker Punch, The Queen Bee and The Red October — on social media. He wrote: “Umm. This is ridiculously horrible.”
Yesterday morning, Eater called the Main Street restaurant. A woman said “she removed all of the cocktail menus on Sunday following a customer complaint.”
Eater pledged to get more information on how the drink was named The Tuskegee Experiment in the first place.
I called 323 last night, and asked to speak to a manager about this story. The person answering the phone said, “We’re kind of busy right now.”
(Click here for the full Eater story. Hat tips: Bart Shuldman and William Strittmatter)
Last month, “06880” reported on a piano plea from 323.
Music lovers at the North Main Street restaurant hoped to raise $11,000 to buy a piano. The one used for 323’s popular Thursday night jazz series — lent by Beit Chaverim Synagogue (through their leader, Greg “The Jazz Rabbi” Wall) — was not up to the job.
This was not just any piano, mind you. It was a fine 1937 Steinway “M” — from New York’s legendary Village Gate. For decades beginning in 1958, it was played by greats like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Ahmad McCoy Tyner, Erroll Garner, Nina Simone and Sun Ra.
Would jazz lovers an hour from the city pony up the cash to give it a second life in Westport?
Yes! The deal has been closed. The new piano is already safely in its new home, right near the bar.
Steinway’s classic piano, in its new 323 home.
The official welcome show is this Thursday (May 19, 7:30 p.m.). It’s billed as “Chris Coogan Meets the Jazz Rabbi.” All are welcome.
The fine print: The newly formed Jazz Society of Fairfield County has not yet raised the full amount. An interest-free loan from an anonymous jazz lover will tide them over for a few days. They hope to reach their goal this week, and start a fund for periodic maintenance, regulation and tuning. Contributions can be made via PayPal (click here). For other arrangements, email JazzRabbi@gmail.com. For 323’s Jazz Series Facebook page, click here.
Greg Wall — the “jazz rabbi” — just celebrated his 1st year at 323. Most Thursdays, he and an ever-changing virtuoso cast entertains diners, drinkers and music fans at the North Main Street restaurant.
There’s only one problem: Their piano is not up to the job.
It’s a fine instrument for a casual home player. But it can’t sustain the constant playing of 323’s featured artists.
Fortunately, a fine 1937 Steinway “M” piano — from New York’s legendary Village Gate — is available. For several decades beginning in 1958, it was played by many jazz greats: Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, Erroll Garner, Sun Ra and more.
A plaque on the Village Gate piano describes its vaunted history.
The piano was featured on recordings by Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Nina Simone, and used for the original perfomances of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”
The 323 crew hopes to raise $10,000 to buy the instrument. They’re starting a non-profit — The Jazz Society of Fairfield County — to ensure the piano will support jazz performances throughout the area.
They’ve got a week to pull off the deal. So they offer these premiums:
Donate $3,000 or more, and the Greg Wall Quartet will perform in your home, or for a private function.
Donate $1,000, and you’ll be treated to a night of solo piano by one of 323’s featured artists.
For $500 or more, you can dedicate an upcoming 323 performance in honor of a friend or loved one, or for a special occasion.
If the Jazz Society can’t purchase the piano, all donations will be returned. If they surpass their goal, excess funds will be used for regular maintenance, tuning and regulation, and the purchase of a humidity control device.
Let the music play!
(To contribute via PayPal, click here. To make other arrangements, email JazzRabbi@gmail.com)
Among the 323 regulars are saxophonist Greg Wall and pianist Chris Coogan.
The “jazz rabbi” — a saxophonist who doubles as the spiritual leader of Westport’s Beit Chaverim (or the other way around) — needed a place to blow his horn.
Plenty of local spots feature music. But jazz is often relegated to “background music” — not the high-level listening experience offered at the major New York venues he’s worked, like Joe’s Pub and the Village Vanguard.
Enter 323. The restaurant near Coffee An’ offers a nice, wood-finished listening space. Every Thursday night Wall curates weekly jazz events, with well-known musician and guest stars.
The 2 faces of Greg Wall.
Like the jazz professional he is, Wall improvises well. This Thursday there’s a tribute to Ornette Coleman, the legendary alto saxophonist/composer who died last month.
Sitting in will be Coleman’s longtime guitarist/collaborator Kenny Wessel.
“I’m a firm believer in meeting people where they are,” says Wall. “Whether it’s using my music to make a connection with people in a night club, or teaching Talmud classes on a sailboat” — his Friday morning onboard classes are a whole other story — “I try to remove any barriers that stand in the way of people and their spiritual development.”
That spiritual development — the jazz element, anyway — continues every Thursday night through August 27. Upcoming guests include guitar legend Bob Devos and the New American Quartet.
There is no cover charge to hear the jazz rabbi and friends blow their shofars horns.
(For more information, click on the Facebook page: Jazz at 323 Westport.)
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