Rye Ridge is open for business. The kosher-style deli fills a void in all of downtown.
Some of Oscar’s long-time staff are back behind the counter. Many of Oscar’s regulars are back in line.
Can you say “pastrami on rye”?
A waiter cleans up — and looks at Lee Papageorge, longtime Oscar’s owner (wearing the red apron at left). The mural was a fixture of the old deli, and has been restored by the Rye Ridge owners. (All photos/Lynn U. Miller)
The death of Lee Papageorge more than a year ago left a hole in the heart of downtown.
He’d closed Oscar’s — the deli he owned for more than 40 years — just a week earlier.
The end of Oscar’s meant more than the loss of a place with great pastrami and pickles. There was now no place on Main Street for a meal with friends — a spot where regulars always sat at the same table, and everyone (or at least the counter guys) knew your name.
Rye Ridge — the popular Stamford and Rye Brook kosher-style deli — signed a lease. It’s taken many months to renovate the site. But the good news is: They’re opening in a couple of weeks.
Rye Ridge renovations are nearly done.
The better news is: Some of Oscar’s old employees may be back.
And here’s the icing on the cake lox on the bagel: The owner of the new deli arranged with the Papageorge family to hang the iconic Oscar’s mural in the same spot it had been since 1982.
The Oscar’s mural — back at Rye Ridge Deli. (Photos/David Waldman)
Many regulars depicted on the wall are gone. So of course is Lee — the guy with the beard and red apron, all the way on the left.
Now he’s back, standing proudly with his friends and customers.
Rye Ridge’s reverence for the past is important. Here’s wishing them a run as long and successful as Oscar’s — and Lee’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.
Oscar’s next-door neighbor — Westport Hardware — burned to the ground in 1976. It’s now the site of the 3-story Gap building.
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.
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.
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.
Oscar’s was a regular gathering place for many other Westporters too.
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 our king.”
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.
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.
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)
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.
Yesterday, “06880” tore into the vexing problem of Main Street curbs. Some parallel parkers who scrape strongly against the new granite — constructed to federal standards, to withstand New England winters — have emerged with shredded tires.
Some commenters assailed the new curbs. Some offered solutions (such as: park elsewhere).
A typical Main Street parking scene.
A longtime Westporter with strong downtown ties has a fantastic idea: angled parking.
In other words, you’d pull in, nose first, at an angle on one side of Main Street. There would be no parking on the other side.
More vehicles could park this way, the theory goes, because angled cars take up less space than parallel-parked ones. In addition, stripes would guide (somewhat — this is, after all, Westport) drivers. Right now, there are no stripes because the road is irregular. That leads to wasted space.
Angled parking in downtown Mamaroneck, New York…
Angled parking would improve traffic flow. There would be more room, and drivers would not have to wait for the car ahead to maneuver back and forth. (Or wait for the tow truck to come to fix a shredded tire.)
Of course, drivers would also be able to see where they’re going, and presumably not barrel head first into the granite curb. (Though based on the number of drivers who plow through storefronts elsewhere in town, this is debatable.)
…and along The Avenue in Greenwich.
Angled parking would also allow for handicap spots. Right now there are none on Main Street — because there are no stripes.
Other downtowns have angled parking — New Canaan, Greenwich and Mamaroneck, to name 3.
This would not be the first time we’ve changed Main Street’s vehicular pattern. Through the mid-1970s, there was 2-way traffic all the way to the Post Road.
Two-way traffic on Main Street. Note the light in front of Klein’s (now Banana Republic).
I envision merchants “angling” (ho ho) to make sure the head-in parking is on their side of the street.
We can let Lee Papageorge decide. He’s fair and impartial. As owner of Oscar’s Deli, he’s been downtown forever.
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