In its 2 1/2 years in Westport, Vespa earned the loyalty of many customers.
Unfortunately, they came almost entirely on Friday and Saturday nights.
Owner Bobby Werhane thought there was a demand for “a New York style, modern rustic restaurant” in that location.
There was. But attracting diners on more casual weekdays was tough. Though the 155 seats inside were filled — and in summer, the 60-seat patio was packed — the size of National Hall, plus the difficulty of scheduling employees for both peak and slow times, led to what Werhane admits was “inconsistency.”
“The Cottage and the Whelk are small enough to do well consistently,” he says. “They’ve got a small, constant staff, and a tight menu. Their expenses are manageable. It was a lot tougher for us.”
The Inn at National Hall. Vespa most recently occupied the ground floor.
One of the things he enjoyed most about Vespa was establishing strong relationships with guests. One was Sal Augeri.
A 14-year Westporter with 2 kids, Augeri — a Wall Street guy — was thinking about the next phase of his life. He’d always been interested in restaurants; he was involved in his town, so …
… welcome to the new spot that’s taking Vespa’s place. It’s called …
… The ‘Port.
It aims to fill a niche that Augeri believew is lacking in Westport’s restaurant scene: an “approachable, authentic experience.” He calls it “a place to go after your kids’ practice, or for a quick bite with friends. But a place that also has a definite local flavor.”
The ‘Port — our town’s sometime nickname — hopes to convey a real Westport vibe. Vespa’s white walls and beautiful surfaces will remain; some banquettes and communal spaces will be added, and “Westport stuff” put on the walls. Soon, the owners hope, the iconic building will be filled with people, 7 days a week.
“Owners” is exactly the right word. Augeri’s company — SMA Hospitality — is the majority owner and operating partner. Twenty-three investors have joined the 10 original Vespa backers. That’s 33 families, all with young kids and town ties.
Local designers Alli DiVincenzo and Michele Cosentino teamed up with Westport architect Lucien Vita of the Vita Design Group to brand and design the interior of The ‘Port.
The restaurant will also hire Staples students as busboys. (The last place that did that may have been the Arrow.)
The ‘Port will be “family friendly.” Augeri says that means “simple, basic, good food that people want”: an excellent burger. The “Port Club” signature chicken sandwich. Fish, pastas, fresh salads, great wings.
Milk and fresh lemonade for children — drinks that are healthier than most restaurants’ sodas and juice boxes.
Dessert includes homemade brownies and Chipwiches. “I don’t need tiramisu,” Augeri laughs.
Chef Justin Kaplan last worked in Lake Tahoe. This will be the 7th restaurant he’s opened.
He looks forward to “rustic, home-style cooking done right. We’re designing this menu for our guests — not the chefs’ egos.”
Chef Justin Kaplan (left) and operating partner Sal Augeri. (Photo/Allyson Monson)
“Family friendly” means the owners hope The ‘Port will be the place that Staples Players and middle school actors go to celebrate after shows. What about the diner — the current favorite spot? “We’ll do special events for the cast,” Augeri promises.
He will also provide discounts for veterans, police officers and firefighters, along with special post-Back to School Night promotions. Augeri adds, “teachers will be glad we’re there. A lot of times they’re looking for a 4-to-6 p.m. spot.”
A couple of TVs will draw guests for big events, like the NCAA Final Four, US Open tennis or a Champions League championship. But — although he’s deeply involved in the Westport PAL, and he hopes teams will gather there after big wins — Augeri claims, “this is not a sports bar. It’s a restaurant with TVs.”
The projected opening date is a month from now. See you at The ‘Port.