Tag Archives: Viva Zapata’s

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.)

Hot Times At Viva’s

Hot peppers and spicy margaritas are on the menu this Sunday (October 21, 1 to 5 p.m.) at Viva Zapata’s.

That’s not unusual. But the popular Mexican restaurant has added another attraction: 30% of total sales will be donated to the ALS Therapy Development Institute.

It’s Viva’s 2nd annual ALS Pepper Challenge Day. In addition to the drinks (and very hot peppers), participants can buy ALS Pepper Challenge t-shirts, hats and other gear.

Patty Haberstroh

You’ll get a chance to greet the Haberstroh family too. They started Pepper Challenge last Christmas on behalf of Patty, the well-known Westporter who is battling ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).

In less than a year the movement has spread around the globe. Kelly Clarkson, Charles Barkley, Garth Brooks and Jimmy Kimmel are among the thousands of people taking the challenge. They’ve raised over $625,000 toward finding a cure.

Now you can help the ALS Pepper Challenge too. It’s no wonder Viva’s is known as one of Westport’s “hottest” restaurants.

(For more information, click here. For sponsorship and donation opportunities, email chuckhaberstroh@gmail.com.) 

A Post-Apocalyptic Saugatuck

The back cover of Flesh & Wires — a new science fiction book just published by Jackie Hatton — reads:

Following a failed alien invasion the world is left sparsely populated with psychologically scarred survivors, some of them technologically-enhanced women. Lo, leader of the small safe haven of Saugatuck,…

Whoa! Does our little town star in a very intriguing work by that rare species: a female science fiction writer?


Jackie Hatton

Jackie Hatton

Hatton — an Australian who grew up in Tasmania, earned a master’s in American history in Melbourne, and a Ph.D. in the same subject at Cornell — landed here when her husband got a job in Stamford. They knew Westport was a beautiful town, and heard it was “open-minded and open-hearted.” They bought their 1st house on Treadwell Avenue in 1998, attracted by the nearby water.

Hatton was a freelance writer, which worked well. She wrote all morning, then had lunch on the beach. She wrote again in the afternoon, and grabbed dinner somewhere in the neighborhood. Some days, she gardened — and thought.

She and her husband planted a small apple orchard. She calls it “a charmed and charming period” in their lives.

“We spent perhaps too many happy hours in Viva’s and Dunville’s,” she laughs. But she volunteered at the Westport Historical Society, and met friends through New Neighbors.

With Turkish friends, they bought a boat and spent every summer weekend on the Sound.

When Hatton and  her husband were bored, they played a game: “Looking for Keith Richards.” They’d head to lively bars with great music, like the Georgetown Saloon. They never found him.

Jackie Hatton's beloved house on Treadwell Avenue.

Jackie Hatton’s beloved house on Treadwell Avenue.

They moved in 2003 for work reasons — first to a minimalist place in New York City, then to the magical old streets and canals of Amsterdam. They’re still in the Netherlands, but Hatton calls Westport “the most beautiful place I have ever lived.”

The town remained vivid in her mind. Hatton always wanted to set a story here. She began writing a murder mystery, but that genre in a New England setting seemed like a cliche.

One day, rooting around for a more original premise, she recalled the one thing she’d always found strange about Westport: “there are no men there during the day.” Suddenly, she wondered: What if all the men were not just at work in New York?

Then she realized: If the men never came home, the place would still run. Women already maintain the properties, organize the activities and run errands all day long.

They manage many shops, and the small businesses operating out of big homes: freelance consultancies, part-time practices and the like.

Flesh & WiresHatton kept thinking: How would women handle a real crisis? So she added aliens.

Despite their circumstances, the women in Flesh & Wires — who have created an oasis of civilization in Saugatuck — still care about home decoration, gardening, cooking, dancing and clothes. She included those details because she believes that making things beautiful can be a way of “dealing with darkness and difficulties.” How women spend their time is a serious thread throughout the book.

Of course, Hatton has a few laughs too. She turns a nail salon into a military training center. She also enjoys demolishing I-95.

Her book includes the cute little 19th-century cottage that was their old house; Saugatuck Rowing Club and Longshore; Mansion Clam House and Peter’s Bridge Market (both now gone).

The Bridge Street bridge — which may or may not be gone long before the apocalypse — serves as a major checkpoint into town. Downtown has been flooded into oblivion. And Cockenoe Island serves as a prison.

The Bridge Street bridge: While Westporters debate its future, Jackie Hatton turns it into a post-apocalyptic checkpoint into and out of Saugatuck.

The Bridge Street bridge: While Westporters debate its future, Jackie Hatton turns it into a post-apocalyptic checkpoint.

“I’m interested to hear if Westporters find post-apocalyptic Saugatuck beautiful or horrific,” she says. “I love the new park I created, but I hate the idea of living in fear behind fortified walls.”

So what’s next, in the pre-apocalyptic real world?

“My great fantasy is that Hollywood buys the movie rights to Flesh & Wires,” Hatton says. “And then pays me to spend the summer on location in my favorite place in the world.”

More realistically, she hopes that promotional activities bring her back to Westport soon.

“There’s a margarita waiting for me at Viva’s,” she notes. “And a bar stool at Dunville’s with my name on it.”

(Click on www.jackiehatton.net to learn more about the author and her book — including a feature on how she uses Westport settings.)

Slicing Through Saugatuck

You never realize how many restaurants are in Saugatuck — until they start giving away free* food.

Viva’s, Julian’s, Rizzuto’s, Tutti’s; the Whelk, the Duck, Rainbow Thai and Tarry Lodge — all those and more handed out their specialties at today’s Slice of Saugatuck.

Add in Saugatuck Sweets, Garelick & Herbs, Craft Butchery — plus Dunkin’ Donuts and the Mobil Mini-Mart — and it’s a good thing there was lots of walking.

Today’s Slice also featured musical bands of kids and kids-at-heart; a steel band and calypso band (different spots); a bouncy house, and much more.

The only party poopers were a couple of restaurants that opted not to participate. And the private parking lot across from Dunville’s was completely closed, even though most tenants have fled.

That’s okay. We can deal. And if you’re reading this before 3 p.m. Saturday, stop! You’ve still got time for the Slice. It runs until then.

PS: Bands play at Luciano Park until 5.

*With the purchase of a $10 ticket.

Tutti's went all out -- and had some of the longest lines.

Tutti’s went all out to offer great food.

The band Forester traveled from Bethany to play.

The band Forester traveled from Bethany to play on the plaza.

What kid doesn't like getting in a fire truck?

What kid doesn’t like getting in a fire truck?

Harvest does not take over the old Mario's spot until late October. But they were at the Slice of Saugatuck too.

Harvest does not take over the old Mario’s spot until late October. But they were at the Slice of Saugatuck too.

Downunder offers kayak rides. The boat cruising up the Saugatuck River may or may not have been part of the Slice.

Downunder offers kayak rides. The boat cruising up the Saugatuck River may or may not have been heading to the Slice.

Tarry Lodge was big on desserts.

Tarry Lodge was big on faro salad.

A young visitors checks off every restaurant she visited.

A young visitor checks off every restaurant she visited.

Qdoba Is No Longer The Newest Mexican Restaurant In Town

Last winter, word on the calle was that 2 popular Mexican restaurants were coming to town.

Qdoba came. Chipotle did not.

But when no one was looking, Señor Salsa snuck up on us.

Senor Salsa

The Westport outpost of the Fairfield-based Mexican grill just opened on Post Road West, at the corner of Sylvan Road South.

For years, that was the site of Connolly’s. During its long vacancy, there were rumors that Señor Salsa was coming in. Finally — long after everyone forgot — it’s happened.

The menu features burritos, tacos, fajitas, tamales, quesadillas and more. It seems on the Qdoba end of the scale — perhaps Cuatros Hermanos — rather than Bartaco or Villa del Sol, both of which are quite different from each other.

And then there’s Viva’s, which has been here since (it seems) Emiliano Zapata himself was alive.

But Westport’s restaurant scene is a big tent.

¡Bienvenidos, Señor Salsa!

Senor Salsa menu

(Photos by — and a hat tip to — alert and hungry “06880” reader Lisa Shufro.)

Ho Ho Ho! They’ll Drink To That!

Seventy or so Santa Clauses — and a few random Mrs. Clauses, elves and Grinches — descended on Saugatuck Center this afternoon.

They drank, ate and ambled their way — no sleighs allowed, not after all that beer! — from Dunville’s to the Whelk, then Viva’s, Rizzuto’s and the Duck. Dessert was at Saugatuck Sweets.

The price to party: $100. Plus, you had wear a costume. There were some very serious Santas today.

It was all for a great cause: Adam’s Camp, a special summer spot for children with special needs.

Everywhere the merry group went, traffic stopped. It was as if no one has ever seen 70 Santas drinking their way through Saugatuck before.

Kelly and Drew Schuette, who organized this afternoon's Santa pub crawl.

Kelley and Drew Schuette, who organized this afternoon’s Santa pub crawl. More shots are below.

Santa - 2

Santa - 3

Santa - 4

Santa - 5

Nearly everyone made it to the plaza outside the Whelk for a group shot. A few were still inside, enjoying their beers and oysters.

Nearly everyone made it to the plaza outside the Whelk for a group shot. A few were still inside, enjoying their beers and oysters.

Drew McKeon Rocks Michael Bolton’s World

Growing up in Westport, says Drew McKeon, you see Michael Bolton as a local guy.

But when you walk through the airport with him in a place like Shanghai — with people “crying, freaking out” — you realize he’s an international sensation.

Michael Bolton and Drew McKeon in Singapore.

Michael Bolton and Drew McKeon in Singapore.

Drew has walked through plenty of airports with Bolton. They’ve  just finished a 9-month world tour. From Copenhagen, Warsaw, Bucharest, Kiev and Minsk through Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur and Seoul’s Olympic Stadium, the Staples Class of 2000 graduate — and NYU religion and history major — has served as Bolton’s drummer. It’s been an awesome, rewarding — and eye-opening — experience.

In Japan, Drew says, “people tried to break into our dressing room. They passed old records and t-shirts through the window to sign. It was crazy.”

It’s no coincidence that Bolton hired a fellow Westporter. His daughters knew Drew when he played with Ryan O’Neill at local spots like Viva’s. They brought their dad; he liked when he heard.

When Bolton’s drummer left abruptly last May, he called Drew. The drummer — who’d cut his touring chops with Hall & Oates — had a week to learn 40 songs.

Drew McKeon in action.

Drew McKeon in action.

The past year has been a whirlwind of experiences. They played a billionaire’s wedding in Nice. They wore tuxes at Monaco’s Sporting Club, where a velvet curtain opened and the prince walked in. In Belarus, they performed with the Presidential Orchestra at the Imperial Palace.

On travel days, if the 15 to 20 band members and crew got to a city early, Drew took the rest of the day to explore. “Whether it’s Wheeling, West Virginia or Paris, I try to get out,” he says. “There’s not a lot of time, but you learn to be efficient. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved to travel. To do it on someone else’s dime is cool.”

The traveling party — a mixture of ages — got along well. “Everyone is so nice,” Drew says. “I’ve toured with bands that have real ego clashes. It’s not easy being together 24 hours a day.”

Drew McKeon backing up Michael Bolton.

Drew McKeon backing up Michael Bolton.

After almost a year on the road, Drew got another gig. He and singer Darian Cunning have performed on St. Barts since 2005, building a Bolton-like fanatic following. They play 3 hours a night, 6 nights a week — and spend the rest of the time on the beach.

“It’s like summer camp, with Victoria’s Secret models and billionaires,” Drew says.

A soundcheck in Tokyo.

A soundcheck in Tokyo.

He’s started to branch out. He played drums on “America’s Got Talent,” and hopes to do more TV.

The touring life is not easy — “I’m tired from traveling, but not of it,” he says — but it’s a life Drew McKeon loves.

With Michael Bolton’s new autobiography out, as well as a Motown tribute record, there’s sure to be more shows ahead.

And more chances to have crazy fans try to break into his — and Drew McKeon’s — dressing room.

(Click here if your browser does not link directly to YouTube.)

It Only Took 19 Years…

…but Viva Zapata finally has a website.

Now — just like any other restaurant — you can click for info on hours, menus and (who needs this?) directions.

Unlike any other restaurant website, you can also find everything you need to know about Emiliano Zapata.

I asked owner Bob Omahony what took so long.

“Laziness?” he replied, with spectacular honesty.

Go celebrate Viva’s entrance into the 21st century with a margarita.

Click here for directions.

Dissin’ Dunkin’

“06880” reader Wendy Pieper was in Saugatuck the other day.  She did not like what she saw.

Her reaction:

We stopped at the light at Peter’s Corner in Saugatuck.  (I call it that because Peter’s Market sat at this location for what seemed like forever.)

I’m not sure I would have seen the atrocity if we weren’t stopped for that brief moment, but I glanced up and saw the familiar logo that graces every mile (or less) up and down the Post Road:  Dunkin’ Donuts.

I couldn’t believe it.  My heart stopped — it literally missed a beat.  I was overcome by that feeling you get when you learn someone has died.  There were no words; just open-mouth gasping.

I  can’t believe Dunkin’ Donuts is in Saugatuck.

My husband and I rented a cottage on Riverside Avenue when we were first married.  A quick walk to the train, Viva’s, Peter’s Bridge, Mansion Clam House,  the Duck, Desi’s corner, the post office, Depot Liquor, DeRosa’s, etc.   What more could you need?

Not a Dunkin’ Donuts, that’s for sure!

There was a charming quality to the Saugatuck area — and there still is, hidden there waiting to blossom again.  There is a heart and soul, a feeling of community.  It’s something different than downtown, sorta fishy, sorta quirky, definitely a real feel of the river.  The last bits of old Westport are there.

We’ve given up so much of this town.  Do we have to sacrifice the last parts?  Do we really need another faceless, nameless shop?  When you’re in a Dunkin’ Donuts you could be in a mall, a truck stop, an airport — a place of nothing, devoid of locale.  Heartless.

I can’t tell you how many sandwiches, coffees and egg sandwiches I’ve grabbed from Peter’s.  I took them to the beach, or escaped on a boat.

The old Mansion Clam House has a new neighbor.

This little enclave was a place to restock and revive.  You’d see everyone there from town on their way to enjoy the beach or Longshore, or off to New York.

The parking lot was always crowded.  All the proprietors knew your face.  The deli people welcomed you.  There was a community.  You knew you were in Westport.

I spent a zillion hours at Juba’s (the old coffee spot in Peter’s) when my second daughter was born, trading stories and receiving encouragement from other moms.  I assure you you will not find this at Dunkin’ Donuts.

I can’t believe the town approved this.  McDonald’s and Arby’s received more scrutiny than this!  Did someone get paid off?  There was no prior notice, just another operation done under the cover of night — very cloak and dagger.

How is Doc’s going to survive?  Don’t we want to see the success of the local businessman?

We deserve more in this town.  For such an educated and eclectic group, we are sadly pacified with what is easy and common.  Where is our spirit, our individuality?  How could we have let this happen to another place?  How can we give up Saugatuck to more of the same?

How could the owners of this property ignore the history and charm or Saugatuck?  How could they be so short-sighted?

I am so saddened by this, as I’m sure many others are.

That was Wednesday.  Wendy had a night to think about Dunkin’ Donuts’ coming to Saugatuck.

Yesterday morning, she was still upset.  She wrote again:

I’m just so sad.  Once a Dunkin’ Donuts or the like go in to a place, they never leave.  You see abandoned stores everywhere, but somehow they manage to stay there with their stale coffee smell, chewy old bagels and napkins scattered on the sidewalk.

Will funky Doc's survive now that DD's has moved in?

It might be time to think of moving.  I can’t believe I grew up here, spent every summer on this shore, chose to build my life here with my family, and slowly I watch the decay of town.  I just don’t understand.  I wish there was something to do.  Is it greed?

I find myself in Fairfield more these days, because somehow they have managed to find a balance between the chains and the locals.  I’m afraid Westport will soon look and feel like Westchester County.  Maybe that’s what everyone wants, and I’m not the norm — my husband points that out to me often.

Am I living in a fantasy world?  Too Pollyanna?  I point out so many spots to my daughters, and preceding most comments is “There used to be this great place…”

Fill in the blank:  Ship’s, Soup’s On, the movie theater.  Even the strategic placement of Friendly’s in Playhouse Square was good — you could always find someone there after a movie.

Sorry to lament so early in the morning.  Any solution?  Is it too far gone?

This Dunkin’ Donuts seems to have put me over the edge.  I know I will get over it, move on and and find something wonderful again in town that I love and that keeps me here.

But in the meantime I shall say a prayer that others may feel the same — that we may all try to hold on to our beautiful town, and all that makes it unique and special.

The Temperature Of Westport

When it comes to nightlife, “cool” and “hot” mean the same thing.

These days, Westport’s nightlife can be summed up in one word: “not.”

Two hip-but-nerdy researchers recently unveiled a means of measuring cool hot spots based on things like film screenings, concerts, gallery openings and fashion shows.

It examined only two cities — New York and L.A. — but once upon a time Westport had nightlife too.  There were movie theaters (five!), concerts (The Doors, Yardbirds and Cream all played here) and galleries.

Sure, we had a fashion show just last month.  The models were Staples football players and cheerleaders.  No offense but, I mean, no one confused it with Project Runway.

These days, Westport’s nightlife is confined to a tiny triangle of restaurant/bars:  the Black Duck, Viva’s and Dunville’s.  Call ’em by their initials:  BVD.

That sums up Westport’s sad night scene, doesn’t it?  No one wears BVDs anymore.

It’s time to toss off our briefs.  Westport:  Move into a boxers world!