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Wednesday, June 26 News

Woog’s World / Reminiscing about those fabled restaurants of long ago

It’s called Restaurant Week. But Westport has so many good, fun places to eat, this year’s event runs from Sept. 30 through Oct. 14. So even though you’ve missed a few days already, there’s still more than a week left in Restaurant Week.

Two dozen eateries, from Saugatuck and downtown, up the Post Road to Southport, offer prix fixe meals. They range from $15 to $25 for lunch, $25 to $40 for dinner, and start at $15 for brunch.

There are new restaurants like The Naan; recent arrivals like Amis, Harvest and Le Penguin, and old, old standbys like DaPietro’s, Sakura and Tavern on Main.

The last three have been around for decades. They’re the proud successors to a few other places that also — back in the day — defined Westport’s dining scene.

It’s impossible to write a history of Westport restaurants without mentioning the Arrow. For years, the Italian place symbolized not only Saugatuck, but the entire town.

From its original location where Franklin Street meets Saugatuck Avenue — hence the “arrow” name — to its move around the corner to Charles Street, the Nistico family hosted (it seemed) the world.

From their neighbors to newcomers, families to the New York Giants (when they trained at Fairfield University), the Arrow pulsed with life. The food was good, there was plenty of it, and you could watch it being cooked in the open kitchen.

The Nisticos gave countless teenagers their first jobs, and gave quiet, generous help to countless Westporters who needed it. They opened their restaurant for any group that wanted to meet there, and stayed open long enough for anyone to have one last drink.

After it closed, Jasmine and (later) the Blu Parrot moved in. This month, it reopens as Mystic Market. But to generations of Westporters, the building will always be the Arrow.

Around the corner, Mario’s was equally legendary. The location could not have been better: directly across from the railroad station. For decades, commuters walked (or rolled) off the bar car, and into the restaurant (or bar). It was a convenient spot for wives and kids to meet husbands, and business folks to make deals. Mario Sacco and Frank “Tiger” De Mace were the popular, proud owners of a true local restaurant that made its mark on the entire town.

Italian was (and remains) Westport’s most popular cuisine. But Chez Pierre was an early — and longtime — popular spot on Main Street. It did not matter that host Brendan Donohoe was as Irish as a leprechaun. The restaurant was French, at a time when that epitomized fine dining. Tables on the second-floor patio gave the illusion of Europe. Tavern on Main replaced Chez Pierre. Main Street is no longer the restaurant mecca it once was, but Pierre’s and its successor provide both continuity and class.

Back in the day, Chinese food was rare — even exotic. Westlake (at the corner of Post Road and Main Street) and Golden House (Compo Shopping Center) were the two places in town. The staff were Chinese — also a rarity in Westport. I’m not sure what they thought of the menu — spare ribs, egg rolls, chop suey and moo goo gai pan — but to suburban diners of a certain era, it was “foreign” dining at its best.

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No romp through Westport’s culinary past would be complete without a stop at our legendary seafood restaurants.

Allen’s Clam House dated back centuries — at least, the rambling building did. The restaurant itself dated “only” from the early 1900s. On the shore of Sherwood Mill Pond, with a view you couldn’t beat, Allen’s (named for oysterman Walter “Cap” Allen) was the quintessential date, preprom and family reunion place. But time and weather took its toll. Today it’s gone — but the beautiful Mill Pond Preserve means we still enjoy that wonderful view.

Which brings us to the Clam Box. Located neither downtown nor by the water, it nonetheless drew a loyal clientele. Among them were Westport’s movers and shakers. The second floor was legendary as the place where town officials and business leaders ate seafood, made deals and worked their behind-the-scenes magic.

There’s no such spot in Westport today. (And sunshine laws ensure that political decisions are made not in back rooms, but open meetings.) But you can still see the most important people in town — along with famous folks, friends and neighbors — eating out in Westport.

If you haven’t tried a new place, Restaurant Week(s) is a great time to do it. Ditto for returning to an old standby.

And one day — years from now — you may be the one reminiscing about those fabled restaurants of long ago.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog’s World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.