Westport’s food scene is hot and steamy these days, so whether you’re hungry for comfort food or ready to devour the social sights (or a bit of both), there’s a restaurant ready to satiate your appetite. But where to go? Let us help. Here’s the low-down on the hottest destinations for farm-fresh organic dishes, sizzling gourmet pizzas, and hopping bar crowds. Pass the salt or decant the wine, it’s time to savor your next great meal.
Restaurants serving sustainably produced foods by notable local chefs
Since Paul Newman and Michel Nischan launched The Dressing Room in 2006, it seems that a celeb chef is rolling out a local-organic-sustainable-foods eatery on every corner. Who can argue with briny fresh oysters plucked from the Long Island Sound; free-range Heritage chickens raised in Bolton, Connecticut; and tender organic greens grown at Millstone Farms in Wilton? Still, good, clean, locally grown grub doesn’t come cheap and, by 2010, The Dressing Room’s Chef Jon Vaast heeded the cry for smaller, more gently priced plates and an updated casual menu by going “gastro pub.” The laid-back, good-times vibe extends to Friday night live- jam sessions, often featuring Newman’s daughter, Lissy.
Vaast also had the sense to retain signature favorites like the The P.L. Newman “Mini” Burger, local pasture-fed beef grilled over a wood fire with Noble Amish cheddar, house-cured bacon, and caramelized onion.
For the fall/winter, Vaast says you can’t go wrong with hearty comfort foods like Kettle Macaroni and Cheese, jazzed up with farmstead cheddar, cured pork belly and bread crumbs or Mini Meatloaf with mashed potatoes and caramelized onion gravy.
LeFarm became a sensation in October 2009 for the inspired musings of Chef Bill Taibe. A young James Beard-Award semifinalist (Best Chef in the Northeast) in 2011 and 2012, Taibe does it his way, forging alliances with local organic dairies, fishmongers, butchers and purveyors of delicacies great and small. A blackboard highlights area farms Taibe has formed relationships with and are the driving force behind the ever-changing menu.
In similar fashion, Taibe’s second Westport eatery, The Whelk, stormed on to the scene this past January. Its instant acclaim was no surprise to fans, who line up nightly for starters like Shucked Copps Island Oysters and Spanish Mackerel Crudo, and small plates like Peaches and Ground Cherries with Fried Pig's Ears and Warm Peeky-Toe Crab Fondue, served up with views of the river. Forgo the res (it could take a month!), go early (the bar and community tables are seated on a first-come, first-served basis), and bring an open mind to try new foods. Try a glass of Leth, Gruner Veltliner, Green Flash Hop Head Red Ale, or a Paloma Del Diablo, one of the fiery, signature cocktails, and take in the Saugatuck scene while you wait.
This past May, Terrain Garden Café Restaurant hit Westport with a madhouse parking lot and enough rustic-chic swag to give Martha Stewart a run for her money. Browse the cleverly merchandised loot, then stop in Terrain for a locally sourced meal in a Secret Garden setting that will make you forget you’re dining in a retail store. The food, by Joe Wolfson, an Alabama transplant named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs for 2011, is a nice surprise. Though uneven upon opening (delicious grass-fed burger came out rare instead of medium rare on two visits), Wolfson is now hitting his stride. He relies heavily on area farms, including Sport Hill, Fort Hill, Millstone, Stone Gardens and Chaplin. Don’t miss his seasonal dinner options. Recent standouts: hanger steak with asparagus, new potato, mushroom, garlic fondue and red wine, and scallops with Terrain bacon, English peas, horseradish and Red Bee Honey.
To find The Schoolhouse at Cannondale, head up Rt. 33 and follow signs for Cannondale Train Station to the quaint little Schoolhouse-cum-restaurant). Don't let classically trained chef/owner Tim LaBant's unassuming nature fool you: His food’s damned good. A fall outing yielded melt-in-your-mouth braised short rib with parsnip purée, mustard greens, and pickled shimeji mushrooms. Another winner: Pork loin and belly, kohlrabi beer and cheddar purée, rapini, red pearl onions, pork and shallot crumble. Ambitious, yet executed with simple confidence. The restaurant also has a terrific Sunday brunch.
Raising the Bar
Places for a drink, a bite, and, in some cases, live entertainment.
When you’re seeking a night on the town and you want to hear yourself think, make your first stop Luxe Modern Wine & Cocktails, a sophisticated little wine bar at the top of Main Street in Westport. They’ll happily uncork a well-edited selection of wines by the glass or pour a signature cocktail, complemented by a plate of simple artisanal cheeses and a cool, minimalist ambience. One drawback: The stainless seats look great, but the space is begging for a few comfy chairs.
Across town, you’ll find another gem called Eramosa, tucked off the lobby of the renovated Westport Inn. The intimate, thirty-seat space sports a mod farmhouse décor ringed by leather banquettes—a good choice for a moms’ night out or a quiet drink and a bite with the hubby. Good starters with drinks include cheese selections served with crostini and fig preserves or the mussels and chorizo in white wine broth. The organic Angus burger, served on brioche with balsamic aioli and heirloom tomato, hits the spot; and the Portobello Panini with Roquefort and roasted red peppers and spinach is tasty, too. Open for breakfast and dinner only.
On nights when you want to get your mojo on, trot on over to the Spotted Horse for an eye-popping bar scene that spills from the bar into the hip, modernized barn-styled restaurant. At this happening, horsey gathering spot, the décor is cool, the bartenders are hot, and the food is better than expected, including a killer burger and steak salad, and other re-interpreted comfort foods, like the lobster and avocado BLT and the black truffle burger topped with a sunny-side up egg and melted Bell Paese cheese. For a little more peace and quiet with your meal, sidle up to the host and on warmer days, try to score a table on the patio.
A few blocks over, Bobby Q’s is the destination for an authentic pit-smoked Kansas City BBQ feast and live music of all styles. Though townies have rocked out to live bands on the rooftop for years, the indoor bar and music scene are better-kept secrets. On weekends after 9 p.m., pull up a chair, order one of the twelve frosty microbrews and enjoy the show.
Despite changing hands over the years, the bar at Rizzuto’s attracts perennial barflies like salmon home to spawn. One of the best happy hour destinations around, Rizzuto’s offers drink specials from 4 to 6 p.m. weeknights and noon to 3 p.m. on weekends, complete with Rizzuto-style Italian munchies. Mid-week, the bar room is a playground for moms seeking a chilled glass of sauvignon blanc and a respite from the kids and carpools; on game nights, it’s shoulder-to-shoulder with the football crowd; and on Saturday nights, it attracts its fair share of singles and cougars on the prowl, as well as devotees of the popular Bruce Coviello Band. The restaurant has stepped up its game in terms of foods and ambience (try the wood-fired pizzas; the chopped salad; the killer Raw Bar Tower; or an old-school Italian classic, like Chicken Picatta, Parm or Francese over spaghetti). In cool weather, the flames from the grand stone fireplace and the copper Le Panyol wood-fired oven cast an irresistibly cozy glow. If you’re on a date, snag a couple of seats at the counter and enjoy the action in the kitchen.
All Fired Up
Stylish wood-fired pizzeria/restaurants where you go for pizza, a glass of wine, Italian specialties and a bustling scene.
Just a few years back, when you wanted a serious pizza fix, it took a ride up to Pepe’s in New Haven or a trek down to Colony in the bowels of Stamford’s industrial district where you got a well-crisped pie, served with more attitude than ambience. As much as we love these gritty, old-school pizza joints, we’re grateful for the recent influx of neighborhood wood-fired pizza purveyors, offering authentic, Neopolitan-style thin-crust pies, a good glass of Barolo and a little atmosphere.
Naturally, the arrival of Tarry Lodge Enoteca Pizzeria, Mario Batali’s latest slam-dunk, was met with media madness. But if you stop by, don’t expect to rub elbows with the affable, redheaded TV impresario. Instead, you’ll note the hands-on trio of Chef Mario La Posta, Executive Chef Andy Nusser and Managing Partner Nancy Selzer keeping the balls in the air. At the center of the action is the wood-burning Mugnaini oven, flanked by a marble counter, where diners sip their Super Tuscans and watch while their crispy pizza, topped with, say, Burrata mozzarella, pancetta and a drizzle of hot chili oil (our current addiction) in the making.
In addition to the tasty pies, the inspired lunch and dinner menu feature an array of ambitious wood-fired entrées—quail, branzino, venison—as well as savory pasta dishes (the pumpkin-filled ravioli is a seasonal must).
If the waiters or hostess get haughty and you can’t deal with the crowds, the ’tude or the din, try delivery service.
Around the corner, Rizzuto’s puts out an impressive variety of Neopolitan-style pizzas from its searing wood-fired Le Panyol oven. If you like it hot, take a chance on the spicy sausage and cherry pepper pie, with ripe plum tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil and extra virgin olive oil. If cooler heads prevail, try the simple, fresh prosciutto-arugula pie, dotted with fresh mozzarella and extra virgin olive oil. In the mood for pasta? The hearty bolognese, with slow-cooked beef, veal and pork, is as good as it gets. It's served over homemade papardelle and topped with a dollop of creamy ricotta.
Looking for wood-fired pizza to go, without any ambience, frills or scene? Walk across the street from Rizzuto’s to Julian's, a tiny hole-in-the-wall brick-oven pizza joint that serves up crispy, thin-crust pizza made with top-notch ingredients with zero attitude. Take it home and enjoy it in front of your own fireplace.
If you’re looking for a thin-crust Margherita with a little atmosphere, you can’t go wrong at Acqua, a class act overlooking the river with a meticulously prepared Mediterranean menu. But don’t stick to the pizzas alone. Based on the popularity of their express lunch, the restaurant is now offering an express dinner ($19.95) from Tuesday through Thursday, featuring soup of the day, a starter like the goat cheese fritter, marinated beets, fennel salad and Saba vinegar paired with an entrée choice of everything from grilled or pan-fried veal Milanese with fresh tomatoes and arugula grilled sliced skirt steak with sherry vinegar, French fries and truffle aoli. It’s a deal.
Over in Wilton, Bianco Rosso has turned up the heat in more ways than one. The early evening scene is all about cocktails and eye candy, but come dinner hour, the place morphs into an upscale, casual restaurant that is equally comfortable dishing up a dinner to a family of four as it is to a table of fourteen decked-out divas sipping a rainbow of martinis at the chic communal table.
In addition to the well-cooked pizzas, try these dishes: black mission figs baked with prosciutto and gorgonzola, fig vincotto and walnuts; pan-seared red snapper, saffron potatoes, tomato, olives, lemon, thyme, olive oil and garlic; or house-made potato gnocchi with roasted sweet corn, wild mushroom, and chives.
Rising from the ashes after a fire a few years back, Wilton’s Portofino reopened this past June stronger than ever, with a sleek décor, a glass wall of wines as a centerpiece, and a set of urban-chic glass garage doors with screens that open onto the patio in milder weather. The pizzas are as good as we remember (try the sweet fennel sausage pie), and the new menu runs the gamut from tasty burgers to oysters on the half shell. Our only gripe: We wish they left the cash-only policy behind with the rubble.