In the mid-’90s, Fairfield lagged behind other Gold Coast dining destinations. Today, any foodie worth his kosher salt will tell you that the Fairfield dining scene is “where it’s at,” with bustling restaurants, taverns, wine bars and outdoor bistros lining the main drag—and stretching to the corners of Southport.
The tipping point came in 1998 when town officials and local businesses tired of fielding complaints about a lackluster downtown. They came together with the private sector to breathe new life into the town center, starting with the development of the Fairfield Store, whose departure left a gaping hole in the retail landscape when it closed its doors in 1996.
To spur growth, the town’s brass took a gamble on inventive, public-private partnerships, including both allowing the construction of a large public parking structure and facilitating the lease of a former factory to the Fairfield Theatre Company in exchange for making building renovations.
First Selectman Mike Tetreau credits three drivers for turning downtown Fairfield into a premier dining destination: “First,” he says, “we made the commitment to develop Fairfield into a center for arts and culture. This has helped bring more people into downtown, especially from surrounding towns. Second, our downtown restaurants made a move to add outdoor dining. It is everywhere. You can really feel the energy when you walk through downtown on a Saturday night. Third, our town has a very diverse population that supports all types of restaurants and cuisines.”
Now, on any given night, crowds flock to the Fairfield Theatre Company to enjoy performances by such artists as Jackie Green and John Gorka and, afterward, stroll the streets, stopping for a martini at O Bar or a Bodegarita at Bodega, perusing diverse menus up and down the blocks off the Green, on the Brick Walk, and beyond.
The main gripe these days? The restaurants are jammed! Without a reservation, patrons are left to cool their heels with a cocktail until a table opens up or try their luck at a venue just on the outskirts of downtown, where there’s everything from BBQ (Wilson’s) to bistro (Martell’s) to Middle Eastern (Safita) to organic chic (Artisan) to classed-up comfort food (Grey Goose) to intimate elegance (Paci or BONDA).
When we talk about the Fairfield food scene, we mean scene. From the deafening pulse at Pizzeria MOLTO’s mile-long wine bar to the European café vibe of Osianna, 55 Wine Bar & Restaurant, Quattro Pazzi, Centro and The Brasserie, to the convivial happy-hour action at Old Post Tavern, recession-weary patrons just want to mingle and enjoy a few drinks and a decent meal. Recently, we caught up with a few Fairfield restaurateurs who know how to create a scene.
The Dream Team
Scott Beck, Matt Storch and Kevin McHugh are the trio behind The Gray Goose (Southport), The Spotted Horse (Westport) and the newly launched The Chelsea (Fairfield). Their venues’ trademark barn-chic style is so appealing that customers routinely ask where they sourced the materials, everything from lighting fixtures to distressed-wood paneling.
McHugh, who has a background in the building business, says, “In today’s restaurant world, the atmosphere is just as important as the food and service. People want to be visually stimulated. I have been able to incorporate ideas from homes I’ve built to make spaces particularly warm and inviting, yet still maintain a modern edge.”
Creating the mood is just part of the story. Assembling the right mix of players is a key component to a successful venture, and in some cases, this takes years. In the case of The Chelsea’s team, Beck and McHugh have known each other since sixth grade. They opened The Loft together in 1997 and Match in 1999, in South Norwalk, and then brought in Storch as executive chef of Match (from celebrity chef Todd English’s Miramar) a year after it opened.
For The Chelsea, they had a vision of a comfortable but edgy gastro pub. Beck says, “We all have somewhat overlapping roles but, overall, Kevin creates and designs the space, Matt handles the food and kitchen, and I deal with the business end and back of house.”
When the former Greenhouse Café/The Fairfield Spot became available, they jumped on the primo location visible from the Post Road and train station, with plenty of free, well-lit parking. “With thousands of cars a day passing by, it was also great free advertising during construction,” Beck quips. What’s more, “the rent was reasonable, and the kitchen had recently been completely renovated. It had lots of checks in the plus column.”
The Chelsea team’s winning formula is all about creating a memorable experience. Beck says, “People not only want great food and value, they also want to have all of their senses entertained. The food, plate presentation, design of the room, the music, the acoustics, lighting, the staff, fabrics, how the staff dress, etc., are just a few of the items that all need to be integrated. It’s a big puzzle that has to come together. Consistency is also key. Match has been open for thirteen years and people tell us all the time they love going there for all these years because the food and service are so consistent.”
55 and Counting
Over on Miller Street, the family-run 55 Degrees Wine Bar & Restaurant was ahead of the curve, doubling down on Fairfield’s potential back in 2008. The investment has grown into a dynasty of hot wine bar/restaurants, including Cava in New Canaan, Scena in Darien and Harvest, which is slated to open in Greenwich in late December. Co-owner Vincent Siguenza says, “My brother Kleber and I have a vision for all of our restaurants, and that is to create a fine dining experience in a relaxed, cozy setting—a place that feels comfortable, where you can enjoy great food and exquisite wine at affordable prices.”
When 55 first opened, the sexy cocktail scene, outdoor patio and Euro-cool vibe were somewhat unique here. In time, the trend caught on and vets like Siguenza are happy about it. He says, “The new scene in Fairfield is fantastic! It has definitely helped our business. The more restaurants there are, the more we all benefit. These new restaurants bring more people, and more people bring more business to all of us.”
The key to keeping buzz? “Location, location, location,” Siguenza says. “People enjoy walking to the shops, the town center, the gazebo and being able to stop in one of the many restaurants here to grab a bite and a drink, or sit down for a full dining experience. It’s great for residents who want to stay close to home, yet still enjoy a night out on the town. Add delicious food, a variety of wines by the glass, a full bar, a dedicated, attentive staff, and you’ve got the perfect combination.”
Just down the road, chef and restaurateur Biagio Riccio is another of the “early adopters” on the Fairfield restaurant map, opening Quattro Pazzi in 1997, followed by Osianna, a sunny Mediterranean taverna, in 2006 (he also owns a Quattro Pazzi in Stamford, where he plans to also open Boca this spring). He chose to plant roots in Fairfield partly because he loves being downtown and near the beach and partly because there was a void in the culinary landscape at the time for both concepts.
Quattro’s blueprint for fairly priced pasta and tasty Italian fare drew a crowd from the outset and spawned a more casual sister restaurant, Café Quattro. In short order, patrons embraced Osianna, a destination for addictive mezzes (little plates) that are great for sharing. Dining on the outdoor patio, covered with a bright blue awning, is like being transported to the Greek Islands.
As each restaurant has grown into its own, Riccio continues to guide the aesthetic and mood. They are excited about the recent expansion. He says, “Quattro recently ‘opened up’ a bit more, both interior-wise and onto the sidewalk patio. A more open and airy atmosphere seemed to work better amid all of the restaurant and retail spaces around us. Osianna just lent itself to a more vibrant and traditional feel. The space had so much charm to it that all we wanted to do was freshen it up a bit. Customers seem to enjoy the charm and the simplicity, which is reflected in the food as well. For both restaurants, our menus have evolved—fresh fish, organic vegetables, house-made pasta, etc.”
As for longevity in Fairfield, Riccio says, “I don’t subscribe to trying to be everything to everybody. Your menu and your décor can evolve, but I don’t think you should try to reinvent the wheel. Most often people want quality food that they can identify with and service that is thoughtful but not over the top."