15 Places to Eat Like an Insider

Photographs: Hulya Kolabas; Gates: Jane Beiles; Tequila Mockingbird: Lisa Wiltse
Above: Meat lovers dig in at The Water’s Edge at Giovannis.

A s New Canaan-Darien celebrates its fifteenth anniversary, we thought it would be fun to look at the area restaurants that have been around since we began. As it turns out, these are the places where people go back time and time again, the ones that have built a loyal following and continue to make new friends. What, exactly, are these places doing right?

When Brendan McGee was growing up in Rowayton, he thought it would be easier to have an ice cream shop in town rather than travel to Darien. At age 23 he opened Brendan’s 101 and started serving ice cream, sandwiches and cupcakes to a fast-growing and loyal clientele. Today, Brendan and his wife, Christine, run the business that now offers three meals a day. Says McGee, “It’s where the real work in town gets done,” since nonprofits and town committees hold meetings here. It’s also a gallery for local artists.

Cherry Street East, a fixture in New Canaan since 1977, has been owned by John Bergin for fifteen years. Customer Mike Shullman is typical: His family has been there at least fifty times because the food is consistently good (taco and Caesar salads are favorites). But it almost ended with a fire in 2006. Residents held fundraisers to help the owner stay afloat. Says Bergin, “I owe so much to my staff and customers.”

Ching and Alan Lee opened the Pan-Asian Ching’s Table in 1994, and they’re at their happiest when they’re in the restaurant. “My husband has two wives. Number one is the restaurant. I’m number two,” Ching says. Loyal customers like the Kesten family have been to the restaurant too many times to count, and come for the consistently good food and the friendly staff. “They have always made us feel at home. And the quality of the food is different from any other Asian restaurant. It has always been a family favorite.”

For Darien’s Rick Sturgeon, Coromandel is that rare combination of exceptional food and welcoming staff. He’s eaten here weekly for over a decade. That’s music to Jose Pullopilly’s ears. As owner of this “Indian gem” for the past seventeen years, his goal has been to make this a place where people feel at home from the moment they step through the door. It helps that many staff members have been with him since day one. Recently, Sturgeon took a friend to Coromandel, who proclaimed, “This is not only the best Indian meal I’ve ever eaten, but the best meal.”

For Erica Jensen of Darien, Gates is the comfortable place in New Canaan she can count on, with good food, atmosphere and a lively bar. Gates has been in town since 1979, although it was sold to Jay Luther about two years ago. In its latest iteration, manager Carter Messman made some décor changes and updated the menu, but the core is still the same. And two old-time favorites, the Chop Chop Verona Salad and the burger, are still the most popular dishes.

The Gates burger is a classic.

The Black Goose Grille had been a popular spot in Darien when it went up for sale in 2010. Darien’s Mike and Lynn Gagliardi knew it had to be theirs. They tweaked the name–to The Goose–restored the original bar and open fireplace, and updated the menu. Says Manager Mark Plenata, “This place has so much history. Our customers appreciate that, and tell us they feel very comfortable here.” Marli and Patrick Hayes of Darien have long frequented The Goose, and now continue the tradition with their two daughters.

It was almost fifty years ago when Joe Colella opened Joe’s Pizza in New Canaan. Customers like Matt Konspore are typical. When they want take-out, it’s Joe’s they call. The place has always been a family affair, where Joe’s wife, Annunziata, worked for forty years. The kids worked there, too, including Lorenzo, who’s been in charge about a decade and says the red sauce is still basically the same. “Our customers are like friends coming to our house,” Lorenzo says. What touched him most was when his mom passed away. “The love and care our customers showed to us was overwhelming.”

Photos of famous former Fairfield County residents and customers (think Moby and Bobby Valentine) line the walls here, and when Stan Drake drew the Blondie comic strip, Post Corner Pizza signs made their way into panels. Since 1971, it’s been a fixture in Darien. When Doug Morrison was growing up, it was his family’s pizza of choice. It was also the place he went with his Darien High School friends, a tradition that continues today. Although the original owners, John and Kathy Sofronos, sold the business to Peter Kousidis a decade ago, what Morrison calls that “great Greek-style pizza” is the same.

Kevin Conroy worked at Rowayton Seafood in the late ’70s, but always eyed the place next door, a rundown fry house. “I thought, someday I’m going to turn that building into a really great seafood restaurant.” He bought the property in 1991, and five years later opened The Restaurant at Rowayton Seafood. Casually elegant, it has exactly the vibe he wanted. “People can come here after a day on the boat or right off the train.” Last summer, to celebrate the restaurant’s twentieth anniversary, Conroy threw a party, open to anyone. About 500 guests showed up. “It was my way to say thanks,” he says.

The Restaurant at Rowayton Seafood has served fresh fish for twenty years.

If you’re lucky, you live in a town that has a place like Cheers. In Darien that place is Rory’s, which has held its spot on the Post Road for more than thirty years. Couples who came before they were parents often return with their now-grown kids, and the happy-two-hours (5 to 7 p.m.) are perennial favorites. Chef/owner Bryan Malcarney says although the basic menu remains the same with comfort foods such as meatloaf and shepherd’s pie, there are more fish offerings, including the award-winning New England Clam Chowder.

Sole Ristorante is one of eight Z Hospitality restaurants, and owner Ramze Zakka credits its 18 years in New Canaan to three key elements: food, staff and environment. “All three have to be in really good shape,” he says. “To thrive in a small town you have to be vertical, appealing to children all the way up to the sophisticated adult.” Alexis Stewart and her family are here at least once a week. “There’s not one thing we don’t like about the place,” she says. If you go, order the drink named after her, the Alexis martini. “My husband is the happiest man alive when we are at Sole.”

Here, decorations hang from the ceiling, and change with the holidays, and meals are taken at Formica tables and a long counter, what would have been called a soda fountain when Edna Mazza opened the place in the ’50s. Gone are the bobby-soxers, but that atmosphere remains intact. For the past forty years Edna’s son Bob has run the place. He’s the almost-always-present owner who treats his customers like family, and that includes actor Topher Grace, who started coming here with his family when he was five. When Grace was shooting a movie nearby, he sent a member of his crew to Mazza to learn how to make the perfect black-and-white milkshake. Maud Purcell of Darien sums it up: “It’s a slice of small-town Americana.”

Paul Mauk worked at New Canaan’s Gates back in the ’80s. Although he had no experience cooking Mexican food, he thought New Canaan needed a Mexican restaurant and opened Tequila Mockingbird in 1993. He credits the restaurant’s longevity with his desire to constantly make it better, which means he and his staff make frequent trips to Mexico to hone their cooking techniques. This has not been lost on faithful customers, including the Scott family, transplants from Texas. They have been regulars for twelve years, love that the waitstaff treats them like family and that the food keeps improving. And then there’s the tequila. You’ll find one of the largest selections in the Northeast.

Colorful scene at Tequila Mockingbird

Rob Williamson’s first deli was in New Rochelle, but after being robbed at gunpoint twice, his realtor mom found him a place for sale in Darien. With the family’s Greenwich home as collateral for the property, Uncle’s Deli was born. “If this wasn’t a success, my family and the house would go down with me,” he says. That was 1987. Today, the place is always packed, and on warm days customers eat at tables out front. Each sandwich includes a mini candy and one Uncle’s Buck (fifteen buys you one free sandwich). The newest sandwich was created by customer James Passero, who won a recipe contest. The Cajun Turkey puts turkey, fresh mozzarella, red and green peppers and a slather of chili chutney into a wrap that’s pressed on the grill. Joe’s reward: Lunch for life.

It first opened in Stamford in the late ’70s, then moved to Darien in 1987. Family-owned, Giovanni’s is the place for dinner and all manner of family celebrations. “It’s like going to grandma’s. Our customers know what to expect,” says JoAnn Latorraca, daughter of the restaurant’s founder, Giovanni Gabriele. “There’s great value and wonderful food, including the steak, lobster and Italian.” Customer Christina Bambino agrees. “Giovanni’s is the best Italian in the area. My Sicilian father-in-law, who is a tough critic, loves the food. We had my daughter’s First Communion party there and they did a superb job.”



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