Historical Perspectives / Ed Chrostowski
Town's menu featured food and conversation
Published 8:06 am, Thursday, November 19, 2009
Elegant restaurant dining was not exactly Darien's cup of tea back in the fifties, but now on the virtual eve of Thanksgiving it can be noted that wholesome food, good conversation and just plain fun were never in short supply.
It was a time when an empty booth and a deck of cards were more important than the entrée at Johnny Spillane's Post Road restaurant across from the Darien firehouse. As a bonus, the food was good, too; John and his wife lived in the apartment upstairs and it always seemed that she did the cooking in her kitchen. The restaurant was sandwiched between Joe Lombardi's drug store on the Mansfield Avenue corner and Conrad Rossner's variety store so there was plenty of foot traffic all day long, though things got pretty quiet at night.
That's when raspy-voiced Jack Meehan took over. Years later, when Jack Skidd and Joe Aiello owned the place, it became a popular stop for the selectmen and other officials (along with eavesdropping newspaper guys) after meetings at the Town Hall up the street.
In Noroton Heights, Irene and Arne Ohrn ran a diner, a "don't miss" morning stop for "coffee and" as tradesmen and store-keepers gathered to exchange information and gibes.
For the "after five" crowd, Sam Saverine served the coldest, tastiest draft beer in town at the Heights Restaurant. Sam himself set an appropriate leisurely pace as he sat by the window behind the bar, getting up only to draw another brew for a thirsty patron. Food was not the feature there, though there were some pickled eggs in a jar on the bar.
A wider choice along the Post Road in Noroton included the Palumbo brothers' Twin Terrace on the Hecker Avenue corner. Its proximity to the police station made it a favorite of the men in blue and the Kiwanis Club also lunched there. Later, after a fire destroyed the restaurant and its circular bar, a gas station occupied the site and it is now the location of the library.
Farther down, at the Stamford line, was the Half-Way House. The building has a long history of restaurant use and is now Water's Edge. In the 1950s, it was owned and operated by Bill Cocolis and later by his son and daughter, Jim and Margot, and was a popular venue for weddings and banquets.
Also along "The Flats" in that area of the Post Road were Bill Payton's Nutmeg and Mark Isselle's Whistlestop, a quaint round building offering "fast food." Just off the Post Road was the King's Highway Inn, a great old house that lived up to the image of an old-fashioned New England bed and breakfast. Ralph Celotto and his red-headed wife, Vilette, ran and its tiny cocktail lounge and cozy dining rooms were alluring, but small and so the Celottos moved "up town," opening the Oxen Yoke in a store front across the veterinary hospital near the turnpike bridge.
The old inn, meanwhile was taken over by Dan Nash, a Cornell-trained hotel man who had formerly managed the Davenport in Stamford. Dan always insisted on propriety, disdaining the sight of money on the bar. "Too crass," he'd say, and a discreet little sign in the window read: "After 5p.m., gentlemen must wear ties and jackets in deference to the ladies." After Nash called it quits, Chris Risola, who owned the property, gave it a go, but his restaurant fling ended when the old house burned down one night.
Back in the center of town, two diners flanked the old firehouse. On one side, next to the gas station on the Sedgwick Avenue corner operated by Bill Handley and Pete Sweeney, was the Darien Diner where George Fletcher and John Mitaly (and later John and Mary Pleasic) held forth.
It used to be called "the lunch cart" because it was a real old-fashioned diner and eating there was an experience. It was noisy as the good-natured banter flew back and forth and Mitaly was unforgettable. After cutting a pie, he never missed scraping the remnants off the knife with his fingers and then licking them.
On other side of the firehouse, next to Roy Fitzgerald's gas station and school bus depot was a house. Nick Cardelle and his family lived upstairs and ran a lunch counter downstairs. The atmosphere there was quite different from what one encountered in the Darien Diner. Along with some quiet conversation, Nick served a bowl of soup and a delicate kind of sandwich probably made by his wife.
In the center of town, where the Black Goose was located later, Bertha and John Kresko ran the Central Diner. Not really distinguished by either appearance or menu, the Central nevertheless was one of the town's pleasant surprises. Patrons who took the time and opportunity to wander behind the counter and through the kitchen door came rather unexpectedly upon a nifty little cocktail lounge, a remnant, some said, of speakeasy days. Seldom was there a bartender or a customer there until it was "discovered." Then the tail wagged the dog; very soon, the diner out front became the afterthought.
Among oases in Darien during the fifties was a throwback to the era before Prohibition, Amend's Tavern on Tokeneke Road, complete with steins of beer and platters of bratwurst in a backyard beer garden.
In the early fifties, the place was acquired by Ernie Harris of Norwalk, a pianist who played frequently on cruise ships. Harris was a showman and the place was always crowded with people looking for simple food and lots of fun during their lunch hour.
Bennie Gudz, an electrician by day, presided at the taps at night. With gentle Ben at the bar and its old wooden stools, Ernie's became known for the cold foamy beer served in delicate Pilsner glasses. Ben even invented a non-alcoholic drink he named the "Ernie Pyle Cocktail" in honor of a teetotaling newsman.
And it was Ben who began signaling passing trains by flashing the outdoor lights. Engineers all along the New York-Boston run were familiar with that and always responded with a toot of the horn. It became a tradition that continues.
The evening menu there was rather limited, however. Ernie's featured tasty snacks --- cubes of provolone and salami with mustard that Benny ground himself from roots he dug up in his splendid garden on West Avenue.
Further up at the Norwalk end of the Post Road was the orange-roofed Howard Johnson's (later the Stagecoach Grille, Red Lobster, etc.). Charlie Mitchell was always among the regulars there, ordering a hot-roast beef open sandwich (mashed potatoes, gravy and no vegetables) and a Manhattan cocktail (two of those sweet maraschino cherries, please).
No, Darien's menu was not too varied in the fifties, but you could always count on lots of baloney in any of the restaurants.