Back in high school, before I ever had a glimmer of an idea that I wanted to be a food writer, I used to convince my best friend Susan to cut class with me to go get lunch.
Our favorite thing to do was find a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, some place we'd never been to and never heard anything about. We had meatloaf sandwiches at Pal Joey's in Westport and chicken parm grinders from C.J.'s Deli in Fairfield. One day we ventured as far as Hartford and discovered Jamaican jerk chicken for the first time. I loved those days. Now that we're both older and saddled with the responsibility of kids and homes and careers, we're lucky when we can squeeze in time for coffee or the occasional cocktail.
Until last week. We decided it was high time to shake things up. We needed adventure, excitement, something different. We needed to find a new favorite place, some tiny restaurant that serves comfort food and has a relaxed atmosphere.
"No one can afford to be a hole-in-the-wall in Fairfield County anymore," protested Susan when I proposed the idea.
In a way, she's right. Around here, local delis, small bakeries and independent coffee shops are not as easy to find as they used to be. So we did what we used to do best. We jumped in the car and just started driving around.
We started our tour with breakfast in Westport. Coffee An' is a fixture for many Westporters, but given that it's not on the downtown stretch of Main Street or the Post Road, it often gets overlooked or forgotten. The beauty of this little gem is its simplicity -- a few small tables, a wrap-around bar with low vinyl-and-chrome stools. The menu is basic. Eggs, omelets, sandwiches. You can't go wrong with a basic bacon, egg and cheese on a hard roll, but let's face it: unless you're gluten-free or have some serious will power, one of their doughnuts is bound to end up on your plate.
Coffee An' has consistently been recognized as having some of the best doughnuts in the country. These aren't fancy West Coast doughnuts coated with bacon, Cap'n Crunch cereal or marshmallows. These are simply chocolate, glazed, cinnamon or coconut twist. Crunchy on the outside, soft and cakey on the inside, these are the type of doughnuts that you'll crave time and again.
The next day we headed out in search of lunch. I've driven by JR's Deli and Grill on Riverside Avenue in Westport hundreds of times (it's been open since 1976), but it never occurred to me to stop in. This proved to be the day.
JR's used to be a hotdog stand, but now the menu is more sandwich-oriented. Walking in, I knew right away that it was a local hangout. The tiny place was packed (oddly enough, the crowd was entirely men except for the one woman taking orders behind the counter).
The menu has standard deli offerings like ham and cheese, roast beef and turkey, or you can get fancier with chicken cordon bleu on a roll, homemade sausage and peppers, or fried flounder. You can still get a hot dog or bratwurst, but it looked like almost everyone was having a sandwich of some sort. I went for a classic BLT and it was just what it should be: two slices of toasted bread stuffed with iceberg lettuce, tomato and a good helping of bacon. Susan had a chili dog and said it was really good. (I've never had a chilidog, so I'll have to take her word for it.)
Speaking of hot dogs, one of my all-time favorite holes-in-the-wall is Rawley's in Fairfield. Some of my earliest food memories are Rawley's hot dogs with the works (bacon, sauerkraut, relish and mustard) and the fries, served with with a small wooden fork. Such a novelty, but one that is necessary for the full Rawley's experience. It's changed a bit over the years since Chico, the former owner, left. It doesn't seem to be quite as rough around the edges as it used to be, and the fries lack oomph, but the hot dogs are still world class.
Another morning, we drove around Fairfield, hoping to find a breakfast place we'd never been to. I've always loved the Athena Diner in Southport for a late-night breakfast, and Chip's is definitely the place to be Sunday mornings, but we were looking for something quiet and simple and small.
We hit the jackpot on the Post Road just down the street from Fairfield's border with Bridgeport in a strip mall next to Luigi's.
Johnny's Diner is tucked between a liquor store and a Chinese take-out place. To be honest, I'd never even noticed it all the times I've been to Luigi's. Frilly curtains in the windows were the first hint that this place might just be a gem. This is a traditional little luncheonette, with booths and stools at the counter. The breakfast menu is what you'd expect -- eggs, bacon, pancakes -- although someone does have a sense of humor. One section is labeled, "Everyone Loves Carbs" with muffins, bagels and toast on offer. I went with my standard diner breakfast -- two eggs scrambled, whole wheat toast and home fries-- while Susan opted for the oatmeal. It was all very tasty, but here's the best part: their coffee is actually good.
My No. 1 complaint about most diners is that the coffee is weak and tasteless. Here, even the decaf had body and flavor.
"I think we found a winner," Susan said. I think she's right.
- Coffee An': Don't even try to get away without ordering a doughnut; 343 Main St., Westport; 203-227-3808.
- Jr's Deli and Grill: Where the boys go for a sandwich; 265 Riverside Ave., Westport; 203-227-9803.
- Rawley's: No better place for hot dogs; 1886 Post Road, Fairfield; 203-259-9023.
- Johnny's Diner: A little slice of New York in Fairfield, but with good coffee; 170 Post Road, Fairfield; 203-259-2509