Chew on this: Fairfield County has the second highest number of restaurants per capita in the nation. We trail only the San Francisco Bay Area, whose domination is about as surprising as seeing Mormons leading a list of religions in Utah.
Not surprising -- at least to people in Westport -- is that (according to Hearst Connecticut Newspapers), Westport is the No. 1 town in the No. 2 area. We have 11.7 restaurants per 10,000 people. You do the math, because I'd rather eat.
You would think, with so many places to choose from, we've got it all. We don't. You won't find a Mongolian restaurant here. (Though you once could have; it sat on the site of what is now Shake Shack, at a time when restaurants opened and closed there almost daily. The Mongolian spot was succeeded, several food generations later, by a Vietnamese spot; that's another cuisine we now lack.)
We're not exactly gorging on South American restaurants. No empanada emporium, Peruvian place or Brazilian churrascaria. We've got several Mexican restaurants -- plus Bartaco, which occupies its own special category -- but nothing Cuban. Or Jamaican. The entire Caribbean, in fact: nada.
When it comes to German cuisine -- ach! Westporters must forage elsewhere for schnitzel and spatzle, though the Downtown Merchants Association does sponsor a biergarten one Saturday every fall on Veterans Green, across from Town Hall. We'll drink to that.
For a while, our culinary landscape lacked two of my favorites: Thai and Middle Eastern. Both are tasty, healthful and inexpensive. But last year brought us Rainbow Thai at Bridge Square and Kibberia on the site of the old John's Best Pizza (Post Road West, near the Norwalk line). Both are low-key, little-noticed, and very, very good.
Downtown -- a restaurant wasteland for quite a while, except for Tavern on Main and a couple of others -- has been jolted awake recently. It's like a double shot of espresso was poured into the area. Post 154, Cru, Spotted Horse and Arezzo (across the river) are four notable arrivals. I'd add Freshii too, though it's more a takeout place. Plus, its menu is the most complex thing I've seen since AP Physics.
Yet despite so many new arrivals -- can't forget Little Barn, the magically transformed Swanky Frank's, which has turned a dead stretch of the Post Road into a hot destination -- Westport's dining scene is still defined as much by the restaurants that used to be here, as by those new arrivals and long-lived, much-loved old standards.
For every one person who raves over the oysters at The Whelk or the lobster at Mansion, someone bemoans the demolition of Allen's Clam House. (Or, digging deeper, the Clam Box.)
For every diner who savors the steaks and salads at Mario's and Tarantino's, there's another who can't believe the Peppermill or Connolly's is gone. (A note of caution: The next stage of development in Saugatuck includes Railroad Place. It's not inconceivable that restaurants just steps away from the station will soon join those fabled steak spots -- and others down the food chain, like Bonanza and Steak & Brew -- as memories from days gone by.)
For every Westporter who joins friends for lunch or dinner at the Red Barn -- "it's so easy, you just get off exit 41!" -- there is another who compares it to the Arrow. The Nisticos have owned the Red Barn almost -- not quite, hold your fire -- as long as their parents and grandparents ran the Arrow. But Saugatuck's most famous Italian restaurant has a hold on our imagination that makes us drool like a pasta fazool.
And for every family that heads for frozen yogurt at Peachwave, Sweet Frog or our other 92 dozen similar spots, there is a family pining for the Ice Cream Parlor. (Or, more recently, Georgie Porgie's.)
Finally, there is a whole host of family-style places that has vanished, not to be replaced by anything similar. There was Chubby Lane's (named for its owner) and Fuddrucker's (named for God knows what). Ship's not only anchored downtown Westport physically; it was also the type of restaurant where you could meet friends or clients, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, take dates or out-of-town friends, and see everyone you knew in the process. (The site today -- on the corner of Post Road and Taylor Place -- is now Tiffany's. Enough said.)
A decade or two before Ship's, places like the Townly on Main Street, and La Normandie (on the Post Road, heading to Fairfield) served similar functions.
Westport has no go-to spots like those anymore. And no, we don't have a single Mongolian, Vietnamese or Cuban restaurant. Big Top is long gone, and still much lamented.
But we do have the Duck. Which makes up for everything else in the world.