Restaurants adapt to many changes on downtown menu
STAMFORD — The past few months have served up major changes for the downtown dining scene, as a number of well-known establishments have closed.
While some see a sector struggling to adapt to major shifts in the local economy, others think the downtown offers a strong menu despite the recent closings.
“Right now, we’re in a little bit of a transition,” said Carrin Schechter, owner of Noir Stamford at 225 Summer St. “I’m still very drawn to Stamford. I think the downtown area is very vibrant.”
A changing scene
The recent turnover clustered in a two-block radius of Columbus Park. Bobby Valentine’s Sports Gallery Café closed last Monday after a 37-year run at 225 Main St. It will be succeeded by a new Bobby V’s establishment, with the city’s first off-track betting operations, at an approximately 20,000-square-foot venue under construction at 268 Atlantic St.
At the corner of Summer and Broad streets, Napa & Co. closed in early January after a 10-year run. An Italian-American restaurant, Bar Zipoli, is scheduled to open later this year in the same space.
But other restaurants have recently closed without successors lined up. Barbecue restaurant Mason/Dixon Smokehouse at 78 West Park Place, Wayne Steakhouse at 5 Broad St. and McFadden’s and Bar BQ at the adjoining 261 Main St. and 15 Clark St. have all closed in the past three months.
Mason/Dixon Smokehouse was particularly short-lived — it opened last November. Wayne Steakhouse only lasted slightly longer, after launching last August. McFadden’s launched in March 2014. Bar BQ started serving in 2012.
David Cervero, a restaurant management consultant who has worked with establishments such as the original Bobby V’s sports bar, said downtown restaurants are grappling with a drop-off in recent years of business from office workers. Office vacancy rates in the city continue to hover around 25 percent, according to several local real estate firms.
“When you can be busy Monday through Friday, during lunch and happy hour, that’s when you’re paying your rent,” Cervero said. “If you can pay your bills weekday lunches and happy hours, you’ll be a successful restaurant. If you’re only making money Friday and Saturday nights, it’s going to be very difficult.”
Stefano Staiano, owner of Aria Restaurant at 1033 Washington Blvd., said he has also noticed a decline in office business since his establishment opened in 2007.
“I see the difference,” he said. “When I came up here, we had a full operation at UBS … these amazing companies here in Stamford. We were doing OK because we had the companies.”
The proliferation of downtown apartments in recent years has created a new source of potential customers. The residential expansion in the city center has powered Stamford’s overall population growth, which now puts the city No. 3 among Connecticut cities, with approximately 130,000 residents.
Schechter said the clientele of Noir Stamford, which opened in October 2015, represents the city’s shifting demographics. Across the street from the French-inflected “bistronomie” establishment, two major apartment complexes, 66 Summer Street and Summer House, have opened in the past two years.
“We get a smattering of a lot of different people,” Schechter said. “We’re right next to the (Courtyard Marriott) hotel, so we get a lot of people from there. We get people from the new apartments. Because we’re a small place and we’re new, we still have a lot of people discovering us.”
Staying the course
The recent closings have not diminished restaurateurs and realtors’ appetites for expanding the downtown’s menu of dining options.
Stamford-based commercial real estate firm Rhys is marketing the McFadden’s-Bar Q property for a new restaurant. “I think everything will come back quickly,” said Rhys vice president Tyler Lyman. “There’s so much residential property going up that there are plenty of drivers to fill those Main Street vacancies.”
But some restaurateurs are split about the extent to which the residential growth would benefit the surrounding eateries.
Schechter said she expects her restaurant to keep expanding its customer base. “Downtown Stamford’s kind of got a pulse of things happening and things getting bigger and better,” she said. “There’s a new energy coming.”
Staiano expressed skepticism about the potential benefits for his business of the downtown’s growing housing inventory. “That’s a big question mark,” he said. “But I believe in the city. I’m invested in the city.”
The opening of the new Bobby V’s sports bar, meanwhile, offers the possibility of reinvigorating a long-dormant block of Atlantic Street. “This is like Bobby V’s on steroids — bigger, better, newer, nicer and hopefully just as welcoming,” Bobby Valentine said in an interview earlier this year.
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