Woog's World: Hats off to Westport's new and established eateries

It’s hard to imagine a business sector hit harder by COVID-19 than restaurants.

Many hands prepare and serve food. Diners sit in enclosed spaces, talking with masks off. If ever there was a vector for transmission, it’s eating out.

Yet Westport restaurant owners adapted. They ramped up takeout and delivery options. They moved tables apart, installed partitions and set up outdoor spaces - some with heating. They took lemons and made not just lemonade, but lemon meringue pie.

Not all survived. But kudos to the restaurateurs who persevered, providing as much normalcy - and great food — as possible, in a time of tremendous doubt and fear.

A special tip of the hat (plus big, well-deserved tips) to an especially enterprising group: the folks who took a great leap of faith, and opened up new restaurants while a pandemic raged.

By my count, Westport has welcomed 10 new dining spots since the lockdown last March. They offer a variety of cuisines in a variety of spaces, but the bottom line is the same: The took a chance on us. Now let’s take a chance on them.

The newest is Capuli. Armando Brito, with 20 years of experience in the Bay Area, and his wife Andrea searched all over this area for the right spot. They found what they wanted in a former Post Road pizzeria (Westport, Joe’s, S&M). The interior was redesigned; it’s now a legit restaurant. The very creative California-Mediterranean cuisine is fresh, healthy and fantastic. (Pro tip: the salmon roulade, stuffed with crab meat and green onions and served with risotto cake and sauteed spinach.)

Just as new, around the corner is Basso. It was a popular Norwalk restaurant, but chef/owner Renato Donzelli relocated to a larger, more exciting yet still intimate space in the former Matsu Sushi. The two-story interior offers views of the river; jazz plays in the background while the Venezuela-born chef prepares flavorful, intriguing meals with Mediterranean/South American flair. An intriguing tapas menu complements the entrees. Along with the new Westport (used) Book Shop next door, Basso makes this formerly quiet stretch of Jesup Road exciting and fun.

In between Basso and Capuli, Don Memo and Walrus Alley share the original Town Hall building previously home to two other restaurants.

Noted restaurateur Bill Taibe (The Whelk, Kawa Ni) re-imagined Jesup Hall as Don Memo, with fun, creative takes on Mexican fare. Tortillas, tostadas and quesadillas are far from what you’re used to; other dishes highlight flavorful combinations you never thought of. The interior is handsome; there’s ample outdoor (heated) space in front. As with any Bill Taibe restaurant, you will be entertained and inspired.

Walrus Alley (formerly Rothbard Ale + Larder) is a first for Westport: Southern-inspired cuisine. With dishes like baby back ribs, pork shoulder, brisket and smoked turkey, and sides like collard greens, baked beans and cornbread, it’s a different - and welcome - dining experience. Walrus Alley began as Walrus + Carpenter in Black Rock eight years ago. Now, not far from Don Memo, Capuli, Basso, Jeera Thai, Finalmente, Amis, Wa-Fu, Spotted Horse and Manna Toast (see below), it makes this stretch of downtown a true destination.

Don Memo is not the only new Mexican restaurant in town. Across the river, Mexica opened in the space previously occupied by Senor Salsa (before that, Connolly’s and Artists’ Pub, among others). But where Senor Salsa offered typical, fast Mexican fare, Mexica is a true slow-down, admire-the-décor, enjoy-your-meal spot. The Osorio family - beloved for their Elm Street restaurant Villa del Sol (torn down for a parking lot) - has come up with another winner. The menu features traditional Mexican dishes with a twist, plus new items highlighting true Mexican food and culture. In just two months, it’s drawn raves from diners far and wide.

Hudson Malone took over the Main Street/Canal Street space most recently filled by 323 (and before that Bogey’s, and a host of other restaurants). This one will stick around. With a large bar, classic cocktails, “upscale pub grub” and walls filled with Westport-themed décor, Hudson Malone has become a quick favorite. Owner Doug Quinn - formerly of PJ Clarke’s - is your bow-tied, always-welcoming host.

Across the street is Outpost Pizza. Over on Church Lane, Manna Toast serves unique sourdough sandwiches and original salads. And though not classic restaurants, Organic Krush (Compo Acres Shopping Center) is a great addition to the fast-organic (duh) niche, while GG & Joe’s (the back of Parker Harding Plaza) was an instant smash with acai bowls, smoothies and other goodies.

To the surprise of many, Westport’s dining scene kicked up a notch during corona. Just imagine what will happen once the masks come off, the tables get closer and the good times roll.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.