How did it happen that the little town of Chester has one, first class restaurant after another? But who cares how it happened, just that it did.
Let’s begin with The Villager at 13 Main Street, which opens its doors at 5:30 a.m. every morning on weekdays, and an hour later on weekends. It closes at 2:00 p.m.
Diane and Frank Voccia, who took over the Villager a year ago this coming January, serve what you would expect at these early morning hours. Basically, its breakfast, breakfast, and breakfast, with everything freshly made.
Diane takes the orders, and Frank does the cooking, and unlike many other cooks he can actually make a soft, scrambled egg. Also served are pancakes, meats, fries and delicious toast. The bread for the toast comes from Fabled Food Bakery in Deep River, which only sells wholesale.
The clientele at The Villager is what you would expect among early risers, utility company workers all suited up for a second cup of coffee before they head off to clear brush and climb up telephone poles. Also, along one whole side of the restaurant there sit the newspaper readers. They sit there for the better part of an hour, because there is a lot to read in a daily paper, especially when you are nursing a second cup of coffee.
The Voccia’s have big dreams for the future of their restaurant. In a few weeks they will add Italian favorites to their lunch menu. (Both of their parents came from Italy.) The future menu will include “real” Italian antipasto, as well as egg plant parmesan, sausage and pepperoni, meatball grinders and pasta fagioli. (Phone: 860-526-9981)
Next down the road at 17 Main Street is Simon’s Marketplace. The Marketplace opens at eight in the morning, and closes at six o’clock in the evening. Also, there is breakfast from 8:00 until 11:30 am.
Simon’s owner, Jim Reilly, when asked what is special about his popular place says, “Everything is fresh, everyday.” Specialties include “great salads” with ingredients such as fresh fennel, corn beef, walnuts, chicken, goat cheese, pasta and arugula in many different combinations.
Reilly says, “Everyday, we do five new salads.” Also, portions at Simon’s are very, very large. In fact, it is not unusual to see diners splitting a single sandwich for two. The house also makes a variety of soups, a popular item.
Menu favorites also include: meatloaf, roasted salmon, and the “very popular” pulled pork. Also, Simon’s can cater to both vegetarian and non-vegetarian customers.
Owner Reilly notes that he has operated Simon’s “for eight great years.” He and his wife split the duties entailed in operating a restaurant, “She does all the book work,” he says, “and I run the restaurant.”
Not content with running just one restaurant. Reilly for the past 17 years has also run the Blue Oar, an open air restaurant in Haddam along the Connecticut River.
As for Simon’s Marketplace, one senses that it is the kind of place where the deals go down, where everybody is talking but others are not listening. The kind of deals going down could be financial, political, charitable, social, and perhaps even romantic on occasion. (Phone: 860-526-8984)
Without question River Tavern is the “Big Kahuna” among Chester restaurants. Located at 23 Main Street, it has set a high bar that other Chester restaurants can only attain to. Although, essentially, a high quality dinner restaurant, River Tavern also serves weekday and Sunday lunches as well.
Lunch hours are: 11:30 am to 2:30 pm, Monday thru Saturday. Sunday lunch is from 11:00 am to 2:30 pm. Dinner hours are 5:00 pm to 9:30 pm, Monday thru Friday, with slight variations on Saturday and Sunday.
As for the food Executive Chef Chris Flahaven says, “We do everything to order, and we only serve local produce.” “We support our local farms,” he also points out. As for style the offerings at River Tavern can be very original and even complicated. They are also with very few exceptions simply delicious.
Here are some samples dishes from the River Tavern web site.
First Course: soeltl farm pork liver mousse with grilled crostini & pickled local honey mushrooms & carrots;
Main Course: grilled Stonington swordfish with roasted potatoes, bacon-corn salad & smoked tomato cream sauce,
Dessert: chocolate-whipped ricotta with toasted pistachios, crushed amaretti cookies & grapefruit zest. Prices for the above are 12, 28 and 12 dollars, respectively.
Another sample menu on the web site lists includes:
First Course: crispy salt & pepper pork ribs with sriracha, sweet soy & crisp vegetables;
Main Course: sautéed fresh shrimp & squid with crispy polenta, tomatoes, corn, Swiss chard & herbs, and
Dessert: ginger-plumb crème brulee. These items are priced at 13, 28 and 6 dollars.
In addition to this dazzling display of culinary creativity, River Tavern has a number of price gimmicks to get you in the door. They include ½ price wine on Monday and Tuesday evenings; ½ price cocktails on Wednesday and Thursday, and a $10 children’s menu on Sundays.
Wine prices at River Tavern range from $350 for a bottle of Champaign Moet & Chardon Perpignan Brut 2002, to $14 for a bottle of Pinot noir rose on a half price wine night.
Like Chester’s new vegan competitor, 6 Main Restaurant across the street, River Tavern has been reviewed by the New York Times. However, 6 Main was placed in the Times’ highest culinary category, “Don”t Miss;” whereas River Tavern was in the second category as “Worth It.”
Although very enthusiastic about the food at River Tavern, the Times groused, “THE SPACE Tiny tightly spaced tables. (It can get noisy).”
True enough, but few can argue with the delicious sophistication of River Tavern. No matter the Times quibbles; the bottom line for locals is that River Tavern cannot be beat. (Phone: 860-526-9417)
A competitor of Pattaconk 1850, once wrote off the restaurant as “nothing but a bar.” This remarks angers Pattaconk’s Manager, Robort Gallbraith. “I hate the word ‘bar,’” he says. “We cater to everybody.”
Still there is some truth that Pattaconk 1850 is something of a bar; at least when compared to its down the street competitors, River Tavern and 6 Main Restaurant. In fact, on a busy weekend evening Pattaconk 1850 can have as many as three deep at the bar at its 33 Main Street location.
But the restaurant is, granted, far more than being just a bar. Posted on its web site a reviewer writes:
“The food is great. It arrives hot and in generous portions. I tend to have sandwiches and burgers when I go there, and I haven’t yet been disappointed in anything that I’ve ordered. They are cooked to order and they make reasonable substitutions when asked. I admit that I have a weakness for clam chowder… and it’s worth the trip up to Chester just for that
As for the “1850” in the title of the restaurant, Manager Gallbraith says that the Pattaconk 1850 restaurant was founded sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, but no one really knows when. So they just picked up the “1850” the middle of the century.
Pattaconk 1850 has an interesting and informative web site. One of the photos on the site, among others, is a long row of motorcycles parked out in front of the restaurant. But don’t call it, “a motorcycle bar.” The manager would not like it. (Phone: 860-526-8143)
(Part 2 of this look at Chester’s downtown restaurants will include articles on Cabo Tequila Grill and the Wheat Marked on Water Street, as well as L & E Restaurant and 6 Main Restaurant back up on Main Street.)