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09/22/2022 12:27 PM

What Is The Secret To Chester’s Success?

Exhibit, Upcoming Event Explore Why This Small Town Off the Beaten Path Became a Magnet For Those Who Love Food

Not too long ago, the archivist at the Chester Historical Society (CHS), Skip Hubbard, stopped by the historical society and chatted with some visitors to the current exhibit, “Where We Ate, Where We Eat.“ He found out they were from Great Britain.

While pleased, he was not entirely surprised.

Why not?

By way of explanation, he pulls out a recent issue of the historical society’s newsletter.

“This is our newest newsletter and one of the sentences, reads, ‘Have You Been There Yet?’ meaning our exhibit and it says, ‘on a recent Sunday we had a sequence of visitors from, ‘and this is in sequence, ‘Chester; West Bloomfield, Michigan; Montgomery, Texas; Deep River; Quebec, Canada; Springfield, Massachusetts; Madison, Connecticut; Middletown, Durham, and Columbia, Connecticut.”

It’s hard to say why people from all over the world might be drawn to this exhibit, but perhaps they’re wondering the same thing I am wondering. And that is this: when it comes to restaurants, what is the secret to Chester’s success? What is it about this small town on the Connecticut River, a bit off the beaten path, that for decades has made it renowned for what you can eat when you go there?

The exhibit provides some clues, say Hubbard and CHS President Cary Hull. And the answer will be explored in more depth at an event this coming weekend. The CHS has invited Chester’s past restaurant chefs, owners, and creators for a discussion on Sunday, Sept. 25 at 4 p.m. at the Chester Meeting House, 4 Liberty Street, Chester for “Tales From the Kitchen.”

“It will feature Priscilla Martel and Charles Van Over from Restaurant du Village; Gerry Beaumier from Wheatmarket; Jon Joslow from the Chart House and Inn at Chester; and Charlene Janecek from the Lunch Box,” says Hull. “We're expecting it to be a very lively conversation with lots of memories. Definitely not dry!”

A Seed Planted

The seed for the town’s enduring success as a magnet for those who love food, particularly local food lovingly prepared, was likely planted several decades ago when Charlie Van Over and Priscilla Martel decided to open Restaurant du Village, Hull and Hubbard agree.

For those of us unlucky enough to have never eaten there, internationally acclaimed cookbook author Dorie Greenspan recently provided this reminiscence in an article that ran in The New York Times Magazine:

“Du Village was the kind of restaurant I’d dream about coming across on a back road in Burgundy, a place where everyone is welcomed as family, where the room hums with the lively chatter of friendship and celebration and where the food is so satisfying that I’d run a bit of baguette across the plates to grab sauce and then remind myself not to lick my fingers,” Greenspan wrote in the 2021 article. “It was founded in 1979 by Priscilla Martel and Charlie van Over, a couple in life and in business, and during the time that they owned du Village—they sold it in 1990—and well before farm-to-table was a trend, they created a network of farmers, fishermen, growers and producers who brought them ingredients that were rare then and are still prized today.”

That may have been enough to put Chester on the map when it came both to restaurant-goers and restaurateurs, says Hubbard.

“I think, along those lines, that it’s like a multiplier effect. You know, when success breeds success,” he says. “I assume that other restaurateurs at many levels always enjoy going to other restaurants. And when they see something that successful, maybe they say, ‘maybe there’s an audience here.’ And they know people don’t want to keep going to the same place all of the time, so they figure there is more room.”

And that, in turn, helped make a town like Chester a destination for people who love a great meal, he says.

“So, say it’s a similar-type operation, but not identical, and not identical fare, certainly, but someone goes to one of the restaurants and they walk out, and past another restaurant, and they say, ‘Hey, Sally, look at this place. We haven’t seen that one before. Let’s go here next time.’ Right?” he says. “So, I think to a degree, they encourage each other. Then, eventually, you become a destination. As my father-in-law always used to say, ‘not bad for a small town.’”

I also wonder if there is something inherently charming and seductive about the town itself, particularly its sweet downtown that, while tidy and with buildings in good repair, feels like something from another era, or maybe even something like a foreign country, but one where everyone speaks New England. It’s an area that did not suffer through some of the modernization that makes, for example, the Boston Post Road, which serves as a main street for many shoreline towns, a mishmash of this-that-and-the-other architecture and eras.

“You might be right,” ventures Hubbard. “There is something about the downtown. It’s small, manageable. It has a nice curve to the street.”

He says the exhibit does provide one clue as to why the town has something of a timeless appeal.

“When you look at the older pictures of the town, you can see these buildings from the early 1900s, and the 1920s and the 1930s. And then you look at the same buildings now, and the facades are very much the same,” he says. “I do think that is part of its appeal. Right? Of course the contents of the buildings have changed, obviously. Maybe it was a grocery store, and then a series of restaurants, and than an office or something else or whatever. But having those facades basically the same, I think that makes a lot of people feel good looking at them.”

Success Now And Then

The success of Restaurant du Village was legendary, but the exhibit also explores the history of how we eat, along with the many successful restaurants that still line the streets of Chester, from the mom-and-pop coffee shops to the big hitters who draw from out of town.

Hull says one of the oldest eateries featured is the Chester Hotel, which was serving food as far back as the 1800s.

“I found one article back from, I think it was pre-1900, and there was a traveling gentleman who came through and they had a stable, and they could put the gentleman up, and the missus, whatever her name was, the wife of the owner, would cook the dinners.” It also appears as though the hotel served liquor.

Hubbard says when they started looking at the chronology of what they developed, while they were working on the exhibit, “then we started talking about how to bring it forward and all of the sudden we are talking about at least listing the current ownership, and who is serving meals where. And so it just made sense to promote our local businesses at the same time.” The exhibit does that by way of offering a menu book, and pictures of the businesses along with overhead signs featuring the current businesses.

One current restaurant that has a fascinating past is just beyond the downtown, located right at the exit of Route 9, The Brushmill By The Waterfall, 129 West Main Street, Chester. In the early 1800s, it was a a gristmill and sawmill. Then it became a woodworking shop that, among other items, manufactured blades for ice skates. Through the years, it housed factories, include a brush works until the 1960s. The Pattaconk flowing behind the building allowed it to supply its own power with the means of a large water wheel. While damaged beyond repair in 1982 by a large storm, parts of the original waterwheel remain and can be seen in the building’s wheelhouse.

The Chart House restaurant was housed there for a time, then that closed. And the building was recently reopened as The Brushmill By The Waterfall by the proprietor Jason L’Italien with the kitchen under the command of Executive Chef Joseph Roberto, a Deep River native who is creating dishes already getting word-of-mouth rave reviews.

In the center of town in Chester, there is Grano Arso, run by Joel and Lani Gargano, which was dubbed Restaurant of the Year in 2019 by the Connecticut Restaurant Association. Across the street from that is River Tavern, owned by Jonathan Rapp, who is revered not only for his restaurant but also for his Farm Dinners team that hosts dinners all over the state, cooked in and served out of Rapp’s trademark cherry red truck, that benefit local farms.

And, of course, Chester hosts the Chester Sunday Market every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. through Oct. 16 on the main street, which is a great way for those who have not visited the town to check out restaurants and other attractions, along with doing some Sunday shopping. From there, it’s just a short stroll over to the historical society, where the exhibit is on display at the Chester Museum at the Mill, 9 West Main Street, Chester in a historic hill site overlooking a mill dam on the Pattaconk Brook on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The building also is open to visitors Saturday afternoons from 1 to 4 p.m. from June to October, and by special request.

As with the upcoming event, admission is always free, but donations are always welcome.

Hull says she is grateful to Priscilla Martel for serving as the inspiration for the current exhibit.

“It was actually something Priscilla did,” says Hull. “She donated to our archives a set of four plates from the original Otto’s.”

This is the restaurant that preceded Restaurant du Village, not the current fabulous pizzeria also run by Jonathan Rapp down the street from River Tavern, Hull notes.

“That’s Otto apostrophe ‘s’ not Otto. So they were in the old Otto’s building, and they loaned us a couple of things and donated some plates. And I was talking with our curator Diane Lindsey, the same day and we said, ‘you know, wouldn’t it be fun to do something with restaurants and eating and all of the sudden we got going without stopping to even breathe or think. We had this space and we said, ‘let’s do it.’”

Both Hull and Hubbard say Chester is lucky that Martel and Van Over, who still make their home in Chester and who are still a mainstay in the culinary scene both locally and nationally, took a chance on that old, run-down building that became the internationally renowned Restaurant du Village.

“They were willing to take a chance,” says Hull. “They really did take a chance by opening that restaurant in town with its French flair, lovely lace curtains, and such. Right, Skip?”

He agrees and says he is looking forward to the upcoming program so he can hear more about why Martel and Van Over decided to take that chance here in Chester.

Martel and Van Over are looking forward to discussing it as well.

“We were young. It was our vision to create the kind of chef/family-owned restaurant you find in a village in France. You will be hard pressed to find such a place in the United States today,” she says. “And the restaurant environment in 1978 was extraordinarily different from what it is today. The ‘restaurant revolution’ had not happened yet. While there were fine dining restaurants, such as the excellent Copper Beech Inn, there were few other local options short of local bars. The Gull in Essex was a happening place, they served a delicious lemon cake made from a box. The Chart House, too. And you can see their menu in the exhibit. We’ll riff more on our early days at the talk September 25.”

Priscilla Martel, left, visits the Where We Ate, Where We Eat exhibit at the Chester Historical Society, which will run through the end of October. Martel also will part of a discussion scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 25 at 4 p.m. at CHS, 9 West Main Street, Chester, on “Tales From The Kitchen.” Both the exhibit and event are free, though donations are always welcome. Photo courtesy of Chester Historical Society
The 25th anniversary cake at The Wheatmarket, with owners Joan and Dennis Welch. Photo courtesy of the Chester Historical Society
Doris Walters was one of the owners of Robbie’s store, located in the heart of Chester Center. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Historical Society
When it was Otto’s restaurant before it became Restaurant du Village. The exhibit includes a newspaper review of Otto’s from the 1960s. Photo courtesy of Chester Historical Society
Gerry Beaumier, who goes by both Jerry or Gerry, was the original owner of Wheatmarket, selling to Dennis Welch in the '90s. He then worked there on a regular basis. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Historical Society
The exhibit Where We Ate, Where We Eat has attracted visitors from all over the country, and internationally as well. Photo courtesy of Chester Historical Society