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Saturday, February 01, 2014

Comings & Goings: Dressing Room Closes

After weeks of rumors, chef Michel Nischan has made it official—his Dressing Room restaurant at the Westport Country Playhouse founded with Paul Newman has closed after an eight-year run.

WestportNow.com Image
Nestled behind the Westport Country Playhouse, the Dressing Room restaurant with its farm fresh entries attracted diners from throughout the region (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

In a posting on the restaurant’s website, Nischan made clear that he believed the time had come to focus on his Wholesome Wave endeavors. Founded in 2007, Wholesome Wave helps underserved urban and rural communities gain more affordable access to healthy, locally grown foods while supporting the small and mid-sized American farmers.

But the flood of new restaurant competitors in recent months and attendant financial pressures no doubt also played a role in the decision.

Nischan said he and his wife Lori “will always hold Dressing Room Restaurant dear in our hearts. Our talented culinary and service team made it one of the most amazing restaurants ever to grace Connecticut.

“We operated as a family unit, bonded together by a strong set of core values and love of good food. With a more deeply dedicated focus on Wholesome Wave to provide fresh food to underserved communities, I am proud that more people will have access to amazing meals.

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Michel Nischan holds a portrait of Dressing Room co-founder Paul Newman in a picture posted on the restaurant website along with the closing notice. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

“We encourage you to support farm-to-table restaurants, farmers’ markets, and healthier food choices. After all, it’s all about food. Good, pure, affordable, wholesome, delicious, local food. For everyone!”

Founded in 2006 (See WestportNow Sept. 29, 2006), Nischan described the restaurant as Fairfield County’s first farm-to-table restaurant.

The 98-seat casual restaurant, with 15 bar seats and another 24 seats on the outdoor patio, served lunch, dinner, and brunch on the weekends.

Newman wanted a family friendly restaurant with no tablecloths that served up macaroni and cheese, burgers, and meat loaf as well as more fancy offerings. Tablecloths did come but macaroni and cheese, meat loaf, and burgers remained until the end. 

WestportNow.com Image
The House Dressing Band led by restaurant co-founder and celebrity chef Michel Nischan (l) played for guests in this August 2012 photo. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Helen Klisser During for WestportNow.com

“The Dressing Room provides an opportunity for us to build on the integrity of the food that once defined everyday American life before the era of convenience foods took hold,” Nischan said in a press release announcing the restaurant’s opening.

“Our goal is to recapture the simple and pure tastes found in locally grown, organic ingredients for this generation and those to come.”

Opening menu highlights included Yankee Pot Roast Circa 2006; Hook-and-Line Crisp Baked Chatham Cod; Iroquois White Corn Soup; and Cox Orange Pippin Apple Cobbler.

Farm fresh food was not the only motivation for starting Dressing Room. Newman and Nischan said they sought to bring back the small-town feeling through the restaurant.

“I came to Westport 45 years ago, and Westport has changed,” Newman told ABC News in a feature on the restaurant shortly after it opened. “Hopefully, this will help us change a little bit back to the way we were.”

“Any place you have bedroom communities,” Nischan added, “it becomes, you know, strip malls and large corporate shopping.”

“But how does a restaurant save a community,” asked correspondent Charles Gibson, who narrated the report.

WestportNow.com Image
Michel Nischan and Paul Newman appeared on ABC News shortly after the restaurant opened, saying they wanted to bring back a small-town feel to Westport. ABC News photo

“I thought we ought to put a really good restaurant in here,” Newman said, “and it will serve to subsidize the theater.”

It was in the Westport Country Playhouse parking lot that summer that Newman and Nischan—with the blessing and assistance from the Town of Westport—established the Westport Farmers Market.

As the screen showed shots of the market, Nischan added:

“For me, it’s a belief system. The choices that we make, the food that we buy and the people that we support have everything to do with the outcome of our community.”

“The whole sense of how people eat,” Newman added, “becomes important to more and more people, so it seemed a natural.”

But the two had even more in mind, the report said.

“We want to have Go Karts, we want to have fashion shows, wine tasting,” Newman said.

“We want to use that parking lot as a way that the community can engage members to do all that stuff.”

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Melissa Newman, Paul Newman’s daughter, sang jazz at the Dressing Room on some Friday nights. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Helen Klisser During for WestportNow.com

Newman, who died Sept. 26, 2008, visited then First Selectman Gordon Joseloff to push his ideas. Told that a Go Kart course probably would not pass muster with local zoning regulations, Newman did succeed in having the Farmers Market move to Winslow Park in the summer of 2007, albeit briefly.

Dog owners who used the park were not happy and the logistics of getting vendors in and customers out over the park grounds proved unworkable.

In the warm months, guests dined outside the Dressing Room in the patio area and patrons at the bar could drink while watching Paul Newman movies.

Nischan played in the House Dressing Band on many nights and later Melissa Newman, Paul Newman’s daughter, sang jazz on several Friday nights a month.

There was no immediate word on what might replace the Dressing Room. The site has been home to several restaurants over the years.


Posted 02/01/14 at 01:27 PM  Permalink


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I will miss the Heritage Pork. :( Does anyone know if there is any truth to the rumors about AppleBees taking over that location?

Posted by Paul Bradshaw on February 02, 2014 at 03:05 AM | #

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