Mixed results at Bridgeport-area restaurants, shops as CT starts to reopen

The first day of the state’s grand reopen started slow and stayed quiet, with most customers remembering to wear masks and stay a good social distance away as they began reclaiming lives put on hold nearly two months ago.

Restaurants weren’t sure what to expect, the malls prepped for everything from nobody showing up to crowds that would need to be granted limited access and the day was bright and cool.

From the Valley to Fairfield and parts West, the greater Bridgeport area survived.

Here are some of the stories of how opening day went:


The lunch crowd would normally be spilling out of downtown buildings toward Ralph ‘n’ Rich’s by 11:30ish Wednesday morning, but not even the anthills on Main Street’s sidewalk were busy.

Jacqueline Silano was setting up the patio for what crowd might come, the first time they’d welcome diners to sit down in a couple of months as Connecticut began easing restrictions on business and offices amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m sure we’ll see a few familiar faces, but the work crowd’s not downtown right now, really, so it’s hard,” Silano said. “That was the bulk of our daytime business, so it’s going to be different. We’ll see. We’re ready.”

There were a couple of reservations in the books for the first day.

“A lot of our regulars have been asking to come back,” Silano said. “We’re hoping people will come back, with the weather a little nicer.”

She understands some people might still be a little leery.

“We’re hoping people pack in here, but we understand everyone’s fears,” she said. “We’re trying to be as careful as possible.”

A couple of tables had diners by 12:30 p.m. (on opposite ends of the patio), and another pair of men arrived about 15 minutes later.

Across town at Brewport, managing partner and brewmaster Jeff Browning Sr. said they have been planning for Wednesday’s reopening since it closed. And, they’re already working on the next step for next month.

“We started on the 18th of March,” Browning said as staff served the first two tables Wednesday a little after 3:30. “We obviously knew reopening was going to be different, so we immediately started acquiring things like hand-sanitizer machines, putting in different sinks in the bathroom, changing our booth backs inside the restaurant.”

Browning said an architect designed the layout of their outdoor space, built in the parking lot, to maximize capacity (around 75 people) safely. Smaller round tables, built atop old newspaper boxes, are eight feet apart. Long tables in the back are six and a half feet apart and bolted down so customers can’t combine them and violate the executive order against parties of over five.

Inside, Browning swiped an idea from a Nashville establishment of a “claw” in the bathroom, allowing a customer to pull the door open with their foot and not have to touch the handle. Outside the bathrooms, Brewport is installing a long three-bay sink with swan necks and touchless sensors, combining the old with the new and allowing patrons to wash their hands without entering the rest rooms.

Safety and comfort are big for Browning, even if it’s rough knowing that the groups of 10 or 15 who might congregate there in normal times can’t do that.

“We need people who are understanding and that care about other people, about their surroundings. If you go out, you need to observe safety standards not for yourself, but for everybody else,” Browning said. “That needs to really be pushed that you’re being kind to humanity by wearing your mask, and if you want to go outside your own backyard, you need to take some precautions that we didn’t have to take (before).”

Among changes for the next round of reopening, when diners can get inside — around June 20, Gov. Ned Lamont said Wednesday — are glass dividers for some downstairs booths and wood risers above the others; some booths in spots where tables had been; and some still bigger booths, when bigger groups are allowed.

In the meantime, Browning wanted to remind people that takeout is still available.

“If you’re not comfortable coming to a place like this, you can still bring it home. I’m sure every other restaurant wants people to know that their to-go business didn’t end because we’re allowed to have 25 people under a tent,” he said. “We need both businesses.”

There was some decent turnover over the first couple of hours, about 15 tables in and out, Browning guessed.

Fred Daniele, there with a friend, joked that they weren’t Brewport regulars but hold many business meetings there. They had come to pick up takeout over the past couple of months but were glad to be back.

“It’s perfect timing, right before the holiday weekend,” Daniele said. “Everybody’s out trying to support everybody they can, right? I think this is great.”


The beautiful weather only heightened the anticipation of those restaurants taking advantage of the outdoor dining option now made available by the state.

“It feels awesome,” said Stormy’s Bull and Barley owner Mike Recchia as he welcomed back customers Wednesday for onsite dining for the first time in weeks.

Recchia, who reopened Stormy’s Bull and Barley at 350 Bridgeport Ave. earlier this year, had been offering takeout during the shutdown but had been preparing for the day he could once again welcome customers at his establishment.

“We have had a good amount of people … wish it had been more, but this is just the beginning of all this, and it is new to people,” Recchia said.

Recchia has outdoor seating for 60 people total, with all the necessary social distancing requirements in place and personal protection equipment (PPE) on site. Recchia, like so many of his fellow restaurant owners, has turned to social media to let everyone know he is open for sit down business, albeit just outdoor.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Dan Camporeale, owner of Matto Wine Bar, 389 Bridgeport Ave. “It’s great to see people and interact, but we wish it was under better circumstances.”

Camporeale said the restaurant’s outdoor seating capacity has not changed. The tables have only been spread out further to meet state reopening regulations. He said the present restrictions bring with them thousands in extra costs, but he has no plans to pass it on the customer.

“I understand why we are getting calls asking if there will be a COVID charge,” Camporeale said. “A lot of places are doing that because of high costs of goods and added costs of PPE. But it’s something we are going to have to live with, and it’s not fair to pass it along to our guests.

“It’s just a cost of doing business,” added Camporeale, “and we hope people appreciate what it takes to give them the best and safest service possible. It’s a new world for all of us, and we need to take care of each other.”

Camporeale said Matto has enjoyed a steady flow of anxious guests Wednesday.

“I hope we can get a good pace of guests and keep it going,” said Camporeale. “We could use all the support we can. We are still doing steady takeout and hope to maintain that as well. We are here to serve however we can.”

Along with restaurants, Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan also allowed for offices and other “non-essential” businesses to open their doors once again.

This was a welcome return to some sense of normalcy for those at Marks of Design, a high-end jewelry designer in the Bog Y plaza at 389 Bridgeport Ave., according to store jewelry consultant Gabriela Lopez.

Lopez said the business remained in operation on a pick-up basis and through Facebook auctions.

“It was surreal,” said Lopez about reopening the doors Wednesday, weeks after being forced to shutdown. “Before we got going today, we had to sit down, in a group huddle, and ready ourselves.

“When someone comes in and says they are engaged, we can’t hug them anymore … we can’t give them a kiss. Buying jewelry is so personal. But we have steps to take now. This is the new normal,” added Lopez.

For the store employees, masks and gloves are part of the routine. Lopez said they have extra gloves and masks on hand for customers, as well as plenty of hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes since the jewelry business, unlike other retail operations, can involve having to touch other people.

“It was better than expected,” said Lopez about the store traffic Wednesday.

She said they did not think they would have any customers, but in the end, six people came in and four others called for pickup. Lopez said they have also set up multiple appointments each day for the next few days.


At Riley’s By the Seawall in Lordship in Stratford, owner Steve O’Neill said business so far is “about what we expected” given conditions.

“If the weather was nicer I think we’d have all these tables filled,” O’Neill said as customers sat at a handful of the restaurant’s outdoor tables about 3 p.m., adding that more people had made reservations for later in the afternoon.

He said the game plan is to keep the patio as busy as possible until the entire business can reopen, which the state has tentatively set for June 20.

He said he didn’t have any issues bringing back staff, which was fortunate.

Maya Cabrera, owner of Cibus Dos in downtown Stratford, wasn’t as lucky.

The restaurant was half-staffed Tuesday because some employees were hesitant to return to work, she said.

“People are still really scared,” Cabrera said.


At Chef’s Table on the Post Road, owner Richard Herzfeld said the restaurant had good business during breakfast time, with the tables outside filled up.

According to Herfeld, about 60 percent of Chef’s Table’s business is takeout anyway, but the pandemic gave him the chance to set up a very user-friendly online ordering system. He said the restaurant would be utilizing that long after the pandemic is over.

Despite the traffic at his restaurant, Herfeld said downtown Fairfield was still pretty quiet.

Ali Papageorge, owner of Olive My Stuff, agreed.

She said she had only made two sales as of Wednesday afternoon and had been doing better business when she was selling merchandise through her social media accounts.

Part of it, she said, might be the hours. Moms make up the bulk of her customers and with distance learning going on, they might not be able to make it in. Papageorge plans to change hours as needed to ensure her customers can shop at a time when they can have someone babysit their kids.

“Every day I feel like I’m kind of going with the flow,” she said, adding that she hopes to have a more concrete system in place by next week.


After four years of planning and millions of dollars spent preparing, Bob Chicoine and Dan Bagley have been waiting for the day they could open Dockside Brewery on Bridgeport Avenue.

“It’s crazy. We tried to plan for everything except a pandemic,” Chicoine said as he welcomed Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, state Sen. James Maroney and state Rep. Kim Rose on Wednesday to the three-level facility which includes an upper and lower deck and a stone-covered beer garden facing the Dock Shopping Center in Stratford.

“This is beautiful,” Bysiewicz said.

When the governor shut down interior dining in restaurants, Chicoine, who lives in Westchester County, and Bagley, a Trumbull resident, focused on completing the outside dining areas and takeouts.

“The support from the community has been overwhelming,” Chicoine said. “We’ve done close to $90,000 in takeout for beer and food.”

He said this has generated $7,000 in sales taxes and enabled him to hire 53 employees.

And now they get to have actual in-person customers. As of Wednesday, 156 reservations were already lined up.

“We’ve got tables set 11 feet apart for parties of five outside,” Chicoine said. “But I feel like the bad guy. I’ve got to tell people who want a reservation for three couples at the same table that’s not doable right now because of the guidelines. Everyone understands.”


For Lindsey Carley, Wednesday’s reopening of the Westfield Trumbull Mall came just in time.

“Someone needs a new bathing suit,” she said gesturing toward her 11-year-old daughter, Emma.

The Carleys, who live on Canoe Brook Lake in Trumbull, were two of a few dozen people waiting outside the mall’s entrances when security staff began unlocking the doors a few minutes before 11 a.m.

“Welcome back, everyone,” an employee said as he threw the doors open.

Inside, shoppers were greeted with gallon-sized bottles of hand sanitizer, arrows indicating which doors were for entry and which for exit, and floor stickers reminding shoppers to maintain social distance while waiting to enter stores.

These were all part of a plan detailed by Westfield Vice President of Shopping Center Management Patrick Madden in a conference call with Trumbull officials May 19. Madden said preparing the mall for reopening had in some ways been more challenging than opening a new shopping center.

“It’s kind of akin to a grand opening of a new mall, only we’re having to do this multiple times across the country at all of our malls,” he said.

In preparation for reopening, Madden said, workers had done a full cleaning and sanitization, including dismantling the mall’s interior fixtures and furniture. The mall, which will have reduced hours of 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sundays, will undergo a full cleaning every night, Madden said. In addition, a specialized sanitizing crew would operate during the mall’s business hours, cleaning high-touch surfaces — like water fountains, elevator buttons, ATM screens and door handles — hourly.

Westfield also will use electronic monitoring to keep a count on the mall’s occupancy and limit the number of people inside to 50 percent of capacity. Madden said the mall’s rated capacity — think Black Friday — was high enough that he did not think there would be a need to limit entry.

“But we have the ability and the plan,” he said.

In the mall’s initial reopening, many shoppers also found the stores they had hoped to visit closed.

Jennifer Sortini, who made the drive from Bethany to be at the mall when it opened, waited outside Gamestop.

Video game sales soared during the social quarantine period, with market research company NDP Group reporting a 34 percent jump in game sales from March 2019 to March 2020 and a 63 percent increase in sales of game systems in the same time period.

But those who like to browse games, or trade in old games toward new ones, were out of luck when malls closed and stores like Gamestop were deemed non-essential. That made May 20 the first time some gamers were able to check out new entertainment.

“Their website says they’ll be open today,” Sortini said as the store remained closed a half hour after the mall opened.

The inconsistent schedules of the mall’s retail outlets was another possibility Madden had anticipated. He said he expected about half the mall’s stores to open May 20, with that number gradually increasing over the coming days and weeks as stores bring back staff and stock up on the protective equipment all mall employees and customers are required to wear.

After the large shopping centers, the most anticipated reopenings were restaurants, which were allowed to open outdoor seating areas. Though many restaurants had remained open for takeout during the coronavirus lockdown, May 20 was the first time since March that they could welcome back seated diners.

“We did pretty well during the lockdown,” said Dave White, executive chef of Bianco Rosso in Trumbull Center. He said the restaurant’s regulars had maintained their support, using curbside pickup options and delivery services.

Wednesday afternoon, he was preparing for the restaurant’s first dinner service in two months, noting that the reservation book for reopening night was filling up.

“For a Wednesday, it’s pretty good,” he said. “But it almost doesn’t matter what day it is. With people working from home, the day of the week means nothing anymore.”

Like many Trumbull restaurants, Bianco Rosso had expanded its outdoor seating area. This is especially important since the outdoor dining rules mandate continued social distancing, he said. Bianco Rosso’s outdoor patio normally features 26 tables. Now it is limited to eight, although White said the restaurant had added a few more tables by closing off part of its adjacent driveway.

Diners returning to their favorite eatery will notice some changes. The service staff, for example, will all be wearing masks and gloves. And while sipping pinot noir and eating steak au poivre through a mask may be out of the question, diners will still be asked to wear a mask when they arrive and leave, and while in common areas of the restaurant.

They also should mask up when ordering or when interacting with staff, White said.

“It’s going to be a change, like when the server used to seat you, then come around with water, and like that,” he said. “Now we’ll have the wait staff at their assigned stations, and they’ll stay there until you motion them over.”

The staff themselves were thankful to get back to their jobs, too, he said. With evening temperatures expected to drop into the low 50s, though, they may want to bundle up for their return to work.

“It’s not going to be too warm tonight,” White said. “But I think the people who have been home for two months that can finally have dinner out, I think they’ll come wrapped in a blanket if they have to.”