It is the end of an era: the Silvermine Tavern has closed.
This landmark restaurant and Inn served Norwalk for 85 years. At its beginning in 1929, the target market was New York — the city dwellers who wanted to escape the sweltering summer and do some antiquing in the “country,” enjoy a meal by the mill pond with its serene swans, and (maybe) stay the night. The opening of the Merritt Parkway in the 30s and a craze for early American antiques fueled explosive growth as Silvermine became an easy hour out, even in the cars of the day. Area residents enjoyed the Tavern as a first-class restaurant (one of only a few in Norwalk) great for Saturday night, Sunday family dinner, special occasions, holiday dining and social events.
As Norwalk evolved toward suburbia, the Tavern grew too. The post-war explosion of commuters and business growth created a strong market for eating out. The antiques trade moved further upstate, but Silvermine was still a destination for dining and lodging.
John Kenneth Byard and his wife Dorothy started the Tavern by hosting guests at the Inn and serving tea in the Mill. Expansion was rapid, adding a dining room and deck almost every year until the building was hemmed in by the mill pond and street. In addition to food and lodging, the Byards were major antique dealers and created a cultural life in Silvermine that included art exhibitions, concerts and readings. In 1947, the property was sold to Ignatius Weiss, another antiquarian and New York restaurateur. Weiss kept the antiques business going with twice a year antique shows, and the restaurant thrived.
In 1955 Weiss sold the Tavern to Frank Whitman, my father. We moved here from Pennsylvania when I was very young. He took over just before the devastating flood of 1955. The Tavern was largely undamaged, but Norwalk was not so lucky. The flood made for a rough start for a new owner. The antiques business ended, with the existing inventory becoming an unchanging collection of Americana on the walls and in the Inn. But Norwalk and the surrounding towns were growing and the Tavern thrived. In 1990 I took over from my father and brought the enterprise into the 21st century.
Throughout the Whitman years, it was very much of a scratch kitchen including a well-staffed bakery making desserts, breads and those famous Silvermine Honey Buns. There is a picture of me somewhere standing on a box (not tall enough to reach the table) rolling out dough. About 30 years later, our son did the same. Recently our first granddaughter took a turn with the rolling pin.
The Tavern was also famous for homemade ice cream — I made a point to be around for ice cream day. There were memorable Sunday morning trips to the produce wholesaler in South Norwalk with my father to stock up for the all-important Sunday dinner crowd. In the summer, we would often stop off at the ice house. Riding home on the ice bags was a cool treat.
The Tavern evolved with the times, updating the menu, pioneering Sunday Brunch in 1970, following the growing thirst for fine wine, exploring European cuisines, returning to American culinary roots, sourcing local ingredients and becoming a regional destination for live Jazz. Awards from institutions and publications – some long-forgotten and some still in print – were showered on the restaurant and Inn. In the early days, Duncan Hines (before cakes) Ford Times and Cue magazine all recognized Silvermine as a premier destination. More recently, The New York Times, Connecticut Magazine, all the local papers as well as radio and TV praised the Tavern.
There are scrapbooks filled with special moments at The Tavern. The 1948 State Champion Norwalk Football team was honored at a Silvermine banquet. Broadway stars and Hollywood celebs came to eat and stay. Movies and commercials were filmed in Silvermine’s genuine New England atmosphere.
But the most important occasions were the everyday ones: birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, middle school honor roll dinners, proms, showers, rehearsal dinners, Mother’s Day with mom, Easter dinner all dressed up, overflowing plates for Thanksgiving dinner, families on Christmas Eve, lunch out or a dinner with friends and dining on the tree-shaded deck. It was wonderful to see families grow up and come back. There has been more than one wedding where the parents were married at Silvermine and then the next generation did the same.
Just as important to me are the people who worked at the Tavern for all those years. The hospitality business is hard work with long hours — working nights, weekends and holidays when the rest of the world is at ease. It’s a great group of people from all walks of life and from many different countries who choose to serve others. Many had their first job at Silvermine (a memorable experience), worked for college money, gained skills, and moved up the professional ladder.
Wife, son and daughter as well as nieces and nephew all put in many hours, making us truly a family business. There was even a decade long string of hostesses from the Norwalk High swim team that started with our daughter — the job handed down from graduating senior to rising junior.
Alas, the Tavern has outlived its economic life. Eighty-five years is a long time in an industry where many start ups don’t last eight months and eight years is well established. Changing tastes and demographics — a view towards the future more than an interest in the past, a more mobile society, and an expanding choice of restaurants — gradually siphoned off the customers.
Charming but energy-gobbling buildings that needed constant maintenance were ultimately more than the Tavern could support. For the last five years it has only been open as a bed and breakfast Inn and for catered events.
The new owners have a plan that will take the property forward. With a mix of residential use, a smaller more efficient restaurant building and an updated Inn, the complex will live on to serve future generations as it has in the past.
Our thanks go out to all who came in contact with The Silvermine Tavern: diners, inn guests, staff members, suppliers, neighbors, family and friends. You are appreciated more than you know. And I heartily wish the new owners all the best!