The dining room was filling up. Friends greeted each other with hugs, table to table waves, and welcoming smiles – many seemed to have a connection. All were gathered for an evening of lively, energetic jazz in a party atmosphere. After a few warm up notes, the band leader counted off the tempo and the quartet was off and running.
Thursday night is jazz night at the restaurant 323 Main in Westport. Organized by Greg Wall, “The Jazz Rabbi,” and sponsored by JazzFC (The Jazz Society of Fairfield County), the weekly performances start at 7:30 and go to 10:30 or so. It was a packed house for the Chris Coogan Quartet on a recent evening – every seat spoken for and overflow in the bar.
The performance is in the restaurant, not the bar. The idea is to reserve a table, get there early, and order dinner from the wide-ranging menu. Then settle in for some swinging jazz.
We had a cozy corner table with a good view of the band. Chris brilliantly plays the piano (more about the piano later) across the gamut of standards, New Orleans traditional, and Bop, sneaking in a few blues riffs, too. John Mobilo swings on the bass with obvious joy. Jim Royal keeps the time on drums with intricate playing and musical solos. Rabbi Wall is out front on the tenor improvising like the great sax players from the heyday of BeBop. The quartet is one of the most popular and enduring jazz collectives in the area.
A respectful and enthusiastic audience – ready and eager to listen while enjoying dinner – makes the experience a pleasure. The menu mixes pasta, seafood, beef and chicken in straightforward presentations along with an elaborate and (I’m told) delicious burger.
Our dinner started with Avocado-Tuna Tartar – Tuna chopped with fresh avocado, cucumber, red onion, sesame, and hoisin-soy sauce. We admired the dish at the next table where we struck up an acquaintance with the couple over a shared interest in the music. They recommended it highly! Delicious and well presented, it disappeared quickly as we scooped it up with crisp corn chips.
Marsha opted for Chicken Milanese, a lightly breaded chicken cutlet under a stack of salad greens with watermelon radishes, cucumber, and shaved Parmesan. Steak Frites for me – a flavorful hanger steak with a mountain of crispy shoestring fries.
There was a nice selection of beers (some local) on tap and signature cocktails from the large bar in the next room. Marsha enjoyed a glass of flavorful Pinot Grigio and I had the Ballast Point Ale.
While we ate, the band was working through a playlist of standards that included In A Sentimental Mood, Fascinating Rhythm, St. Thomas, Song for My Father (composed by Norwalk native Horace Silver) and many more. During one number an older couple (he with a natty white fedora) got up to dance.
I know a sax player who used to have a pretty regular gig at Small’s in Greenwich Village. He went on at 10:30 and played till 1:00 AM. Fortunately, dinner and jazz in our area is much more civilized. The music usually starts around 7:30 or 8:00 and even if you stay for the second set, you’re out by 11:00 and home not much later than that, just when the hipsters at Smalls are ramping up. Even for the early show at Birdland in midtown, it’s way past my bedtime when I pull in the driveway. Local jazz with a good dinner is much more doable.
Bob Lucas, a jazz fan from Greenwich, publishes a monthly calendar of the local jazz scene. He keeps track of the venues, follows the schedules of the players, and puts it all together in an e-mail. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org to get on his list. (Put Jazz in the subject line.) It’s the most comprehensive listing for our region that I know of, including jazz clubs, bars, and restaurants along with a few concert venues. You’ll see that the players will travel an astonishing distance for a good gig.
Restaurants for dinner and jazz on Bob’s list include: Marianacci’s in Port Chester, an old world Italian restaurant that has jazz on Friday night; Pizzeria Laurentino in Bethel; Bills Seafood in Westbrook; Osteria Romana in Norwalk; The Long Ridge Tavern in Stamford; and, of course 323 Main in Westport. There are undoubtedly more out there. Bob lists the players and gives a few notes on their style.
Oh, and about the piano at 323 Main, it’s the Steinway from the legendary Village Gate in New York. For decades, beginning in 1958, it was played by greats like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, Erroll Garner, Nina Simone and Sun Ra to name a few and is heard on many Live From The Village Gate recordings. JazzFC is raising funds to have the piano restored so that it will continue to be part of the jazz world.
Whether you’re an avid jazz fan or just have a passing interest, an evening of dinner and jazz adds an exciting dimension to a night out. Next time you’re making plans, check one of these restaurants to see who’s playing.