It seems like all of a sudden we’re eating out — and eating well. As pandemic restrictions loosen, we’re more confident to dine with friends, celebrate special occasions, and entertain family at fine restaurants. After a year of casual eating and take out, it’s nice to be back in some of the area’s best establishments. 

It wasn’t planned, but in the space of two weeks we’ve had dinner out four times. Waistline watchout!

The occasions spanned a time of change for pandemic precautions.  Masks became an option and restaurants were granted increased capacity, while the weather was perfect for eating outside.

At Oak and Almond on Main Avenue, a belated Mother’s Day dinner kicked off our restaurant tour. We always enjoy eating there, this time thanks to a gift certificate from our far-away son. Service in the busy, socially-distanced dining room was professional and attentive. The food, as always, was well-prepared and flavorful. 

Shared small plates

We’d never been to The Whelk in Westport, a serious omission since it’s one of the most well-regarded and influential restaurants in Fairfield County.  Seafood is the focus at this waterside spot along the Saugatuck river. Dine inside in the bright contemporary space with natural wood tables and a long marble-topped bar or outside on the plaza with views of the river.

Our server pointed out that the five-part menu began with an extensive raw bar and ended with a handful of mains.  But she suggested the middle three groups of small plates made for sharing were the best way to get to know the restaurant. The four of us each picked two with no repeats then added the famous hand-cut fries and locally-baked parker house rolls.

Deviled eggs with fried oysters and pickled onions

The dishes, simple or complex, are generally accompanied by an irresistible and original sauce or condiment — a tantalizing trademark of interesting restaurants. Deviled eggs topped with fried oysters were graced with pickled onions, crisp fish sticks with brown butter tartar, excellent fries with smoked mayo, fluke crudo with pickled ramps, and … well you get the idea. Each offering was different, distinctive, and delicious.

The plates were passed, a taste for each of us, with the charger of fries in the middle for grazing.  Our server, Nicole, advised on choices and orchestrated the flow of food. An almond cake with amaretto brown butter (two bites each) was a satisfying end to a lovely evening. 

Washington Prime in SoNo is a popular steakhouse, widely praised by those who give out restaurant

Ahi tuna at Washington Prime

awards. They’ve got wet and dry aged prime steaks simply and expertly grilled or gussied up with some classic presentations. The award-winning wine list is laden with big reds from France, Italy, and especially California. The extensive list of whiskey and whisky is one of the most impressive I’ve seen. 

But we go for the seafood. 

It was our destination for a wedding anniversary dinner.  Local Copps Island oysters on the halfshell ($3 ea) for Marsha and masa breaded and fried ($14 for 4) for me can’t be beat.  A tiny bottle of Veuve de Verney sparkling rosé (13) from France was the perfect match.  

Marsha’s silky Ahi Tuna Steak (34) was stunningly presented on a lacework of sesame-soy reduction with dots of the most intriguing miso hot mustard along the edge of the plate.  My scallops (36) swam in

Gray Barns outdoor dining

on a bed of lemon orzo with spring vegetables and tarragon vinaigrette. I can’t imagine how hot the skillet had to be to get the dark char crust yet keep the inside perfectly-cooked. 

Visiting family from California (another sign of the easing pandemic) wanted to go to The Tavern at Gray Barns.  The kitchen has continued to develop and mature under the leadership of chef Ben Freemole.  Dishes — small plates or large — are well conceived, detailed, and flawlessly executed. 

Tuna Tartar (22) with avocado, Korean chilis, and sesame cucumber was almost too pretty to eat. Prime Beef Tartare (24) was graced with torn brioche croutons and seasoned with au-poivre aioli. 

Salmon tartar

Whole Branzino (33) with white bean purée and spring relish was a hit. The kitchen has always had a way with chicken breast (30), this time it was dressed for Spring with new potatoes, asparagus, peas, and green garlic.

Campanelle with morels and spring pesto was a seasonal treat. Denver Lamb Ribs (24) with Calabrian honey and pickled shallots were picture perfect. 

The cocktail menu is creative and the drinks very pretty. The well-chosen wine list matches up with the menu. 

The Tavern has a new outdoor dining area defined by a hand-hewn post and beam frame covered with a billowing sheet of white canvas for shade.

Creative and pretty drinks at Gray Barns

Restaurants crashed at the beginning of the pandemic, now they’re coming back in a rush trying to meet the pent-up demand. Some are struggling to rebuild staff and find their footing, but all are determined to be better than ever.  They’re thrilled to see diners return — just as we are to be eating out.  

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Frank Whitman can be reached at