Saltwater Grille: Sticking With What Works

Head out to Litchfield for a summer dinner and most think of the picturesque town green and its sprinkling restaurants that have a stellar history and reputation.

But drive west a couple of blocks and there is another rural gem and new owners are breathing new life into this charming landmark as well.

Litchfield Saltwater Grille, owned for many years by Brett Clugston and her husband, Albert, was sold eight months ago to a couple looking to do "something different" after they became empty nesters in Wisconsin.

New owners Andy Stowers and Brook Noel are not only loving the change of geography, but a shared profession they say is an adventure that they love.

"We were looking for an adventure," said Noel. Our daughter had gone off to college and we were empty nesters. Andy was in corporate America and had enough. I was an author who had helped friends with their restaurant in Wisconsin, took classes in the hospitality program at Cornell and knew the business. We wanted to be in New England and knew if we were going to make a big change in our lives, now was the time."

The couple looked at dozens of restaurants from Boston to Guilford. and when they found the Litchfield Saltwater Grille, they knew they found a match.

"It felt a lot like our home in Wisconsin," said Noel. "A small town with a lot of culture and a lot of New England charm. We just fell in love and knew this was the place."

Noel and her husband were happy with what they saw in the place, which has a rustic charm with its wood wainscoting and soft-colored walls, a pleasant outdoor dining area that can be used even when it's raining and a busy tap room with bar that has a lively and Yankee Magazine award-winning happy hour. So any changes were barely noticeable and limited to some sprucing up and some tweaking of the menu.

The new owners kept all the staff, which Noel said made for a seamless transition and gave them a source of information when it came to learning the ins and outs of the business and the area.

"We inherited talented, capable staff," said Noel. "We were fortunate because there are so many moving parts to a restaurant and there were nuances we did not understand in a new state like liquor laws and suppliers. The staff is a resource for us."

One thing they were not braced for was Connecticut's reluctance to go out once the snow starts to fall.

"We took over and were hit with one of the worst winters here in a long time," she said. "In Wisconsin you go out even in 2 feet of snow; we just drive everywhere there in snow. But here everyone hides and we had to come up with ways to coax people out."

The restaurant has initiated a slew of special seasonal events, ranging from wine dinners with hot air balloon rides to live music on Thursdays and Sundays and tarot card reading on Mondays. A cigar dinner, a bridal show, an outdoor block party and the continued wine series are some of the other special events planned for fall.

But what's a good restaurant without good food? Noel and her husband addressed that by bringing their own chef from Wisconsin, Rob Peotter.

With him came a wonderful recipe for a seasonal cheddar cheese soup that includes a hint of Wisconsin beer; stuffed sole and blackened tuna choices, which have been the restaurant's most popular dishes. Noel and her husband kept the restaurants signature raw bar, with choices that include Oysters Alaska, featuring oysters and smoked salmon with caviar and dill; and the Freedom Tower, with little neck clams, oysters, jumbo shrimp, chilled lobster tail, smoked salmon and sliced rare tuna.

Raw bar platters range from $10 to $69, with salads from $4 to $12 and entrees from $16 to $48.

"We want to make changes gradually," said Noel. "We have added more seafood options as well as filet and ribeye steaks. We liked the menu we inherited but wanted to round it out a bit more and are talking to customers to see what they like or what they would like to see added to the menu."

And they don't have any doubts they did the right thing.

"I think we made the right choices," said Noel. "We have no regrets especially as we get more and more comfortable in our new home and our new business. The community couldn't have been more welcoming, and we are looking forward to a long, successful business and life here."

>>Litchfield Saltwater Grille, 26 Commons Drive, Litchfield, is open Monday from 4 to 9:30 p.m. and Tuesday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Information: 860-567-4900 or litchfieldsaltwatergrille.org