Eat, Drink and be Merry
My old man spent most of his working life in the wholesale booze business, making calls on restaurants, bars and liquor stores. He liked to throw back a few with his customers, but I only saw him completely intoxicated on a few occasions — all of which ended badly for me, a mouthy and obnoxious teenager. He’d chase after me with a belt or a wooden spoon or whatever else he could get his hands on, but he was big and fat, and if I got a good running start, I could leap over the fence in our backyard and stay out of his sight until he sobered up.
He didn’t like the nasty, foul-tongued lout he became when he drank too much, so he usually kept a wary distance from the bottle. An alcoholic, he said, was someone who had a complete personality change after drinking too much — and who liked his drunk personality better. He always cited a family friend who was drab and timid sober but after several cocktails would belt out blues songs and wail at the moon. My parents didn’t mind the off-key singing, but one boozy night she substituted my mother’s good embroidered hand towels for toilet paper and became persona non grata for life.
In my own drinking days, I was fascinated by how saloons underwent personality changes, too. In the daylight hours, a bar might seem morbidly quiet, dirty and forlorn — only to transform into a brazen cabaret after nightfall, with sultry lighting, rollicking music and the seductive tinkle of glasses underscoring rowdy laughter. But after last call, when the patrons stumbled home and the lights went up, the place would be dingy again, like Cinderella after the magic spell has worn off.
In the case of Westport’s new Bistro 303, the personality change between lunch and the cocktail hour isn’t nearly that extreme — it’s a classy little joint on both sides of the clock — but at a certain point, food becomes an afterthought.
During the day, the sunny dining room is a comfortable lunch venue with a simple but elegant menu. By dusk, that menu has been tucked away and the granite-topped tables and copper-sheathed bar are lit up by twinkling votive candles. A tiny blackboard at one end of the bar lists four or five appetizer plates and at least one dessert. By 9 p.m., food service is over and the square room echoes with a cacophony of laughter and clinking ice cubes, the occasional loud vulgarity exploding through the madness like a firecracker: “I told her,” yelled one young, perfectly coifed boy at the bar, “that she was nothing but a fucking bitch.”
My friend David looked up as he spread a layer of chicken liver pâté across a bite-sized crostini and wondered, “Do you think he’s talking about a boy or a girl?”
At Bistro 303, anything is possible. In the evening, there aren’t many femmes fatales at the bar. That didn’t seem to bother our friend Jennifer one bit, because she — and her attractive, fur-trimmed black ensemble — got plenty of attention from the bartender, the owner and almost everyone else. Ditto for the pretty redhead carrying a purse that looked like a coal miner’s zinc lunch pail. She and I had the same epiphany about that night’s jazz soundtrack, created by daytime bartender and waiter Jon Fitzgerald: It sounded like bump-and-grind stripper music.
I had visions of a burlesque queen popping out of a closet near the bar. The redhead and her boyfriend pointed to a square niche above the entrance to the back hallway. “A really tiny stripper up there!” they said in unison.
Alas, the niche holds a painted plaque dating back to Louis VIII. Along with the tall mirrors tucked into French doorway moldings and tiny arrangements of fresh flowers, it’s one of the many tasteful touches provided by Bistro 303’s owners, antiques guru Gene Switzer and his partner, Jeff Schmitz. They also kept a few significant assets from Metropolis, the jewel-box boîte that previously occupied this site: the black china, the square glassware, the heavy flatware and, most significant, chef Paul Mullins. Out went the red walls, the black carpet, the haughty attitude. Oh, there’s still a distinctive attitude here, but it’s less about snobbery and more about joie de vivre. Schmitz is as comfortable talking about KU basketball as he is the latest squabbles among A-list gays, who so pack the place on weekends that he’s stopped serving food on Friday and Saturday nights — it was impossible to carry plates across the room.
At lunch, though, the place attracts a mixed crowd to its handful of tables. In fact, it appears as if most of the diners are straight and not quite sure if this so-called bistro is really a restaurant or some highfalutin martini bar. The irony is that despite the posh décor, one can eat pretty royally for about the same as it costs in the diner across the street.
Particularly notable are Mullins’ two signature sandwiches. On the 303 Club, he piles slices of turkey, bacon, soft brie and lettuce on slabs of toasted sourdough bread. Even better is a pillowy focaccia slathered with a briny olive tapenade and heaped with smoked chicken breast, chevre and pesto aioli. The day I shared those sandwiches with my friend Oliver, we also split an order of rich mushroom risotto, which was so creamy that I didn’t have room for dessert. Oliver, however, polished off a ramekin of satiny crème brûlée.
On another lunch visit, Lou Jane, Jamie and I shared a small pizza blanketed in bubbling white cheeses (provolone, mozzarella, and just enough salty feta to give it a nice kick). Our house salads came liberally laden with slices of ripe pears and crunchy hazelnuts, but the croque monsieur sandwich needed better bread and more Dijon on top of all that ham and cheese. We all tasted that day’s desserts — warm peach-and-pecan strudel and a silken pot de crème made with the darkest of chocolate custard. (The latter reminded me of the Marquis de Sade in his Bastille prison cell, demanding “chocolate … black as the devil’s ass.”)
The following week, I returned at night for appetizers, drinks and cigarettes with David and Jennifer, who liked the sensual combination of sweet Manhattan cocktails followed by salty “cigars” made of deep-red prosciutto wrapped around Gorgonzola cheese. I thought Mullins’ fried potato gnocchi looked more like Parmesan-dusted pellets than like the traditional dumplings — I swallowed a whole handful as if I were Neely O’Hara gulping down a fistful of dolls.
We watched as the bar came to life over two hours, though not many patrons were eating as much as we were. David had been extolling the virtues of a “fried platter” (fried pickles, fried cauliflower and waffle fries) at a certain trashy bar downtown, but he had to backpedal when the artfully composed plates of chicken-liver pâté and butternut-squash tartlets arrived. “Well, this place is much classier,” he said. “You wouldn’t expect to find fried pickles here.”
But Schmitz confessed to us that he likes fried pickles, so who knows what could happen as the appetizer menu evolves (or devolves). He’s brimming with ideas, such as a Sunday breakfast fundraiser with local performers serving the pancakes — possibly in drag. At the rate it’s going, Bistro 303 could wind up with more personalities than Sybil. But as long as they’re as fun and interesting as the current two, I say the more the merrier.