[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on Darien Patch.]
Much of the food at , the new restaurant that Corey Ambrose is opening in early April, comes from ethical farmers and butchers with whom Ambrose has developed relationships, even friendships.
Other friendships, with artists, led to the paintings and artwork on the walls. And when the small eatery opens sometime in the week of April 9, Ambrose wants friendships and warm relationships with somebody else: you -- because he wants to make you a regular customer.
Working for Darien restaurateurs at and Lock, Stock & Barrel, Ambrose said, he learned some valuable lessons.
"It was the hug -- greeting people with enthusiasm," he said. Once you get to know an individual customers and know what he or she likes, you can keep them pleased and coming back for more.
"For some people, it's a big New York steak -- for others, it's a bowl of soup," he said. "Estia's gives us an opportunity to have a platform to do that."
will serve breakfast and lunch when it opens the week of April 9, Ambrose said.
His start in Darien
Ambrose, a Long Island resident, came by his ideas about how to do business from restaurateurs here in Darien, where his family moved in 1978. He got his first job at age 17, working for George Lysle at Lock, Stock, a restaurant (once located in the Goodwive's Shopping Plaza, roughly where is now). He also worked for Patrick Donahue, then owner of .
Lysle taught him to try to think like a business owner, even when he was a teenage employee. But Donahue, especially, "was the example I wanted to follow as a restaurateur. He's a dynamic man. He has a passion about what he does. He has a passion about people. Patrick is about community. He embraces everyone who works with him."
After getting a degree in advertising design and later worked for Top Shelf, a trade publication for restaurants. In 1990, he wanted to run his own restaurant, and he was able to afford a Greek coffee shop in Amagansett in the Hamptons area of Long Island. ("Estia" is a Greek spelling of the goddess of the hearth, Hestia, a symbol of hospitality, he said.) The place already had its permits, and it was organized, he said, making it a good place to start.
Mexican for breakfast
In 1998, Ambrose branched out to Sag Harbor, NY, buying Tony's Coffee Shop and turning it into Estia's Little Kitchen. In another change, Mexican food was added to the menus of both restaurants, and the one in Amaganset was renamed "Estia's Cantina." He later sold that original restaurant in 2006.
"The application of Mexican flavors to breakfast, especially, was something not a lot of people were doing," he said -- but it worked with customers, and he'll have Mexican breakfasts at Estia's American, too.
At (and earlier at Estia's in Amagansett), Ambrose has had a garden where he grows vegetables for the restaurant. He said he hoped to find enough acreage in this area where an Estia's American garden could put down roots.
Ambrose wants the food for his restaurants grown without pesticides, although he says he can't stand using the word "organic," because there's been so many lies in the food industry, claiming food is organic when it isn't.
"There ought to be another word that says I don't put pesticides or anything to kill bugs on my plants -- but there isn't," he said.
Even while running his own restaurants, Ambrose did other work. He was executive chef for Le Gourmet Chef, a national kitchenware chain, in 2008 and 2009. He ran a steakhouse in Sagaponack, another community in the Hamptons.
Much of the pasta to be served at Estia's Ambrose himself makes (after learning in a class taught by Joseph Bruno of in South Norwalk).
Ambrose also took a class in butchery at Fleischer's in Kingston, NY, although he plans to get much of his ground beef and other meat from in Westport and from a longtime friend and former Darien resident Joe "Pags" Pagliarulo.
Pagliarulo, a 1976 Darien High School graduate, said he never thought when he was a student at Mather Junior High, looking at the murals of Darien farmers, that he'd later be one, himself. But his wife's family handed down a disused farm in southwestern Pennsylvania, and he started an organic farm there.
Now he'll be supplying grass-fed, USDA-certified organic beef for the restaurant of his old friend, Colin Ambrose, in their old home town. Berkshire pork (a heritage breed), may come later.
Ambrose expects to have plenty of specials from day to day. On Monday's he may have a variety of burgers -- lamb beef burgers; beef-bacon burgers; dry, aged steak burgers, for instance. Specials might be tuna burgers, turkey burgers, vegetarian burgers and half-priced draft beers. On Taco Tuesdays, he may offer five or six tacos at half price. Wednesdays could be shellfish from in Norwalk.
"Chops and loins are going to be prime price; tacos will be approachable," he said. The restaurant will have a variety of food at higher and lower prices.
Sidebar: The Fare
A describes some of the food to be offered:
"[B]reakfast includes; the Cajun omelet with andouille, tomato, onion and peppers; buttermilk pancakes with banana, blueberry, or apple; Big Al’s Burrito with toasted flour tortilla rolled with egg whites, veggie burger, mixed vegetables and jack cheese; house made granola; and hearty breakfast bowls such as the spinach and mushroom hash with organic brown rice and two eggs.
"Lunch specialties run the gamut from crab cakes with vida slaw and lemon and a grilled shrimp quesadilla with, cilantro, pepper and jack cheese, to the 8-grain BLT with avocado and cole slaw and 'PRD’s' sliced steak sandwich with arugula, blue cheese, and grilled onion.
"Estia’s famous 'A’s Pop Breakfast Bowl' consists of chicken, organic red quinoa, egg whites veggies and avocado. Salads are seasonal and fresh, with lots of textural and flavor contrasts. 'Mary Ellen’s Salad' is a healthful mélange of avocado, beets, garbanzo beans, spinach and feta, and the chili chicken taco salad with greens, beans, corn, corn chips and sour cream is a customer favorite. There are always chalkboard specials, tacos of every kind, and soups for the soul. [...]
"Dinner [includes] American made beer, spirits and wine varietals make up the beverage program. Creative cocktails are chef centric and even the bottled water is filtered / carbonated in-house. The global dinner menu has an exceptional fondness for Mexican cuisine as seen with the local, free range pork tamale with chili sauce and sweet corn, the Mexican sweet corn soup with tortilla strips and touch of sour cream, and the mole lamb shank with fall greens and sweet potato puree."
The space, at the back end of the 1020 building that also leases to , has room for about three dozen seats indoors and about as many in the patio during warm weather.
Ambrose plans to keep the restaurant open day and night, with breakfast and lunch served starting the week of April 9, and dinner service starting in early May. Late at night, he wants the small bar open, not as a major venue, but with a relatively small clientele of regulars. He may have acoustic music.
Shelves of books will be part of the restaurant's decor, "not so much for people to read as to catch noise," he said. They'll also add some color to the place, and -- along a partition near the center of the restaurant, they'll add some privacy.
Customers will be able to have water filtered and carbonated by Estia's American, itself, Ambrose said.
Not just the food is hand-crafted
To go along with the food coming from Ambrose's farmers, diners will have original artwork to gaze at, created by Ambrose's artist friends.
All of the beach pictures are by Jim Gingerich, an artist Ambrose has been buying pictures from for a quarter of a century. One picture depicts Ambrose's own children, and all of Gingerich's work in the restaurant shows Gibson Beach in South Hampton.
On one wall, artwork by Ross Watts depicting an American flag is made out of a set of books. "I conceptualized the piece, and he took my thoughts and made it here," Ambrose said.
He also has tiles behind the bar depicting George Washington crossing the Delaware. They were created by Patton Miller, who "has done a tile installation in every restaurant I've ever owned," Ambrose said.
Another artist, Evan Thomas, also has a work in the restaurant.
"His mother," Ambrose said, "was my first regular customer."
1020 Post Road, Brick Walkway