The Spotted Horse Tavern in Westport is elevated comfort food

You want to go out to dinner. Are you tired of eating at home? maybe the pantry is empty; it may be your turn to provide and there is no time. You want something that isn’t a big meal but isn’t casual either; it must be a place with a full bar, lots of menu choices, and if you’re lucky, cloth napkins.

There are restaurants like this in every city – sometimes just one or two, sometimes too many to count. The menu always includes burgers, salads and sandwiches. The prices are reasonable. There are often tacos and pizzas, although they are not real taquerias and pizzerias. The cloth napkins are accompanied by a selection of starters: steak, chicken, salmon and refined pasta.

Wines can be ordinary or carefully selected. There is always beer and sometimes local beers on tap. The ambiance is generally dark paneled. A long-serving staff is a sign of a busy, well-run establishment – a good place to work and earn a living. Customers greet each other, and servers or manager also suggest continuity and community.

I bet you can think of several places like this that you love and have visited recently.

The Spotted Horse Tavern in Westport is a good example. Lately we’ve been for both a quiet weeknight dinner and a busy Sunday brunch. The historic building is paneled with barn siding adorned with oversized horse portraits. A fireplace brightens up the dining room. A lively horseshoe-shaped bar attracts regulars. The extensive menu hits all the bases with style and flair. Even the standards are executed with care: well prepared and attractively presented.

The juicy burger ($15.95), for example, includes homemade pickles and their own Russian dressing. A pizzetta ($13.95) is topped with pistachios, montrachet cheese, mushrooms, red onion and truffle-infused honey, an appealing blend of salty and sweet on a mushroom base. The Street Corn Blackened Chicken Tacos ($14.95) were a dinnertime hit, loaded with guacamole and chipotle mayonnaise topped with corn salsa – a little messy like a taco should be. The chicken in the savory KFC sandwich ($14.95) was sealed in crispy Korean-style batter and dressed with cucumber, papaya-mango salad and kim-chi aioli. Thimble Islands American Ale was perfect to wash it down.

Late on a Monday evening, just before the kitchen closed, the restaurant was dark and quiet. Sunday for the group, on the other hand, the sun entered by the many windows. Each table was occupied by a mix of families, couples and friends gathered together. The energy was good as more than enough uniformed personnel bustled about.

“The Remedy,” for brunch at the Spotted Horse, is corned beef hash, poached eggs, cheddar biscuits, all under a ladle of hollandaise sauce.

Frank Whitman / For Connecticut Media Group

Brunch is not the time to eat light, so I gave up, even before scanning the menu. There’s a lot of carryover from the regular menu, but my eye was caught by the Spotted Brunch Plates. Benedicts, omelettes, and French toast shared space with chicken and waffles and steak and eggs. When I told Marsha I was ordering “The Remedy” ($13.95) – corned beef hash, poached eggs, cheddar biscuits, all under a ladle of Hollandaise sauce – she replied, “Of course that you are”. It was a satisfying remedy for my brunch cravings. Her delicious frittata ($13.95) with tomato, asparagus, mushrooms and arugula looked like it was eating well, but with gouda and pesto Hollandaise sauce, it was an illusion. The coffee, a key part of the brunch, was aromatic and full bodied, made to order I guess.

The Dry Dock Bar and Grill in Norwalk has a forty year track record of serving a neighborhood crowd.

The Dry Dock Bar and Grill in Norwalk has a forty year track record of serving a neighborhood crowd.

Frank Whitman / For Connecticut Media Group

Each city has its own casual restaurants, each with its own style. In Norwalk, for example, The Dry Dock Bar and Grill has forty years of experience serving a neighborhood crowd, BJ Ryans in town is known for its great burgers, and the Sedona Taphouse offers local beers on tap. Each one is unique but fits within the framework of the comfortable and relaxed restaurants that we all love and depend on.

Frank Whitman writes a weekly food column called “Not Bread Alone”. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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