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Where Everybody Knows Your ‘Nom de Famille’

Bon Appetit Café has become as much a fixture on the Wilton landscape as Wilton has become an integral part of the ambiance of the neighborhood bistro.

Maybe it was the delicious rosé. Maybe it was that my 6-year-old daughter loved her chicken entrée so much that she said to me, “Mama, I want to hug him, it was that good! But I’m too shy.” Maybe it was that he took really good care of my own mother, who was treating us to dinner.

Whatever it was, sitting in the warmly-lit, romantic Bon Appetit Café, it was like we’d stepped through some magical door from zip code 06897 directly into a neighborhood bistro in a village just outside of Bordeaux or Lyon, France—and we felt right at home. That’s exactly what owner Dominique Arrighi wants you to feel.

“In French, it’s un restaurant de village, un restaurant de quartier.” In English, that translates to ‘the neighborhood restaurant.’

It must be working. A little more than five years after opening his French restaurant in the Stop & Shop plaza, Arrighi has not only expanded his restaurant to double his space, but he also has secured the permits to build additional outdoor eating space with a stone-walled, covered terrace in front of the café. All of which simply adds to the charm you’d never imagine finding in a suburban strip mall.

Choosing Wilton and finding success

“It was par hasard—how do you say it in English…chance. Just like that. I sold Voilà, the restaurant in Fairfield—I was not really looking and I was enjoying myself. But I saw an ad in a newspaper for the space, and I came here, and I loved the area. And I was right to love it. People are nice here. The Wilton clientele are very faithful. There’s a good Francophile community here.”

Even beyond devotees of all things French, Bon Appetit has long had a strong reputation amongst local foodies, winning fans who come back again and again.

“People are loyal, but we are consistent. Sometimes it is better to be mediocre all the time, than to be really good one time and then really bad. We are very above mediocre—the New York Times gave us a ‘Very Good’; you don’t get a ‘Very Good’ in a hole like we had before. To get a ‘Very Good’ with just 20 seats like we had before, you have to do something good,” Arrighi said.

Bon Appetit was ‘hole-like’ with just a handful of tables and cramped quarters, up until late summer. That’s when Arrighi shut down for a few weeks and expanded next door, not only doubling his space but enabling him to create a true bistro-like feel. From the newly installed bar and Parisian tiled floor, to the wispy curtains hanging between the bar tables and open-air kitchen, and the extensive menu of plats du jour chalked on the wall—it all feels very authentic.

Part of what pushed Arrighi to expand was Wilton’s growing restaurant scene. With bar areas in neighboring spots like Bianco Rosso and Cactus Rose, it helped to offer something similar. Plus Bon Appetit always maintained such a steady business, for both lunch and dinner, Arrighi sometimes found himself having to turn away potential customers.

“You have 50 reservations and then 50 walk-ins. Now they can walk in and sit down; before they couldn’t.”

The larger space has also allowed him to vary what he serves, like adding a small selection of tapas plates at the bar. What Arrighi is most excited about now is being open on Sundays, saying that’s when they’ll offer a modified lunch menu all day long in addition to their usual fare. “The reason I do that is because I want to interest families with children, and on this lunch menu they may find a burger, a quiche or a croque monsieur or madame.”

During the week, however, the only kind of burger on the dinner menu is usually something more upscale, as it was the night my mother, my daughter and I ate there. That evening he offered a venison foie gras burger.

“The specials we create, you don’t really find them elsewhere. We serve marrow bones, venison, sweetbreads, we make our own paté, all our own desserts. We make rillete de lapin, we do things that others don’t do. We don’t buy anything premade. We are going to serve tomorrow what we order tonight.”

It’s that exacting attention to his culinary craft that really is the foundation—like the three days it takes Arrighi to make his soupe de poisson (fish soup). “You could make it in two hours. We don’t. You could do it with coloration, you could buy a soup base with MSG. We don’t.”

Everything combines for a special experience

His French honesty isn’t boastful—Arrighi takes a tremendous amount of pride in making people feel welcomed and well-fed. When he realized that the Dorade my mother had ordered was no longer available, his remorse was clear in his desire to not only make sure she didn’t feel slighted, but to turn her experience into something special. My mom can be a tough customer to please, and somehow Arrighi’s deft touch left my mother feeling like what she was served was immensely better than the original dish she’d ordered. There was something personal, crafted and exquisite mixed into the sauce to make it just right.

That’s the extra, magical ingredient Arrighi works hard to always stock on his kitchen shelves:  personal attention and providing the experience of feeling like you’re in your favorite place, even if it’s your first time dining there. The meal will be sublime and you’ll feel well-taken care of, but without pretension.

What he’s aiming for is to provide a familiar, warm feeling of community the moment someone walks in the door—the authenticity of the cuisine, the quality of the food, and the warm ambiance all combine to give customers a memorable experience that is wonderful to revisit again and again.

The sweet irony is that not only has Arrighi created a community, he said he’s also found one since coming to Wilton. Through his experience in working with town officials through all of his expansion plans, as well as the spending his days and nights with his customers, he has enjoyed that same neighborhood experience right here in Wilton that he’d always hoped to offer to others.

“Since I’m here, every department—I don’t want to miss one—the health department, the fire marshall, the police, Town Hall, everybody is really wonderful. The customers, the people in Wilton, I’m really happy here, it’s why I stay here. 

You spell village the same in both French and English, and perhaps that’s a key ingredient in making Bon Appetit such a sure bet. There’s an ease in wanting to spend time in a place that takes good care of you, keeping up with what’s fresh and du jour, or ‘of the day,’ but that also will keep the hallmarks of something steadfast and pure.

In some ways that’s the way I’d describe Wilton to a far-away friend who wanted to know about the place where I live. And it’s also the way I’d describe the kind of experience I find at Bon Appetit.

Bon Appetit Café is located at 5 River Road. (203) 563-9002.

Coachman December 06, 2012 at 01:16 AM
Wonderful restaurant! My husband and i have been loyal patrons since Bon Appetit opened. The food is exceptional and service is great. The owners go out of their way to make your dining experience enjoyable. I love the new bar and tapas menu so we can enjoy the food even when we're not in the mood for a full meal.

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