The Best Burger Joint in Connecticut Stands Beneath an Interstate
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because places like these are no longer a dime a dozen.
By Dan Peleschuk
Peter Aitkin had long wondered exactly how to describe his burger, booze and seafood joint in Westport, Connecticut. Nestled discreetly underneath an Interstate 95 overpass, the wood-paneled Black Duck bears greater resemblance to a bait-and-tackle shop, propped up clumsily against the Saugatuck River where it spills into the Long Island Sound. Yet it’s also a stone’s throw away from the high-end boutiques, pricey eateries and manicured lawns that make this city one of America’s wealthiest and most desirable places to live.
Then, one day, Aitkin overheard a customer on the pay phone in the corner of the down-home establishment— where the floor veers slightly downward — enticing his friend to stop by. “Well,” the customer said, “it’s kind of a blue-collar bar in a white-collar town.” Bingo, he thought. “We definitely see more blue jeans in here than suits,” Aitkin says.
Opened in 1978, the Black Duck is a testament to different times. Named after a famous Prohibition-era rumrunner, it harks back to the days when Fairfield County had more than just a few pockets of working-class grit. But as Connecticut’s so-called Gold Coast has grown ever more exclusive over the years, humble joints like these have gradually shuttered. And that’s exactly why it deserves a visit.
Well, that and the $5 Clam Jam.
Sidle up to the bar — elbow to elbow with patrons who’ve been coming here for years — and listen to folks riff about work, family or the daily humdrum. Grab one of a dozen beers on tap and gaze out at boaters trolling up and down the Saugatuck River. Then order any one of the easy-on-the-wallet starters: The $8 jalapeño poppers and dozen-clam plate, served with an abundance of herbs and butter, are my favorites. When you’re ready, move on to the $20 Davy Jones Burger, a deliciously beefy patty topped with lobster meat. A steep price? Maybe. But the burger’s cooked to damn-near perfection, with chewy and — this is important — un-rubbery lobster meat that tastes like it’s straight out of the sound. Because it is.
Its resilience — the Black Duck has survived hurricanes, flooding and threats of closure — seems to be part of its charm.
In between, listen to the delightfully irreverent bartenders hold court with their equally banter-happy clients.
While places like these might’ve been a dime a dozen decades ago, they’ve been dropping like flies amid the seemingly unending stream of wealth that’s continuing to wash over the region. Case in point: Between 2011 and 2016, Fairfield County sprouted the fastest-growing wealth gap between the top 1 percent and the middle class of any metro region in the country. This year, Bloomberg ranked Westport, where the average annual household income tops $304,000, as the 18th richest American city. Yet its resilience — the Black Duck has survived hurricanes, flooding and threats of closure — seems to be part of its charm. It’s partly why 56-year-old Jeff Callahan, who’s been rolling his Harley up to the Black Duck from its earliest days, says it’s not just another bar. “It’s like a conversation piece,” he says.
Charming or not, Aitkin has learned not to expect smooth sailing. While he loves the business, the stress of running it is readily apparent. He’s found ways to cope with local competition and serves up patties that are a few ounces larger and pours drinks generously. But when asked what he might tell curious entrepreneurs looking to open a cozy, down-home joint like the Black Duck around these parts, his reply is simple: “Don’t do it.”
Still, he concedes that the several hundred people he estimates truly love the Black Duck — in other words, a tiny minority of the city’s 26,000 residents — would be devastated if it shuttered. “I don’t know if you want to call us a hidden gem,” he says, “but we’re hidden.”
- Dan Peleschuk, OZY AuthorContact Dan Peleschuk