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Cooperative weather, steady gas prices and an improving economy added up to a bustling summer at local food establishments.
"This has been a good summer for restaurants," said Edward Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Tourism District. "We're very pleased with the summer as a whole."
Dombroskas said restaurants are not yet back to sales levels seen before the most recent recession, but anecdotal reports he has heard indicate a renewed confidence in the economy. Travelers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey were arriving in the region with more frequency this year than in the past, he added, perhaps responding to the devastation wrought on beaches to the south during Superstorm Sandy last October.
"Gasoline prices didn't seem to have any effect on travelers this summer," Dombroskas said.
Fuel prices sometimes flirted with the $4 a gallon level during the season, but rarely topped the psychological barrier at most local stations - at least for regular gas.
And while the weather started out hot and sticky in July, Dombroskas added, the past few weeks have been perfect for travel.
"This summer was much, much better than the last two," said Kaitlin Baker-Hewes, managing partner of The Mystic Boathouse restaurant, across from Mystic Aquarium. "People were definitely eating out."
Baker-Hewes said it wasn't just tourists who were driving restaurant sales. For the first time in a while, she said, local patronage was up significantly this summer.
Increased patronage was good for employees as well. While many worked only part time last year, she said, a much higher percentage wound up with full-time paychecks this summer.
Significant increases in foot traffic didn't translate into wide-open wallets, however. Baker-Hewes and others said the average check this summer was virtually unchanged from last season. Parents sipped cheaper beer, kids shared meals and people were still looking for deals, she said.
"The economy's tight," said Anita Goldstein Miller, co-owner of Goldy's Restaurant on Colman Street in New London. "Even people on vacation are watching their dollars."
But Miller said this summer has been better than the past two at Goldy's, boosted by tourists staying at nearby hotels as well as hungry drivers backed up on Interstate 95 during weekend traffic jams.
Mari Kodama, manager of the shoreline Dock & Dine restaurant in Old Saybrook, said sunny skies seen most of the season were a boon to her restaurant, which was devastated during Superstorm Sandy and reopened under a temporary permit in June. "It has not recovered to its peak, but it has been a good summer," Kodama said.
The restaurant, reduced in size, relied largely on outdoor seating space because much of the building could not be repaired in time for the season.
Kodama said the restaurant will close after the Columbus Day holiday in October. The old building will be razed and a new Dock & Dine - high above the water to comply with new regulations - will be erected in its place, with a planned opening next spring.
Restaurants such as Dev's on Bank in New London that don't rely on summer tourism may not have seen much of a boost this season. The summer is usually slow at the Bank Street restaurant, said owner Candace Devendittis, since it has no outdoor dining option and many of her patrons are away on vacation.
But Devendittis said she noticed a small bump in her business a little over a week ago after Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio spoke about New London's welcoming attitude toward the gay community.
She said members of the gay community in cities as farflung as Gloucester, Mass., and Hartford heard about New London and wanted to check out the city's welcoming attitude.
"There was an immediate pickup in activity," Devendittis said. "The gay community has always been here. It's a heavy core of my business."
What: Eastern Connecticut Tourism District unveils two new Mystic Country trails: Foodie Finds and Pet-Friendly
Also: The Antiques Trail and Sundae Drives trails have been revised and updated
Where: Harry's Place, 104 Broadway, Colchester
When: 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10