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Stonington - Skipper's Dock, the iconic borough restaurant that features spectacular sunset views and a French-inspired seafood menu, will close Oct. 27 and be replaced next year by a new eatery run by a Hudson, N.Y., couple.
Skipper's owner Ainslie Turner said she was informed earlier this year by building owner Bill Griffin, who also owns the adjacent Inn at Stonington, that her lease would not be renewed for 2014.
On Monday afternoon, as customers ate on the outdoor deck overlooking Stonington Harbor, Turner said she has been spending a lot of time answering their questions about the closing.
"It's been very emotional for us. People have been making me cry every day," she said. "I've made so many friends here."
Her son Alex, who has been the bar manager for the past 13 years and grew up on the property when Ainslie and her late husband, Jerry, owned a previous incarnation of Skipper's as well as the equally iconic Harbor View restaurant, said preparing for the upcoming closing has been difficult.
"We have some uncertainty in our future. You get tired of answering the questions," he said.
Alex said that it's the customers and his co-workers, which he described as one big, sometimes dysfunctional family, that made Skipper's special for him.
"That's the thing I'll miss the most," he said.
Turner and her restaurants are synonymous with the borough, according to Kathy Calnen, president of the Borough Merchants Association.
"For many people, Skipper's Dock is the borough," she said.
Calnen said that every year on the first warm day in March, she can count on cars rolling into the borough to enjoy an afternoon at Skipper's.
"People come here and fashion their day around Skipper's Dock. It's really provided an economic anchor in the town," she said. "The Stonington business community will miss Skipper's Dock."
Ainslie Turner's restaurant history in Stonington goes back 45 years to a day in 1969 just after she married Jerry, a Mystic native.
They had just moved to the borough, and Jerry decided to leave his job at the Washington Trust bank and buy the Harbor View restaurant.
Ainslie, who came from a cooking family in Andover, Mass., became the chef, and the young couple with no restaurant experience were on their way.
But two years later, they began to feel the restaurant business was not for them. They closed for the month of November and headed to the Brittany region of France. There, they discovered dishes such as coquilles St. Jacques and bouillabaisse that they could incorporate into the Harbor View seafood menu. They returned to Stonington energized about their restaurant.
Harbor View heydays
The best days for the Harbor View, though, were still to come.
In 1980, the Turners bought the house next door, attached it to the restaurant and turned it into the Harbor View bar, which served a bistro menu, something new to the region. In addition to the French-inspired food, waitresses wore black dresses and white aprons, and dishes were prepared tableside.
The Harbor View soon became the place to go and be seen in the borough. In 1986, the Turners decided to buy Skipper's Dock just behind the Harbor View. They came up with the name from a defunct Noank restaurant where they had dated, and which opened in 1929. They ran both businesses until 1990, when they sold them to some West Hartford investors who later defaulted on their mortgage with the Turners
The Harbor View was destroyed by a 1997 fire and rebuilt as The Inn at Stonington. It was also that year that the Turners took over the former Sailor Ed's building off Route 1 and turned it into the Quiambaug House. Turner said the sprawling complex was just too big to be successful, and they closed it a few years later.
Then, in 2000, Griffin offered them the opportunity to run Skipper's Dock again, and they eagerly accepted. They brought back not only some of the old Harbor View/Skipper's menu items but also some of the old decorations and signs.
"It took off like a shot. People were thrilled to see us back down here," Ainslie recalled.
In January 2002, Jerry Turner died of pancreatic cancer. But Ainslie continued running the eatery the couple had made famous.
On Monday afternoon, Paula Heckman of Branford was eating at Skipper's, something she said she has done every few weeks for the last 15 years.
"This is such a wonderful place, and they are such wonderful people," she said. "It's just sad."
For nostalgic customers wanting a piece of Skipper's, an auction of items in the restaurant is scheduled for Nov. 7.
New owners ahead
Griffin said he has formed a partnership with Jeffrey Gimmel and Nina Bachinsky-Gimmel, who run an award-winning restaurant called Swoon Kitchenbar in Hudson, N.Y. Jeffrey Gimmel was a 2012 semifinalist for Best Chef in the Northeast in the prestigious James Beard awards.
Griffin said he met the couple when they stayed at his inn. They will renovate the Skipper's building and open the new year-round restaurant in April 2014. He described the menu as "New American."
Griffin declined to discuss why he changed restaurant operators.
Borough Warden Jeff Callahan said he and his wife coincidentally ate at Swoon Kitchenbar last week while visiting upstate New York. At the time, he was unaware the Gimmels were planning to open an eatery in the Skipper's location.
"If the restaurant they are opening here is anything like that, it will be a great plan," he said.
Ainslie, meanwhile, said she has been looking for a new restaurant location in the area for the past six months. Although she had not yet found one, she is confident she will.
"I'm not ready to put away my set of knives and go away. I love the hospitality business. I love the people," she said. "I assure you that next Columbus Day weekend, I'll be somewhere clearing tables."
Calnen, of the Borough Merchants Association, won't be surprised if that's the case.
"She's been the master of reinvention over the years," she said of Ainslie Turner. "She always comes back."