Published June 01. 2014 4:00AM Updated June 02. 2014 10:35AM
Jeff Gimmel didn't think twice when asked if he'd be interested in opening a waterfront restaurant in Stonington borough.
"There are so few places on the water, facing the sunset, on the East Coast," Gimmel said.
On May 5, he opened Swooner with his wife, Nina Bachinsky-Gimmel, in the property formerly occupied by Skipper's Dock at 66 Water St.
"There's no better place. The magic of this place is the setting," said the 44-year-old restaurateur, who has operated his other dining establishment, Swoon Kitchenbar in Hudson, N.Y., since 2004.
Jeff and Nina Gimmel had been visiting Stonington borough for almost a decade when they learned in January 2013 that the lease for the property overlooking Stonington Harbor was available.
The Gimmels - regular guests at the Inn at Stonington, owned by Bill Griffin and Charles Royce, who also own the restaurant property - were approached about the possibility of taking over the space and opening up a new restaurant when they visited for a couple of days in the thick of winter.
"I said to Nina, 'Let's go to Stonington for the weekend and get some seafood and look at the cold water,'" recalled Gimmel, of how the opportunity presented itself.
For the restaurant-operating couple, "a weekend" was more of a Tuesday-Thursday midweek getaway, but the time off was just as coveted.
When Gimmel went downstairs at the inn to get coffee one morning, he said he was approached by an employee who asked if he had heard that the Skipper's Dock lease was up.
"I didn't even know they (Griffin and Royce) owned the property," Gimmel recalled, and added that when he was asked if he would like to speak to Bill Griffin about the opportunity of leasing it, he jumped at the chance.
"Yes, of course, it's a wonderful location. They don't get better than that," he recalls saying.
"It was all very serendipitous," he said.
Later, when Gimmel and Griffin were hashing out details of the agreement, Gimmel showed his new partner the screensaver on his laptop - a photograph Gimmel had taken of a sunset off the deck of his new restaurant.
"I've taken many of my own pictures of sunsets off this deck in the last eight or nine years," said Gimmel, explaining that he and his wife frequently dined at Skipper's Dock and enjoyed the meals and the view there.
The owners of Skipper's Dock - longtime and popular restaurateur Ainslie Turner and her son, Alex - learned in 2013 that the property owners would not renew their lease for this year. Gimmel said he met Ainslie Turner briefly on one of his visits and told her how much he enjoyed dining at Skipper's Dock and wished her well in the future.
But Gimmel was ready to introduce a new restaurant to Stonington borough.
After extensive work and renovations on the property, Gimmel and his wife are serving dinner, and soon, lunch, too, at Swooner. Over the winter, they gutted and rebuilt the old kitchen, and refurbished much of the rest of the property. Patrons who have visited the property in the past will find it brighter, whiter and more open to the sky and water.
"We lightened the place up, and tried to bring the natural beauty from outdoors into the restaurant," Gimmel said.
Cuisine at Swooner is modern American food, or what Gimmel described as "sourcing the best local ingredients and presenting them in a way to accentuate the freshness and only add to the product we started with."
Main dishes run $19 to $28, with most soups and salads in the high singles, and snacks and small plates averaging $7 to $11. The raw bar has offerings from a single serving to platters for a big crowd.
Gimmel said they're still tweaking the menu and will be making seasonal changes and offering daily specials.
Outdoor deck is popular
Gimmel attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Providence, and later studied with acclaimed chef Roger Verge at Le Moulin de Mougins in the south of France. Gimmel has worked in Newport, Manhattan and Nantucket, and he and his wife, a celebrated pastry chef, have studied cheese-making in upstate New York and viniculture in New Zealand.
Now they are focused on their latest venture in Stonington. Swooner is open every night but Tuesday, and there are plans to begin serving lunch later in June or early July.
The dining room seats about 50 and the bistro-bar area another 36, but it's the outdoor space, open seasonally, that's always been a big draw at the property.
There is seating for 100 on the deck, and an additional 20 bar stools in an outdoor cocktail area set along a railing.
The 200-foot dock - newly rebuilt after Superstorm Sandy - is still free for boaters who want to tie up and come inside for dinner or cocktails.
"People are more than welcome to come in their shorts and flip-flops, we are not upscale," Gimmel said. "We want people to come for the great food, great atmosphere and be comfortable."
He's hired Tyler Viggiano as Swooner's chef de cuisine and Jake Crittenden to oversee the front of the house. Both have worked with the Gimmels in the past and have impressive credentials in the restaurant world. In addition, Swooner is already employing 75 full- and part-time workers, a number that is expected to grow to more than 100 later this summer.
Gimmel said Swooner is "taking baby steps," finding out what works and what can be improved upon.
"We're not going to overextend, we want to do things right, we're trying to figure out what customers are looking for," he said.
He and his wife are devoting almost all of their time to Swooner, and have rented a place in the borough.
"The restaurant business has to be something you are passionate about. It is such hard work and long hours. There are a lot of easier ways to earn a living," Gimmel said, adding, "It is a passion for both of us."