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New London - It's just another Friday lunchtime crowd at Muddy Waters Café, and Alec Leshy is playing the piano, Paul Reutenauer is thumbing through a photo retrospective of New London and Paul Pruett is waiting on an order to bring back to his pals at Electric Boat in Groton.
Just like nearly any other lunchtime at Muddy Waters for the past decade, the place is packed, and you never know who you might run into - business leaders, judges, cops, construction workers, or maybe even the governor. But you know you're always going to find at least one of the co-owners, Susan Devlin and Barry Neistat, taking orders or delivering food. And on this day there is an extra bonus: a birthday cake celebrating the coffeehouse's 10th anniversary.
"I love it. It's just adorable," says Kittie Henry, grabbing some food and looking around before heading off for a ferry ride with daughter Lorrie Cole.
Pruett, who says he "is not regular enough" in his patronage of Muddy Waters because he works in Groton, says he enjoys the downtown restaurant for its jalapeno bacon BLT as well as the Love Salad.
"They have good portions," he says. "I love the place."
Reutenauer, another EB worker, says he enjoys the music at the café, which often harkens back to the 1940s and '50s.
"There's not many places like this around," Reutenauer says. "This place should be here for a long time. It's just got that strong base to the past, and they put out unbelievable food."
Helen Sandall, a retired attorney who spent many years in San Francisco, says she loves Muddy Waters for its constant swirl of people from all walks of life.
"It's just so ... it's unpredictable, every part of this place," Sandall says.
The one predictable part of Muddy Waters over the past decade is the constant presence of Devlin, daughter of local restaurateur legend Hughie Devlin, and Neistat, who is in the restaurant-supply business and operated Thames Crockery in the building for several years. Neistat, whose family has owned the building at 42 Bank St. since 1941, started Muddy Waters on his own after the failure of a previous coffeehouse called Mugz and the inability to rent out the space, which years before had been the First Whaling Bank of New England.
Neistat named the restaurant Muddy Waters not in recognition of the famed bluesman of the same name but because "mud" is slang for coffee and the building oversaw the waters of the Thames River. A few weeks after starting the coffeehouse, he met his future wife, Devlin, and she soon became a fixture at the front of the house dealing with customers, leaving Neistat to handle vendors and make sure people were being served promptly.
"The most fun is the people we meet," Neistat says.
Book clubs, religious groups, playgroups, service organization and professional groups are among those who meet regularly at Muddy Waters. Politicians arrive in the morning, Neistat said, to mull over the latest local news, and the coffeehouse is a favored stop for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney.
They come for the coffee, delivered by local companies Mystic Roasters and Ashlawn Farms, and for the large portions of fresh food that include the famed Love Salad, a recipe that Devlin brought over from her dad's former Hughie's Restaurant, which was forced out by the Fort Trumbull redevelopment project. Devlin said she never worked at Hughie's until just before it closed, but she has brought over a number of recipes from her dad's place while supplementing them with some of her own.
Neistat is particularly proud of the recent Certificate of Excellence bestowed on the café by Trip Advisor based on customers' reviews.
"People go back to a restaurant with good food," Neistat says. "You have to be consistent."