Cuckoo's Nest turns 40

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Old Saybrook — The name either was homage to a popular 1976 Jack Nicholson movie or a comment on the original owner's sanity for being an Irishman opening a Mexican restaurant in New England, but no matter what the true story is, Cuckoo's Nest has withstood the test of time.

Forty years, to be exact.

Jim Fitzpatrick, the original owner, sold the business in 2013 to two of his key personnel: Heather Emanuelson, previously a manager, and Edmilson "Eddie" Souza, the executive chef. But other than that, little has changed over time except for the prices and expanded menu.

"It works the way it was," said Emanuelson, who started as a waitress 18 years ago. "We didn't want it to be a completely new business."

"We have a family, neighborhood type of place ... We see the same families over and over," added Pete McNeil, a former partner in the business with Fitzpatrick who was lured back after the new owners sought out his help as one of the kitchen's head chefs as well as general manager.

There's something alluring about the festively decorated Cuckoo's Nest, which opened in a 200-year-old barn the same year as the classic film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" hit the movie screens. McNeil started as a 15-year-old dishwasher; Emanuelson started in 1998 and never left, and Souza found his first American job as a dishwasher at the restaurant after emigrating from Brazil in 1993.

The trio suggested the reason for their longevity is tied to the 6,00-square-foot restaurant's own long run: Everyone, including the staff, is treated like family.

"Our staff is amazing," Emanuelson said. "They really care about this restaurant."

And that is a bow to the atmosphere Fitzpatrick originally created, they said. But McNeil also credits the new owners.

"They brought new enthusiasm that the restaurant hasn't seen in a long time," he said. "It's infectious."

The atmosphere includes the same eclectic assortment of decorations on the barn walls — everything from tractor seats and road signs to New York Fire Department ladders and a skeleton from Mexico. A container at the front of the store contains avocado pits that patrons are invited to take to start trees in their own yards.

As for the food, the new owners say they strive for a mix of authentic Mexican dishes and Americanized favorites. Enchiladas are No. 1 in overall popularity, but fajitas sell well, too, Emanuelson said.

"We use fresh and local ingredients," she said.

The restaurant employs about 45 people in the summer, but maintains a staff in the upper 30s year-round as well, said Emanuelson. Two new Mexican restaurants in town, Tequila and Mr. Jalapeno, have opened in the past couple of years, she added, but overall has made little dent in the Cuckoo's Nest business.

"We have a good following here," said Souza.

One new addition that just opened is an outside bar with a courtyard ambiance that has added a little more capacity to the 250-seat restaurant.

The Cuckoo's Nest doesn't officially celebrate its 40th anniversary until Aug. 9, when it will offer its first 40 lunch and dinner guests a chance to eat off the 1976 menu at four-decade-old prices. To give an idea, nachos back then went for $1.60 compared with $8.99 today, and a taco that once cost $1.35 is currently $5.95.

On that day, 40 percent of the sales will go to Old Saybrook Youth & Family Services.

Other specials are planned starting Aug. 1 to thank patrons for their continued loyalty.

"We try to have something for everybody," said Emanuelson.

l.howard@theday.com

What: Cuckoo's Nest Mexican Restaurant

Where: 1712 Boston Post Road, Old Saybrook

Owners: Eddie Souza and Heather Amanuelson

Years in business: 40

Employees: 45

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 8:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sun.

Information: 860-399-9060; cuckoosnest.biz

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