Mystic restaurants bring home the bacon with awards
Local proprietors and eateries took home five of the top prizes in the Connecticut Restaurant Association's Salute to Excellence awards — recognition, they say, of a "food renaissance" in the Mystic area.
Dan Meiser, owner of Oyster Club and co-owner of Engine Room, both in Mystic, was named restaurateur of the year, and his chef at Oyster Club and co-owner at Engine Room, James Wayman, tied for chef of the year in ceremonies held in the Mohegan Sun ballroom Tuesday.
Other Mystic winners include Red 36, voted restaurant newcomer of the year, and Coastal Gourmet, caterer of the year. The Saybrook Point Inn and Spa was named to the Connecticut Hospitality Hall of Fame.
Meiser, who knew he had won in advance of Tuesday night's gathering, was delighted that his chef and business partner took a top award, too.
"We knew he had a really good shot. We know he's one of the most talented chefs in New England, and last night, when that award came back to Mystic, it confirmed for people what we have known for a while," Meiser said on Wednesday.
Both award recipients spoke about the evolving restaurant scene in Mystic, and the restaurant association's acknowledgment of the quality dining experience in the region.
"There has been a food renaissance in southeastern Connecticut, and Mystic in particular," Meiser said, "and I can say with total humility that, since we have opened at Oyster Club, we have helped to spark some of the growth that we have seen in Mystic, particularly the food growth."
The Oyster Club, at 13 Water St. on the Groton side of the Mystic River, opened in September 2011, followed in December 2013 by the Engine Room at 14 Holmes St. on the Stonington side of the river.
Meiser describes the Oyster Club "as farm and sea to table coastal New England cuisine," adding, "We know how special this area is, as far as farms, fishermen and artisans."
"The Engine Room is our take on American comfort food with a focus on the burger, and once again keeping those farms, fishermen and artisans at play," he said.
Both restaurants buy their food locally, including beef from the Beriah Lewis Farm in North Stonington.
"It's all 100 percent locally sourced," said Meiser. "We go through about a steer a week."
For Wayman, who was raised on a farm in North Carolina and took his first job in a restaurant at age 13, the top chef award was the first prize he's won in his 32-year career.
"It's the first trophy at least, and that's really cool, it's a big honor," he said.
Wayman tied for the chef prize with Nicola Mancini of La Tavola in Waterbury.
Sarah Maloney, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, explained the criteria for the restaurateur of the year award. The recipient must be a hands-on operator, involved in and supportive of the restaurant community, philanthropic, and have helped to promote growth in the industry.
"Yes, I'd like to think I do all that," said Meiser, adding, "We both spend most waking hours of our lives in one of our restaurants, or talking about them, or thinking about them."
Both men said while they were the award recipients, in reality the honor belongs to all employees at the Oyster Club and Engine Room.
"We have an incredible team. This is not a solo gig by any means," Wayman said.
"This recognition is really on behalf of our entire restaurant group," Meiser said. "Everybody is part of this success, from management to our hard-working dishwashers. ... Everyone has to be on board, and chasing perfection and having the same vision and work ethic."
Other recipients include: vendor of the year, Rogo Distributors of East Hartford; hospitality hall of fame, Max Restaurant Group of Hartford; friend of the industry, state Sen. Len Fasano; casual restaurant of the year, Plan B Burger Bar; upscale restaurant of the year, Capital Grill in Hartford; server of the year, Julie Francini at Bricco in West Hartford; and mixologist of the year, Mike Knudsen of Hartford Restaurant Group.