Surf and Turf

O nce upon a time, beginning just after the Civil War, the West Haven shoreline harbored one of the most popular warm-weather resorts in New England, Savin Rock Amusement Park. With luxury hotels, theaters, fine dining spots and carnival rides, it became a prime destination for vacationing elite and day-tripping middle-classers.

The good times lasted until the 1960s, when the park succumbed to the forces of urban redevelopment. In winter 2015, one of the only outward reminders of its existence is Jimmies. Now in its 90th year, this stalwart comfort-food restaurant claims to be the oldest continually operating business in West Haven.

Established in 1925 as a modest little hot dog cart operated by Vincenzo “Jimmie” Gagliardi—a contemporary of Frank Pepe, who opened his Pizzeria Napoletana on New Haven’s Wooster Street that same year—Jimmies initially gained fame by emphasizing the “fast” in fast food. Its signature became the split hot dog: a frankfurter split open and grilled lengthwise that could be bunned, topped with condiments and served in a flash—or, at least, much more speedily than the average cooked dog.

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A fail-safe draw for West Haven’s trolley commuters of the day—who’d debark at the Savin Rock train stop, pick up a quick meal and then re-board the trolley before it departed—Jimmies’s franks eventually acquired their own celebrity chef. Tony DeLuca, a hotdogger much admired for his displays of speed in front of waiting patrons, had one drawback: a short fuse. “His anger management problem only really came out when he was slowed down,” says James Gagliardi. “So customers tried to slow him down on purpose to see what would happen. We ended up giving out a lot of free lunches in those days.”

Jimmies is also credited, in some quarters, with inventing the hot lobster roll. Not long after the business was bought out by Vincenzo’s son Sal—1940 or thereabouts—Sal’s wife Rose came up with the idea. According to her granddaughter, Lisa Gagliardi (pictured second), Rose hosted a private party that left her with a surplus of leftover lobster. “She didn’t know what to do with it,” says Lisa. “So she de-shelled the lobsters, put the meat in a big pot with butter and brought it to the restaurant, where everyone debated how to serve it.” The answer—over a simple hot dog roll—has defined this distinctly Connecticutian treat ever since.

Over its first half-century, Jimmies evolved into a highly popular Coney Island-style seafood shack/drive-in that sorely tried the patience of West Haven town officials. “We used to be the kind of place where people ate in their cars and threw their trash out the windows,” says James, “which meant that the wind would carry Jimmies bags halfway across town, even though we had crews cleaning up our parking lot three to four times a day.”

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The lot also hosted plenty of memorable customer skuffles. “During the ’60s, we were frequented by some interesting groups,” he says. “One night, we had the Hell’s Angels on one side of the parking lot, the Ku Klux Klan on the other and a bus from Bridgeport driving in with a group of visiting African-Americans. I remember a West Haven policeman running towards our door yelling, ‘Close! Close!’”

Converted into a full-service restaurant in 1974, Jimmies has changed very little since. The grey clapboard building, situated on Rock Street off Captain Thomas Boulevard, can accommodate several hundred diners, who choose from a broad menu (including grilled, deep-fried and Italian fare) that remains the same year-round. Lisa Gagliardi, who’s been the restaurant’s manager for more than two decades, says this consistency is what customers love. Even the slightest change can provoke complaints, like serving side salads—a favorite with diners, she says, because they include cheese—in anything but Jimmies’ customary brown bowls.

The food is always fresh and homemade, never pre-processed or frozen, I’m told. “Nothing comes out of a box,” says Lisa’s brother Steve. French fries are made with the same Hobart machine that has washed, peeled and cut potatoes since 1973. Hot dogs still feature the classic Jimmies blend of beef and pork. Lobsters are brought in from Maine, shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, clams from Maryland and oysters from beds established nearby in Long Island Sound. Steaks and prime rib are hand-cut. “We even cut and bread our own fried mozzarella,” Lisa says.

The restaurant’s decor has remained consistent, too, from its tiki bar in front to the memorabilia and artwork that celebrates the history of Savin Rock. Jimmies’s most striking feature is its back wall, sporting booth-to-ceiling glass panels allowing diners to drink in beautiful ocean views. But nothing has proven more reliable than the staff, which is still mostly Gagliardis. Now dominated by the family’s fourth generation—including Lisa, Steve and cousin James—Jimmies has begun employing their children, the oldest of whom work to pay for their college textbooks, while the youngest fill water glasses and act as dining room hosts.

Recent years have been an increasing struggle. While the restaurant once routinely welcomed at least 3,000 customers a day—who braved three-hour waits on the weekends—nowadays, such crowds only turn up on family holidays like Mother’s and Father’s Day. (Jimmies prides itself on being closed only two days every year, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Even 1985’s Hurricane Gloria and 2011’s Irene failed to shut it down.) Though it’s lost clientele to the family restaurant chains proliferating on nearby Boston Post Road, it still inspires deep loyalty. “People who have moved away call us from all over—California, South Carolina, Florida— begging us to send them our food,” Lisa says.

Lately, she’s toyed with the idea of opening a second restaurant, perhaps even going “back in time” and establishing a small, old-fashioned hot-dog stand. But her main goal is to see Jimmies make it to 100. “That would be awesome.”

Awesome, indeed, for a restaurant that, once upon a time, was dwarfed by the grandeur that was Savin Rock—and is now the keeper of its legacy.

Jimmies of Savin Rock
5 Rock St, West Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs & Sun 11am-9:30pm, Fri-Sat 11am-10:30pm
(203) 934-3212

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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A former senior editor at Connecticut Magazine, Pat Grandjean is a cultural omnivore who loves everything from Beck and “Doc Martin” to Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino. She currently spends much of her free time volunteering at the New Haven Animal Shelter and cleaning apartment closets.

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