STONINGTON — Don’t ask John Papp about any details from the day he opened his restaurant 40 years ago at the corner of Church and Water streets in Stonington Borough.
All he remembers is that he had worked 20 hours a day for two weeks to get ready for the Aug. 10, 1979, opening, renovating what was then called the Port Side. And he remembers cooking nonstop in the tiny kitchen of the restaurant, which a few months later was renamed Noah’s. The street names gave Papp the idea for the name.
“It was mobbed,” said his wife of 12 years, Debbie Papp, during an interview Friday morning at the bustling restaurant where waitresses served hot plates of blueberry pancakes and bakers pulled trays of bread from ovens in the recently renovated 900-square-foot kitchen.
“We’ve had wonderful support from the community,” said Papp, who at 72 is transitioning out of the restaurant business, eventually leaving the day-to-day operations to his new partner, his wife’s son-in-law, Andrew Field.
“Andrew is bringing fresh eyes,” Papp said. “He has a passion and a new viewpoint to move forward.”
“He’s giving the restaurant a shot of adrenaline,” added Field’s mother-in-law.
Papp was fresh off a four-year backpacking tour of Europe and Africa with first wife Dorothy in 1978 when they landed in southeastern Connecticut in a Ford Econoline turtle-top van looking for work. He said they camped in Mystic Seaport’s parking lot for a bit and even lived in a room rented from the Stonington Borough fire marshal.
Roots in Germany
Papp grew up in Milwaukee, where his parents owned a bar, and while in Europe, he and Dorothy met, and worked for Stan Schwartz at the Rhein Maine Officers’ Club at an Air Force Base in Germany. They went on to open a restaurant together in Germany, and Schwartz joined them in Stonington for the new business venture, becoming a co-owner.
Schwartz worked in the business in Germany, but his family also owned a bakery in Tarrytown, N.Y. The rye bread served at Noah’s is made from 100-year-old sourdough starter from the Schwartzes’ bakery. All the breads and desserts are made on-site. Schwartz retired two years ago.
The goal was to provide freshly cooked meals for borough residents who wanted a nearby place to meet and eat. At the time, according to Debbie Papp, a native of the Borough whose family also was involved in the restaurant business, the only eateries were the high-end Harbor View at one end of the Borough and a greasy-spoon diner at the other end.
The owners of Port Side, who served mostly Portuguese-style dishes, were getting out of the business. Papp and Dorothy bought the building from Freddie and Louise Fayal — who held the mortgage — and they moved in upstairs. Papp cooked three days a week, Schwartz cooked three days, and Dorothy was at the front, hosting and waitressing. They were closed on Mondays and took the month of February off.
Papp said he never minded the long hours and the hard work because he always felt he was providing a real service to people. And he liked figuring out menus and solving problems as they arose.
“It’s like a sport,” he said. “You’re in the zone. There’s stress but there’s also an undeniable high with this.”
A family affair
Debbie Papp began working at Noah’s in 1982 after writing a letter to the owners asking for a job. She had worked in restaurants since age 16, including the Ship’s Lantern in Mystic and the Harbor View, went off to college and began raising a family. Members of her extended family owned and operated the Coffee Cup Restaurant at Water and Pearl streets in the 1930s and the Sea Village Restaurant on Hancox Street. She was hired as a prep cook and worked her way to hostess.
Eventually John and Dorothy divorced and Debbie and her husband divorced. John and Debbie were married in 2007. Today, Debbie still bakes for the restaurant and John continues to show up every day to do wherever is needed. Their children from both marriages have worked at the restaurant. Debbie’s daughter, Katie Field, who is Andrew Field’s wife, still works there three days a month.
On Friday, Papp, who also has a passion for photography, maneuvered through the pine tables he built for the restaurant 40 years ago and showed off some of his work hanging on the walls in the dining room. Also decorating the room were photos from the early days of the restaurant and many of the employees who have worked there over the years.
The restaurant business has been good to him, giving him a job he loves and providing a service to the community in the form of not just food, but jobs as well. For a while he also exhibited the works of local artists.
“What motivates me the most is, we create something that is part of life. Meals are for being together and celebrating life,” he said. “And there’s something satisfying in that.”
But he is also distraught over the direction the country seems to be going under the current leadership. He said it is making him physically sick.
“It’s a trauma,” he said. “I’m in pain and it’s wearing me out.”
A new era
But Papp is also hopeful. He worried for years about leaving the business. But Field is bringing new energy to the business.
“The feedback has been astonishing,” he said. “I feel good now about the transition. It’s exciting to have a small business that the community wants.”
And the locals still support the business. Today, Field said there are patrons who eat three meals a day at Noah’s. He will continue to serve fresh, locally sourced dishes, catering to the locals who keep them in business even in the slower winter months. Snow days are some of their busiest, he said.
Tim Zeppieri of Groton and Lily Marcial of New London, were among the Friday morning diners, order the $5 breakfast special with a side of blueberry pancakes. Zeppieri said he’s been coming to Noah’s for years, especially in the winter months when it’s less crowded.
“Everything is always fresh,” he said. “The food is always good.”
The best compliment is when someone says they’ve been coming to the restaurant for years and bringing in the next generation, Debbie Papp said.
Field said the essentials of the business will stay the same.
“We’re going to enhance some existing programs,” Field said, like buying flour from a New England grist mill, tomatoes from the Hillandale Farm in Westerly, and partnering with a local farmer to raise pigs and feed them table scraps from the restaurant. “But we’re staying with the basic from-scratch philosophy.”
The Papps said they eventually will move in with Debbie’s mother on Lord’s Point, and John hopes to begin a retirement that will include travel, photography and life-long learning.
“It’s an exciting time to be alive,” he said. “There’s so much to learn about.”
He has a master’s degree in philosophy from St. Louis University and said he is looking forward to studying genetics, astronomy and particle physics.