Stonehenge Inn in a league of its own thanks to consistency, quality

The Stonehenge Inn off Route 7 was established in the late 1940s.

The Stonehenge Inn off Route 7 was established in the late 1940s.

The Stonehenge Inn and Restaurant, the oldest inn and restaurant in Ridgefield, has another legacy to add to its name — Connecticut record-holder for the American Automobile Association’s Four Diamond Award.

If you ask owner Douglas Seville how his restaurant has reached the pinnacle of being recognized with AAA’s highest distinction for 21 consecutive years, his answer is simple: consistency and quality.

“We’ve been able to maintain the standards of consistency in our service and the standards of quality in our food,” Mr. Seville said. “Service is something that has disappeared in the restaurant industry over the last 20 years and we still have high-end service that sets us apart.

“It’s rewarding that we have been so consistent over the years, and having more Four Diamond Awards than any other restaurant in the  state is definitely something my staff should be proud of.”

Mr. Seville, who previously worked as the food and beverage director at the Ritz-Carlton in New York from 1967 to 1972, has owned the Stonehenge Inn for more than 40 years.

He purchased Stonehenge in 1972 after its owner, Albert Stockli, a famous Swiss chef, died.

“His wife was looking for someone to sell it to, and after going through some other people, I met with her in the city and came up here to look at the property and fell in love with it,” he said.

While most of the competition in the area has folded, Mr. Seville believes he’s still around because of his prime location right off Route 7 and the business’s ability to survive the ups and downs of the industry — and there have been a lot of them over the years.

“More tourist traffic for the restaurant definitely helps,” he said. “All restaurants have bumps in the road — whether it’s a pipe bursting or a chef quitting, but looking at it long-term it comes back to consistency and quality.”

As for the local competition, the Silvermine Tavern Bed and Breakfast in Norwalk, the Three Bears Restaurant in Westport and the Cobb’s Mill Inn in Weston have all closed in recent years along with the Elms Inn, Ridgefield’s previous oldest country-style inn. (Cobb’s Mill recently reopened under a new name.)

“We picked up some business initially when the Elms closed,” he said. “The others have been here much longer, the Elms was 200-plus years old, compared to Stonehenge, which started in the late 1940s. One by one the older inns and restaurants have closed, and we’ve seen business from all of them.”

Despite some of his competition closing, the local industry has adapted and taken on a different form — bistros and small-scale restaurants.

Competition persists and Mr. Seville welcomes it.

“Competition is always good, because it forces the best to survive,” he said. “I always used to say, a town needs little bistros and restaurants that only seat 30 to 40 people, but now there are a lot more of them in the area so there’s a bit of a saturation that takes away from business when a new place opens.”

Some examples of location competition are Bistro 7 and the Little Pub in Branchville and the Cellar Door and Bissell House in the center of Ridgefield, even though none of these establishments offer lodging as a part of their amenities.

“The restaurant is 85% of our business, so when looking at competition, I look at the saturation of these tiny restaurants nearby and look how they are doing and who they are attracting,” Mr. Seville said.

He also cites Wilton’s decision to be a “wet” town that allows alcohol to be bought and served as another source of recent competition.

“We used to do a lot more business from Wilton because they didn’t serve alcohol, and having a neighboring ‘dry’ town really helped,” Mr. Seville admitted. “In the last 10 years, they have liquor and more and more restaurants have opened, which hurt initially, but the effects of the decision don’t have much of an impact now.”

If the adaptability of the competition has forced him to keep his guard up as an owner, then recent environmental disasters have ensured his business maintains its survival instincts in the exterior.

Over the years Mother Nature has served him some  blows, but he’s been able to recover time and time again, even after a fire destroyed the restaurant in 1987.

On April 15, 2007, a nor’easter cracked open the dam that helps form the property’s two-acre, five-foot deep pond, causing Mr. Seville to scramble to submit repair plans to government agencies.

“The flood blew out the dam and we had to wait a while for the approvals from the state and the town before we could renovate the property,” Mr. Seville said. “It affected our summer weddings that year, because people were disappointed that the pond was empty, but we recovered and things went back to normal.”

The repercussions of the flood lasted into the fall of that year, he said.

He says having 10 acres of property that includes a pond, as well as other natural attractions, helps differentiate his from other restaurants and inns located in downtown areas.

“The exterior part of the property plays more of a part in special functions like weddings, anniversaries and bat mitzvahs,” Mr. Seville said. “There’s an antique feeling both in the interior and exterior that attracts people here.”

He said the exterior scenery has a certain “curb appeal” at night when people drive up to the restaurant and see the pond adjacent to the building.

Mr. Seville’s personal favorite part of the exterior property is the waterfalls on the other side of the property that overlook the pond, the inn and the restaurant.

“That’s the nicest spot to sit and talk and to take pictures,” he said.

Most recently, Hurricane Sandy ripped through the property, forcing him to undergo landscaping renovations as well as building restorations.

This spring, he has installed new roofs on all three of the property’s main buildings, while replanting a lot of trees and flower beds that were destroyed by Sandy.

In addition, he hopes to have a new sign on Route 7 by the end of the month to guide out-of-town customers into his establishment.

While the exterior facelift primes Stonehenge for its spring and fall wedding season, it’s the restaurant that has customers coming back.

So now that his business has become the most-decorated restaurant in the state, what does Mr. Seville have in mind to keep it thriving?

Some minor tweaks to the menu, more variety in the international wine list and a less formal dress code for its servers.

“These are changes we are making, based on customer feedback,” he said. “The change to less formal dining attire represents a change in the times, because there’s more of an onus for comfortable fashion than there is for formal dress requirements.”

In addition to wines from France, Mr. Seville will be importing wine from Spain, Chile and Italy this year.

He wants to maintain his traditional, classical menu, but understands there is a need for “more modern dishes.”

“The market for food changes all the time with ethnic food and fusion foods become more popular,” he said. “We will try and implement those in our menu while maintaining our classical Italian and French cuisine. Most importantly, we are known for taking care of our customers, so we will maintain that standard above all else.”

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