Darien’s Culinary Landscape Transforms with Arrival of New Dining Destinations

DARIEN — Long known for its coastal waterfront and top-rated schools, Darien may soon be adding dining destinations to its menu of amenities.

Dozens of new restaurants have opened in the last few years, offering hungry residents everything from short rib nachos at La Taqueria to eggplant zucchini lasagna from The Granola Bar.

And at least three new dining ventures — Hinoki, Laurel and Millie’s — are slated to welcome foodies next year when construction on the final phase of The Corbin District is completed.

Hinoki, which plans to offer Japanese-style tapas and sushi, is the newest venture by restaurateurs K Dong and Steve Chen, who own a trio of Asian-inspired venues in Greenwich.

“It’s not going to be a copy-and-paste version of our Greenwich restaurants,“ Dong said. “We’re known for sushi, but we will also be putting a focus on our cooked dishes.”

Dong, who lives in Darien, said although he previously considered opening a restaurant in town, it was the unveiling of plans for a revitalized downtown that ultimately inspired him to pursue it.

“I wanted to be a part of it,” he said.

Meanwhile, the hospitality group behind Kneads Bakery and Cafe and MOMU artisanal ice cream in Westport is bringing more than 40 years of culinary experience to its planned restaurant, Laurel, named after the state flower.

Laurel will be the team’s first full-service restaurant and will feature contemporary American-style cuisine, local and seasonal fare and an open wood-fired grill. Laurel’s four creators met while working at the Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant in New York. Emily Munoz, one of the future co-chefs at Laurel, said the new restaurant’s vibe will be “casual and welcoming with a sense of elegance, but not fussy.”

Bo Blair, owner of Millie’s, is bringing Baja California fare and the coastal vibe of his iconic Nantucket and Washington, D.C., restaurants to downtown Darien. Blair expressed his appreciation for the downtown revitalization and noted that, given many of his summer patrons in Nantucket hail from Darien, the move seemed like a natural fit.

Modeled after the Spring Valley venue in D.C., Millie’s will have a spacious outdoor patio and indoor/outdoor bar, as well as a year-round take-out and ice cream window.

“We tried to create a restaurant that everybody loves and we want to do the same in Darien,” Blair said.

In addition to venues slotted for the new development downtown, Roots Ocean Prime, an upscale steakhouse offering USDA prime cuts and fresh seafood, will be opening this fall in Grove Street Plaza.

Additionally, two full-service restaurants and two quick-service eateries are planned for Heights Crossing. Developer Joe Vaccoro said while no leases have been signed yet, there has been a “significant amount of inquiries” from interested restaurateurs.

Darien Commons’ 92,000 square feet of retail space added several new dining options to the neighborhood when it opened last year, including Seamore’s, a sustainable seafood restaurant, Naya Middle Eastern Grill and Molto Ristorante, which serves Italian fare.

Rosemary Dionne, Molto’s manager, said the reception in Darien has been “amazing” and that the restaurant is so busy that reservations are recommended for dinner.

“We couldn’t be happier here. We’re busier than expected,” she said.

According to Dionne, most of their diners live in Darien but that the restaurant also serves guests from nearby Stamford, Greenwich and New Canaan.

The growing number of new restaurants is not just filling the stomachs of diners, but also the town coffers, according to Land Use Director Jeremy Ginsberg.

“A lot of new businesses have opened in recent years, and these all generate buzz and excitement while at the same time increasing the tax base,” he said.

Ginsburg said there has been demand for a more interesting and dynamic restaurant scene in Darien.

“You think of all the restaurants that are here today. Now think to yourself how many of those restaurants were here in 1995. Ten Twenty Post used to be a dry cleaner,” he said. “There’s a lot more going on in terms of places to go, things to do at night and on weekends.”

Darien resident Chris Kiser said he and his wife go out to dinner several times a month and find themselves eating in Darien more often.

“Since we moved here 18 years ago, the number of options and the quality of those options has really grown significantly,” he said.

Kiser said they have been longtime fans of Ten Twenty Post and have recently added L’Ostal to their list of favorite dining venues.

“We really like L’Ostal. The food is tremendous but it has a very relaxed, almost like a southern California wine country feel to it. It is a special occasion kind of place, whereas Ten Twenty is more approachable,” he said.

According to Kiser, Darien now rivals New Canaan as a dining destination.

“We think New Canaan has great options, but I think Darien is approaching and probably at this point exceeding New Canaan,” he said.

First Selectman Jon Zagrodzky agreed that the town’s new restaurants are putting Darien on the map for foodies.

“Our restaurants are terrific places, not just regular run-of-the-mill places,” he said, adding that he’s looking forward to the opening of Roots Ocean Prime.

He also said he recently visited Antonio’s Italian Bistro and Molto for dinner and that they were “packed.”

“It’s just crazy. We’re very excited about all that, but we’re not finished yet. Our doors are open,” he said.