JR’s Deli & Grill lacks curb appeal. Like, really lacks. This is unusual for Westport. A quick jaunt around town will show you that most business owners place value on appearances.
I mean, JR’s isn’t ugly per se. It exudes a certain retro-charm, thanks to its original 1976 signage which includes the term “weenie.” And perhaps its light brownish/ochre color was considered quite tasteful among a population clad in three-piece corduroy suits with a penchant for wood-paneled rec rooms.
But JR’s appearance never enticed me enough to wander in. Westport resident Alison Reilly agrees, “I’ve lived here 22 years and have never thought to go inside.”
Then why this article? The deli & grill has been open for 44 years; no small feat for a town rife with openings and closings of hip eateries. My son told me, “Yeah. It’s really good.” Mostly, though, JR’s is on the river (warm weather view, outdoor eating) and I needed a story for our summer issue.
So on a quiet afternoon in April, JR’s facade looking no less meh in the early spring sunlight, I safely pushed open the door and peered inside.
Not to be overly-dramatic, but it was a bit like my first glimpse of Oz. What I expected to see: weenie-stand equivalent of Auntie Em’s dusty farm. What I saw: three guys hard at work, a menu so vast it fills four chalkboards, a policeman, tables loaded with condiments. Not beautiful, no, but friendly, bustling and inviting. Even the policeman was smiling!
The owner of JR’s, Eric Johnson, is one of those energetic people for whom, I suspect, doing nothing requires great effort. He’s also a rugby coach at Staples and former catering partner of Jay LeBlanc’s, before LeBlanc opened Knot Norm’s.
What Eric and his tiny staff of three create within these aged walls is amazing. Truly. To paraphrase one of the un-matching signs out front, they serve a lot more than weenies. They still serve varying permutations of hot dogs, with sauerkraut or award-winning chili and more, along with everything from chicken Milanese to Philly cheese steak (my family’s favorite) and phenomenal grilled chicken salad. Honestly, who knew?
Evidently most everyone else. “The traffic is crazy,” says Eric’s protégé Staples junior Sam Seideman. “CEOs from Bridgewater and lawn mowers. We had a famous actress here. There’s a wide variety and a lot of older people. Some come twice a day. Mr. V is 92 and comes in every day.”
“We get tomatoes from Eric’s dad’s garden. We get everything fresh each day,” continues Sam. “His dad is the shellfish commissioner for Norwalk so we get the best seafood.”
JR’s has another fabulous secret: the back patio, with a rare and enviable view of the Saugatuck River. They’ve transformed the space into an even better patio with new furniture and Adirondack chairs.
Not only does this patio make JR’s perfectly pandemic-friendly, but it’s also a super-cool place to sit on a summer day, maybe even bring a fishing pole or two. It’s BYOB now but they’re getting a wine/beer license and plan to host parties and private events. “We’ll cook steaks, lobsters, whatever you want,” Eric says, having forced himself to sit still for a few minutes.
He’s also adding a separate breakfast nook to accommodate his egg-sandwich enthusiasts and construction workers. “The first thing we do at 6:30 a.m. is put on a pot of coffee.”
Finally, he popped up. Though restaurant traffic is down, Eric, Sam and Frankie are busy preparing food for Homes with Hope and free lunches for students from Eric’s alma mater, Brien McMahon High School.
Their website has their full menu. Word of caution: it’s not beautiful, either. But one obviously can’t judge a deli by its décor.
JR's Deli & Grill
265 Riverside Avenue, Westport