The Horseshoe Cafe, in its original Southport Village location on Pequot Avenue, is approaching its 80th year of operation. This makes the 'Shoe the elder statesman of town taverns, quite possibly the longest-running in Fairfield history. Even our fabled Sun Tavern, which drew its first tankard of ale in 1761 and claimed George Washington as a customer (well, maybe), could only manage to stay in business a mere half-century.
Having recently made my acquaintance with the Horseshoe Cafe, I was startled to learn that in some quarters it's considered a "dive bar." I therefore rise to its defense -- not that I could find anyone among the owner, staff and cadre of regulars who were particularly interested in being defended.
As an institution, the Horseshoe Cafe is quite comfortable in its own skin, but I'm speaking up for it anyway, out of respect for its place in Fairfield's history and in consideration of its loyal clientele.
The Horseshoe Cafe's name comes by way of its original proprietor, Ed Russell, who started a blacksmith shop on the site in 1920, and rebuilt it as Russell's Horse Shoe Tavern in 1934. It was doubtless just a coincidence that Prohibition was established in 1919 and repealed in 1933, and that it was only rumors about what the village smithy might have kept in his stock room besides horseshoes.
In 1957, a milkman named Scotty Fraser decided to try his hand at a different sort of beverage distribution, and took ownership of the Horseshoe from Mr. Russell. Scotty's major and most notable innovation was to bring in a Hammond organ for sing-alongs and dancing.
The organ is long gone, however, its fate unclear.
By the time Scotty's son, Gordon, took over in 1972, the Horseshoe Cafe had settled in as Southport's neighborhood tavern. Such places tend to resist change, but Gordon gradually shook things up: He took down a wall that partitioned the bar area from the booths, moved the original bar away from the wall to make a U-shaped bar, and most drastically, moved the pool table from the front to the back. He also resurrected the long-dormant kitchen with the help of local chef Nancy Connor.
The baton passed to Gordon's son, Jim, in 2001. Aside from a few tweaks like flat-screen TVs for sporting events and starting "open mike" evenings on Mondays, Jim has otherwise chosen not to impose any further innovation.
Once you pass through one of the two doorways on Pequot Avenue, you find yourself in a space that is old but wearing its age well. There is nothing chic or elegant about the dark wood interior, but it's orderly and welcoming. During the day, a generous and pleasing amount of light pours through the expansive front windows. The prominent, sweeping bar makes it clear that you have entered a drinking establishment, although with one of the 10 beers on tap, you can have a meal of competent pub food at the bar or in one of the original booths across the room. The wall next to the bar is covered with photographs that nicely recap the history of the place and hint at some of the celebrities who have visited. Dean Lewis leads the friendly and attentive staff, which has had very little turnover through the years.
My friend Jim Ewing, a retired history teacher and Horseshoe regular since 1957, is in a unique position to provide a sociologic perspective. With its conviviality, informality, and good conversation, the cafe in Jim's view is the closest thing around to an English pub.
A long cast of characters (Knobby, Danny and Scarf, to name a few) has added richness and entertainment over the years amidst the shifting clientele, the result being a heterogeneous culture that brings together people from all walks of life.
On a given evening, a gentleman on a Harley Davidson can pull up to the 'Shoe and park between a Maserati and an old Ford Taurus.
If "dive bar" means a dark and dirty hangout for drunks and college students looking for cheap beer, where bottles get broken over heads and where the police make frequent visits, then that's not the Horseshoe Cafe.
Neither does the Horseshoe Cafe perfectly fit the definition of "dive bar" offered in 2010 by no less an authority than Playboy magazine: "A church for down-and-outers and those who romanticize them, a rare place where high and low rub elbows -- bums and poets, thieves and slumming celebrities. It's a place that wears its history proudly."
But it comes pretty close.
Jim Ewing observes that while in TV's "Cheers" everybody knows your name, in the Horseshoe Cafe, everyone knows who you are. One evening years ago, Jim was watching the legendary Douglas Edwards read the news on the 'Shoe's black-and-white TV when a well-dressed woman emerged from a booth. "Why are you watching that SOB?" she snarled at Jim, and walked out.
The lady was Mrs. Edwards.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com.