Chapter One needed a rewrite.
A June 2018 opening was greeted by eager locals and large crowds, but the restaurant on the Guilford Green wasn’t up to the challenge. That’s according to new executive chef Jeremy Haile and general manager Britney Evarts, who took the wheel last fall. “I believe that Britney and I have definitely taken the reins and turned things around,” says Haile, who viewed Chapter One as a bit of a rescue mission. “That’s one of the things about it that intrigued me, but also made me skeptical at the same time.”
Haile, previously chef de cuisine at Liv’s Oyster Bar in Old Saybrook, says hiring the wrong people can happen when trying to open a restaurant quickly in the height of a season. But one bad experience can keep a customer away forever, and too much negative word of mouth, especially in a tight-knit community like Guilford, can cause irreparable damage. “We had a really rough start,” Evarts says. “We definitely went through some struggles, but I think between me and Jeremy now, we both have a pretty good grasp on who the people of Guilford are, what they want, and how they want to be treated.”
Located in the former Whitfield’s Restaurant, Chapter One’s all-glass front faces the northern half of the Green. A white-beamed ceiling with gray paneling and off-white walls helps bring a sunny day indoors during a surprisingly busy Tuesday lunch service. Conversely, a packed-house Saturday night crowd features a few patrons using smartphone flashlights to illuminate menus and checks. If what I’m told about the opening months is accurate, a gripe about the dimmer switch should be a welcome complaint.
Our party of four targets every corner of the dinner menu, and Haile and his team deliver. The bread basket is filled with warm focaccia with olive oil and garlic for dipping — a simple touch too often neglected by kitchens that should know better.
In the spirit of being about a mile from the Sound, we belly up to the raw bar for some fresh and tasty jumbo shrimp, littleneck clams and Savage Blonde oysters. An excellent ceviche made with mahi mahi, shrimp, scallops, habaneros and sweet potatoes arrives next, accompanied by dynamite housemade tortilla chips.
A bowl of New England clam chowder is very good but overthickened, a common miscalculation in which thickness is favored over flavor. Chapter One is only a tweak or two away from an outstanding bowl of chowder, which should be a point of pride for all restaurants along the shoreline.
Heirloom tomatoes with mozzarella and balsamic reduction is a fairly standard app, but the portion is strong and the presentation appealing. We go to the next level with the Devils on Horseback — medjool dates stuffed with Gorgonzola and wrapped in cherrywood-smoked bacon. If part of a larger group, I suggest ordering two plates. “Everyone goes crazy for those,” Evarts says.
Speaking of being part of a larger group, things can get a little cozy inside the main dining room when it’s at full capacity. You’re not on top of each other, but getting from your table to the restroom can be a bit of an obstacle course with coats and pocketbooks hanging off the backs of chairs.
Chapter One’s creative cocktail list pays a bit of an homage to Guilford with the Whitfield Fizz (cucumber vodka, elderflower liqueur, mint, lemon, prosecco float) and the Sachem Sour (bourbon, lemon, simple syrup, pasteurized egg white, red wine float). A second round includes an old fashioned, spicy margarita and strawberry julep.
Scallops risotto, a hot lobster roll and cavatelli Bolognese are all supremely satisfying entrées, with the cavatelli taking top honors. A rich, hearty pasta dish bordering on a stew, the Bolognese is made with veal, sweet Italian sausage and crumbled housemade meatball slow-simmered in a port wine tomato sauce. Bread pudding and New York-style cheesecake are fairly basic options for dessert, but neither disappoint and both hit the sweet spot.
Haile will get the chance to find his sweet spot when he puts his personal touch on an upcoming menu change. Guilford is home to the second Chapter One location, with the flagship opening in Mystic in 2017. Up until now, the restaurants have offered the same options, but that’s about to change. Haile is going to Florida with his son for a week’s vacation, and plans on writing a new menu that he hopes to debut in mid-May. But don’t worry, Devils on Horseback fans, about a dozen favorites will remain.
A Memorial Day weekend clambake will kick off the summer and serve as the ceremonial opening of the back patio. One of the major issues during the warmer months last year was getting drinks to the people outside. That problem should be alleviated by plans to build an outdoor bar in time for the clambake. “We’re just gonna blow it out and have a little block party, if you will, in the back,” Haile says.
Turning the page on Chapter One’s first impression is Haile’s mission. And he wouldn’t have agreed to try to right the ship if he didn’t see smooth waters ahead. After all, Whitfield’s enjoyed a successful 10-year run in the same space that ended only because of the retirement of the owners.
“You have the Green, you have the back patio which looks over this gorgeous little grassy knoll with an art gallery, and there’s a little pond back there,” Haile says. “I want people to think about that every time they’re thinking about where they want to go to relax and have a nice meal.”
25 Whitfield St., Guilford
Price range: Appetizers $9-$14, steaks $28-$55, burgers/sandwiches $12-$20, soups/salads $8-$12, entrées $18-$33
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri. 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m., Sat. 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Ambiance The interior is bright and inviting during the day with artwork on the walls from nearby Greene Art Gallery. The noise level gets a little high, and space a little tight, with a full crowd, and the restaurant was dimly lit for a Saturday-night dinner service.
Service This was said to be a huge problem in the first few months, but apparently things have turned around. Everyone we dealt with on two trips was professional, courteous and helpful.
Food The menu is large and boasts a selection of steaks, seafood, salads, sandwiches and small plates. It will be interesting to see what remains and what Haile brings to the table for the expected mid-May menu revamp.