There are small neighborhood restaurants, and then there is the Whistle Stop Cafe in Deep River. This postcard-worthy restaurant in the heart of downtown is about as quintessential a neighborhood spot as they come.
In this new monthly feature, we take a closer look a what makes a community in our state a great place to visit or live in. First up: the charming small town of Deep River.
Open for breakfast and lunch, the cafe is housed in a one-story building with green shutters and a sign above the door with a cartoon egg holding a spatula. Inside there is one room with a few tables and a small counter overlooking the griddle. It’s got the cluttered but rich-with-character feel of a used bookstore, with some tight, but not cramped, train car ambiance thrown in, and the place is brimming with quirkiness. (To get to the bathroom, you have to walk outside and around the corner to the back of the restaurant.)
As we settle into our seats, conversations are underway among diners at other tables and staff members. Then the food starts arriving. One specialty, the cinnamon bun French toast ($5.75) is every bit as decadent as you’d expect. A knockout special called the Green Sausage Benny ($12.95) comes with housemade herb sausage and spinach topped with two poached eggs, each with a golden liquid yolk, and a side of home fries.
All the dishes have a home-cooked feel, which is no accident. Owner Hedy Watrous is passionate about using local, organic and nutritious ingredients. During our meal, she offers us home fries made from an unusual type of sweet potato grown and recently harvested by a friend.
“We don’t serve soda,” she says, explaining that she doesn’t want to offer something that unhealthful on her menu. Speaking of health, Watrous is a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and also owns a healing center in Deep River called the Eastern Arts Center. At Whistle Stop, she offers a variety of “healing teas” that she selects for each season. We don’t try tea on our visit, but locals say she is able to recommend teas to go with a specific mood or meal with the skill of a sommelier.
The restaurant celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2018, but Watrous’ connection to the space goes back even further. Her grandparents first opened a restaurant at the spot shortly after Prohibition. They operated it through World War II, before selling it.
Watrous grew up in Deep River but lived for a time in Key West, Florida, where she co-owned an Italian and French restaurant and nightclub. In the early ’90s she moved back home to care for aging family members when she happened upon the restaurant her family had once owned. On a whim, she asked the owners if they would ever consider selling the restaurant, and they told her it was for sale. That night she met with them for dinner. During the meal, she bought the restaurant.
The stories surrounding the headstone, marked only "XYZ," and the man buried beneath it have woven their way into local folklore in Deep River.
Today, in addition to breakfast and lunch daily, Watrous hosts cooking classes where traditional Chinese medicine and diet advice is interwoven with culinary techniques. She also hosts several charity dinners each year and has raised funds for various local and international nonprofits.
And she has no regrets about her sudden decision to buy the once-and-current family business. “I love it,” she says, adding that it’s a great outlet for her creativity.