There’s no oven, no griddle, no deep fryer. Everything is cooked over an 18-foot-long fire pit at this one-of-a-kind Guilford, Connecticut, landmark.
By Amy Traverso
Apr 12 2018
Scenes from a summer evening at The Place.Photo Credit : Megan Haley
It’s easy to tell regulars from first-timers at The Place. The former know to pack tablecloths, cheese plates, and wine glasses. They perch on stadium cushions or pillows and keep bottles of chenin blanc on ice. The newbies sit around their bare tables looking a little baffled: I’m sitting on a stump? And where’s the kitchen?
And yes, all 350 seats are sawed-off tree stumps supplied by a local tree-cutting business (a nearby sign reads, “Put your rump on a stump”). The red tabletops are nailed onto stumps, too, which makes them look like cartoon mushrooms springing up around the lot. There’s no oven, no griddle, no deep fryer. Everything—the clams and lobster, steak and fish, chicken and corn—is cooked over an 18-foot-long fire pit lined with concrete blocks and filled with a smoldering accumulation of coals and ash that flares up when fresh wood is tossed on. The cooks, mostly young men, poke at the coals and brush the sweat from their eyes with bandanas. A three-tier set of metal grates functions as primitive temperature control: delicate lobsters go on the top level, shellfish in the middle (until the shells open and the juices bubble), steaks are cooked closer to the coals.
There’s no roof above the tables, just a retractable tent for rainy days, but the whorling smoke chases away most of the mosquitoes. The sole building is a red shed that houses the ice machine, fridge, a prep station, and an air conditioner that provides the only climate control for the staff. The whole operation has the air of a Renaissance fair or Civil War encampment. And though the location is overtly rustic, and quite secluded among the trees, it sits on one side of the busy Boston Post Road, with a Walmart and Big Y across the street.
Don Braumann remembers when it was all fields as far as you could see, long before his cousins, Vaughn and Judy Knowles, bought The Place in 1971. Vaughn’s brother, Gary, came on as co-owner soon after. “Farmers grew corn and carrots over there,” Braumann says, pointing to the big box stores. He’s just coming off a shift, though his day job is buying and selling steel. But he comes in to help when Vaughn and Gary need an extra hand, usually on weekends. “When your family needs you, you work,” he says.
Before the Knowleses bought The Place, it was called Whitey’s Roast, and the basic concept—the fire, the stumps, the seafood—was the same. Whitey had a saying: “There’s no place quite like this place anywhere near this place, so this must be the place!” And so the restaurant was rechristened. Since then, things haven’t changed much, other than adding more tables and a handful of dishes.
The most essential element, figuratively and literally, is the fire. It perfumes the clams in their bath of butter and cocktail sauce, singes the corn husks and caramelizes the kernels, sears a crust on the steak. To eat here under a ceiling of maple branches and stars eating fresh, smoky seafood is to get straight to the heart of summer. Food comes as it is ready: first, the corn; then, after a wait, the fattest mussels, dripping wine and garlic; then the bubbling clams. Lobster is preboiled, then split lengthwise and finished on the grill.
At the next table over, two preppy couples in their 60s spread Époisses cheese on slabs of baguette while they chat with Gary Knowles, the extrovert of the family, and “the nicest guy in the world,” per Braumann. They’re weekend regulars, New Yorkers with a place on the shore, but retirement is the topic of the night.
“Why can’t we have a place like this in Florida?” one of the women asks. “We could do shrimp, red snapper. A place where you can just hang out, no rush, no stress.”
“It’s a lot of hard work,” Gary says mildly. The view from the stumps may be stress-free, but try cooking over a fire in August for 40-plus years.
“Well, it’s very special,” she says. And then the steaks and lobster arrive. Her husband opens a fresh bottle of red, and they eat.
901 Boston Post Road, Guilford, CT. 203-453-9276; theplaceguilford.com