Pavilion a Sticking Point in New ‘Smoke on the Water’ Application in Old Saybrook


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OLD SAYBROOK – Chef Colt Taylor returned to the Zoning Commission Monday with a scaled-back proposal for Smoke on the Water, a seasonal outdoor restaurant along the Connecticut River slated for the site of the former Dock and Dine. 

The new application for Smoke on the Water – which comes almost 10 months after the Zoning Commission unanimously rejected the previous application as incomplete – has been reduced from 300 seats to 268, pulled back farther from the Connecticut River, and given an earlier closing time of 9 p.m, Taylor told the commission during a preliminary discussion to gauge members’ reactions.

Because the restaurant is in a flood zone, it would use temporary trailers to house food and beverage prep, office and storage space, an ADA-accessible restroom and a five-stall restroom, and refrigeration space. All trailers would be removed from the property for the six months the restaurant is out of season from November to April.

The only permanent structure proposed for the site is a pavilion that would cover the main cooking area, and which Taylor proposed to cover six tables, including 24 seats. 

But, including seating under that pavilion proved to be a sticking point for Zoning Commission Chair Robert Friedmann, who questioned whether the concept would still qualify as an “outdoor restaurant” with seats under the pavilion.

Taylor appeared surprised by Friedmann’s concerns. Last year, he successfully applied to add a definition for outdoor restaurants to the Old Saybrook zoning code specifically to allow for Smoke on the Water, and said that if anyone had said that they could simply build a pavilion and qualify as an indoor restaurant, he would have done so.

The pavilion, Taylor said, was meant to feel like the structures at Hammonasset Beach State Park, and to make the property feel more like a park in the six months each year when the restaurant is not operating and the tables and trailers are cleared out. He said he wanted to include some seats under the pavilion so they would still be able to serve some customers if there was a light rain.

“We have led with an honest and forward thinking approach of trying to bring a family-friendly, public access-type restaurant to one of the oldest commercial properties in the state of Connecticut,” Taylor said.

Taylor said that the proposal either qualifies as an indoor or an outdoor restaurant. If the pavilion makes it an indoor restaurant, Taylor said they could re-do the application as an indoor restaurant and move forward from there.

“At the end of the day, we’re just trying to make this property into something that it deserves to be, something that it historically has been, with the support of everyone here,” Taylor said. “I hope we can all see the work that’s gone into this, and I hope we feel a lot better about the plan than we did eight months to a year ago when we went through this the first time, and I hope we can get to a place that makes everyone feel proud to call this a restaurant in our town.”

Commission members debated whether the pavilion qualified as “indoors,” with Friedmann insisting that it was a shelter, and therefore should be considered indoors. They suggested that Taylor either come back with a proposed regulation amendment to allow the seats under the pavilion, or make the pavilion smaller and not have any seats under it.

The project also continues to face opposition from neighbors, whose attorney Evan Seeman said in a letter to the commission that “[Taylor’s] ill-conceived proposal is completely inappropriate for this area” near single-family homes, coastal resources and the Long Island Sound. They said the increased traffic, noise and light pollution were all concerns.

Taylor said the property has been a restaurant for about 70 years, and questioned why a new restaurant would be an inappropriate use.

“We have tried so many concepts for this spot, and this is the one that makes the most sense,” Taylor said.

Monday night’s meeting was a preliminary discussion of the plans, and Taylor will have to return with a formal application for the commission’s approval.