Economic panel may explore later restaurant closings

The Economic Development Commission appears to be considering an initiative to increase the hours of operation for local restaurants.

The idea was mentioned at a recent meeting of the commission. However, Vivian Lee-Schiue, chairman, declined to talk about the idea with The Bulletin until further meetings took place.

As for the Wilton Chamber of Commerce, the initiative would be welcome. Restaurants in town generally close at 10 or 11 p.m. at the latest.

“I would think they would welcome it,” said Tom Sato, president of the Chamber. He had not been informed of the Economic Development Commission’s idea, but liked it when he was told about it by The Bulletin.

“I think restaurants would be all for it,” Sato said.

Closing hours are controlled on two fronts in town. One is the town liquor ordinances, which allow for package stores, restaurants and country clubs that serve alcohol. Any change here regarding closing times would involve a change in the ordinances that town residents voted on.

The other means of controlling restaurant hours is through the Planning and Zoning Commission. Individual restaurants would have to try to get their permissions amended, said Bob Nerney, the town’s planning director.

“From a zoning perspective, restaurants involve takeout food and are regulated by a special permit, so it requires a commission review,” said Nerney, who added that in the past the commission imposed conditions to allow special permits to fit into the character of certain areas. One frequent condition was the limitation of hours, to 11 p.m., for instance. “I think the rationale behind it is if restaurants are in areas where there may be noise concerns,” Nerney said. “They look at it from a land-use impact.”

While there is the broader issue of the town liquor sales ordinances, from a P&Z perspective “the businesses would have to come back before the commission to ask that their restriction be amended or removed, and the commission would look at that based on the normal regulatory criteria,” Nerney said.

The owner of one of the town’s restaurants had not heard of the initiative, but welcomed it.

“We have to close at 10 on weeknights and at 12 on weekends,” said Doug Grabe, owner of the Little Pub, which has four locations in Fairfield County, including Wilton.

Grabe believed the hours are controlled by outdated views on liquor sales. Restaurants were not allowed to sell alcohol until 1992.

When liquor was finally allowed, there were limitations, such as cafés still not being allowed.

“I don’t get a sense Wilton is losing a lot of business to other towns, but if they extend the hours, I’d take it, of course, yeah,” Grabe said.

He said his restaurants in other towns close at 2 a.m.

At Orem’s Diner, one of the town’s oldest restaurants and one where liquor is served to go with meals, owner Demetri Papanikolaou said Wilton does not have a lot going on late at night, so it would probably not benefit restaurants in the way of more business.

“It’s kind of a moot point,” Papanikolaou said, saying he already stays open until midnight.