Bernard's owners selling Ridgefield restaurant after nearly 22 years

Photo of Leeanne Griffin

Bernard's, and its bucolic Ridgefield property known for alfresco garden seating, are officially on the market. But it will be business as usual for Bernard and Sarah Bouissou's upscale French restaurant, until the right buyers come along.

The couple's timeline is right on track, said Sarah Bouissou. When they purchased the property and opened the restaurant in March 2000, they'd always planned to run it for 20 to 25 years.

"Everybody's like, 'You're so busy, why do you want to sell?'" she said. "This is our plan. We've always wanted to go out on top. If we wait too long, it'll be too late for us to start something new."

"People are like, 'I know, I get it. You're tired,'" she said. "But no, no, we're not tired. We've got a lot more energy, but we just want to start to put it on something else."

As the restaurant approaches its 22nd year, the couple is ready for the next chapter. When they bought the property, where they also live, they were looking for an idyllic town setting with a good school system for their four daughters, then aged three, four, seven and eight. Now that they're adults, they've all moved out, and "we don't need the six-bedroom house Bernard and I are in," Sarah said. 

The estate at 20 West Lane, comprising the restaurant building and the Bouissou's home on 1.93 acres of land, is listed with Colliers at $3 million. 

The Bouissous met as chefs in New York City in the 1980s, working together at Le Cirque. They married on Bastille Day in France in 1990, and moved to Norwalk in 1992, continuing their culinary careers in the city: Bernard at Tavern on the Green and Sarah running her own catering business. Bernard also later served as executive chef at La Panetiere in Rye, N.Y.

"We were looking to buy our own place, and we'd say, in a perfect world, we'd find a restaurant with a house on the property with a good school system and a great town," Sarah said.

One day, Sarah and her catering manager drove by the property in Ridgefield, and the manager pointed it out to her. "Six months later, we owned it," she said.

Just a few months after Bernard's opened, the Bouissous earned a four-star review in the New York Times, in which critic Patricia Brooks raved about the foie gras trio ("an exquisite threesome!") that's still one of the most beloved dishes on the menu. The restaurant has also won numerous Wine Spectator awards for its wine list.

As the country faced economic downturn in 2008, the couple grew concerned that people wouldn't be spending money on fine dining. They decided to introduce Sarah's Wine Bar, with a less expensive and more casual menu and vibe in the restaurant's upstairs seating area.

The new concept was such a success that guests encouraged them to transform the whole restaurant into Sarah's, but the Bouissous remained faithful that fine dining would return — and it did, Sarah said, with Bernard's rebounding about two years later.

The COVID-19 pandemic didn't even particularly slow them down, she said. While other fine dining restaurants pivoted to offering more casual takeout and family-style meals, Bernard's kept its core menu available, taking care to plate dishes like the foie gras trio and rack of lamb as artfully as possible in to-go containers. 

"We decided we wanted to stay who we were, and people really appreciated it. We didn't really shift to a different formula," Sarah said.  "We've always been a special occasion place. We tried to make it special, even though you weren't here."

As Bernard's welcomed guests back for indoor dining, they decided to merge the menus, offering "the best of Sarah's and Bernard's" in both spaces. Guests looking for the more formal experience sit in the Bernard's dining room, and those wanting a more casual night out will choose the upstairs Sarah's seating.

For their next step, the Bouissous said they're looking to open a gourmet store with prepared foods, and potentially continue catering, "but just not a restaurant," Sarah said. "We'd like to shut the door at 6:30, 7 [p.m.] and have a little bit of an evening life."

They don't have a specific location in mind for that new project, because they're not sure how long the sale may take. The restaurant will operate normally until it's sold, with upcoming plans for Christmas Eve and New Year's dinners.

"We're both kind of firm believers that the universe is going to present the right place for us," Sarah said. "We're not really looking, because we're waiting to see...we could be here for another year, or two years. We're putting it out there to the universe."

Sarah said some of her favorite memories from the restaurant include outdoor Bastille Day wine dinners in Bernard's gardens, and birthday parties for her daughters, where Bernard would bring their friends into the kitchen and bake cakes with them. All four daughters have worked at the restaurant or with the catering business in multiple roles, as hosts, bartenders and sous chefs.

"We've always wanted to be part of the hope is whoever takes over, they'll have a similar mindset," she said. "There's something special about this building. It was built in 1875. It's been a restaurant since 1946. And it's only had three owners. That's an amazing run for for a restaurant, and so there's some good energy in these walls for the next [owner.]"

"It's not going to be the same," she said. "But there's a lot of really talented chefs out there who have vision, and who have ideas and dreams...I know that person or people are out there."