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Port Chester still ‘Restaurant Capital of Westchester’

Rafael Palomino

Rafael Palomino, owner of Sonora restaurant in Port Chester.

More than a decade ago, chef and restaurateur Rafael Palomino came to Port Chester. He’d established a boast-worthy reputation in Manhattan in the late 1990s after opening the original Sonora there, but he recognized the expense of the city as a challenge.

Palomino wanted to look at places closer to his new home in Bedford. “When I started there, I was nothing there,” Palomino recalled. “I was coming from New York City and (Port Chester) was dead, not appealing at all.”

Palomino couldn’t afford Greenwich, but wanted a more affordable location that welcomed diversity. “Port Chester had at the time 25 to 30 restaurants – there was a small number (and) no dynamic. I took a chance.” It paid off: Today, Sonora is one of the cornerstones of Port Chester that recognizes itself as “The Restaurant Capital of Westchester County.”

Port Chester is home to 140 restaurants, according to Mayor Dennis Pilla’s office. The diversity of eateries is also a calling card. Sonora offers Latin fusion dining; Tandoori: Taste of India has authentic Indian cuisine; there are several Mexican restaurants, including El Tio and Coyote Flaco; and Italian cuisine is well represented.

“All kinds of restaurants started coming to Port Chester about 10 years ago,” said Ken Manning, executive director of Port Chester-Rye Brook-Rye Town Chamber of Commerce. “It’s all thriving; everyone is thriving from what we hear. You can’t get through Main Street and that means business is good.”

Business has been good for the Italian eatery Tarry Lodge as well. The restaurant has been a mainstay in the village of Port Chester since 1906. In 2008, partners, including famed chef, author and television personality Mario Batali, award-winning chef Andy Nusser, wine-maker and restaurateur Joe Bastianich, and award-winning wine steward Nancy Selzer, bought Tarry Lodge.

“We are a restaurant group that is based in New York, and most of our restaurants are in Manhattan with a few exceptions,” said Selzer. “One of our main partners, Joe Bastianich, lives in Greenwich (Conn.) and was drawn to this building because of its historical significance. It’s always functioned as some sort of restaurant. It was a speakeasy at one point in time.”

Selzer said expanding to Port Chester proved to be a good move. It’s in a convenient spot for Westchester residents, patrons in New York City and those across the border in Connecticut. Tarry Lodge also benefits from the restaurant culture that feeds the larger community atmosphere, Selzer said.

Palomino agrees the dynamic that exists among eateries in Port Chester also embraces those outside the industry. When he came to the village, Palomino began not only to build his business but also relationships. He’s been a board member of Don Bosco, a community center established in the village in 1928. Just last year, Palomino helped promote the center’s annual Fusion of Flavor, a fundraiser that highlights area restaurants and in turn raises money for Don Bosco, focusing on helping youth and embracing the immigrant population in Port Chester.

According to Father Richard Alejunas, executive director of the center, 28 restaurants participated last year. This year, that number went up to 48, including Palomino’s Sonora and the Tarry Lodge. The restaurant culture has not only helped the center but provided inspiration.

“We are doing a building expansion, which will include a culinary school,” said Alejunas. “It has been a part of the fundraising.” The cost of the building project is estimated to be $2 million and recently the center received a $1 million gift from a private donor. Alejunas said a quarter of the building facility will be dedicated to the new culinary school and Palomino is going to help outfit its kitchen. The center is expecting to break ground for the expansion in April 2013.

Both men say the building expansion and culinary program is important to the culture of Port Chester and its identity as a food-lovers destination. Palomino said it’s something to be proud of. “I think we have everything going on. That makes Port Chester dynamic.”

Rafael Palomino, owner of Sonora restaurant in Port Chester.

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