Any business that can last for 40 years is unusual, especially in the hyper competitive restaurant industry. But that’s just what Widow Brown’s Café, a mainstay at 128 Federal Road in Danbury since Jimmy Carter was president, is celebrating these days.
Not bad for a place named after a woman who never existed.
“We get that question all the time: Who was Widow Brown?” laughed owner Aura Showah at the 165-seat eatery as the lunchtime crowd was just starting to dwindle on a recent afternoon. “That’s why we include ‘her’ story on the menu.”
Customers unfamiliar with local history can thus learn that the illusive Sarah Brown had 12 children who, when her beaver-trapping husband, Elias, died, poured her woes into running a restaurant, resulting in a place so instantly popular that even the legendary Ethan Allen — who died in 1789 — used to swing into Danbury to sample its wares.
That touch of whimsy has helped the establishment withstand any number of competitors, recessions and trends for four decades and counting. Much more than the homey diner that it seems from the outside, Widow Brown’s augments the expected burgers, wraps and chili with the likes of kale salad, lobster fettuccine and rice bowls — all under the eye of recently hired chef Joe Hawkes, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who whips up his own creations while also maintaining the old standbys.
“I grew up eating here,” Hawkes said. “Even when I was working at other restaurants, I’d try to come in for a French dip and a beer at least once a week.”
The restaurant also draws crowds with live music on Friday and Saturday nights, an open mic on Sundays, trivia contests on Tuesdays, plus other events. More recently, thanks to Showah’s son and general manager J.T. Wilson, Widow Brown’s has become notable for having 20 beers on tap with 15 rotating craft beers — many sourced from area brewers such as Hamden’s Counter Weight Brewing Co. and Stamford’s Half Full Brewery.
“I’m getting pitched all the time, but I know what I want,” Wilson said. “I’m always looking for special limited editions, something you don’t see all the time … there’s enough interest in craft beers today that people will come from miles away to try something new.”
“We’re definitely not the same restaurant we were when we opened 40 years ago,” Showah said. “The only way to stay in business is to keep evolving. And now, thanks to all the celebrity chefs and social media, you’ve got to keep on top of more things than ever before to stay relevant.”
Showah got involved in the restaurant business thanks to her then-husband Tom Wilson, who along with three others opened the Marble Day Pub in New Preston in 1973; that establishment was sold in 2008 and is now known as The White Horse. Another Widow Brown’s operated in Naugatuck for a time, but today the Danbury operation is Showah’s sole focus; she’s also the sole owner.
A garden center was originally on the site, Showah said, but residents soon welcomed Widow Brown’s as a reliable alternative to the fast-food joints that have dotted that particular stretch of the Danbury thoroughfare for practically as many years.
The prices have of course also evolved: an original Widow Brown’s menu offers a “steakburger” for $1.45, while the “classic burger” of today costs $11.
Special anniversary parties are planned for June 9 and 10, and plans are afoot to return some old favorites to the menu like the semi-legendary “Crabby Hayes,” a crab salad-and-melted cheese concoction served on an English muffin.
“It’s been a terrific business, but I’m not getting any younger,” Showah said. “It’s a young person’s business. I started this when I was in my late 30s, early 40s, and I’m pushing 70 now.”
When she does retire to Florida — “probably in a couple of years” — Wilson and Hawkes will take over.
“They love it,” she said, “and they have all kinds of ideas that they won’t have to talk to me about. I’ll still have my laptop in Florida and help with the bookkeeping and things like that if necessary, but otherwise it’s like, ‘Enough. Put a fork in me — I’m done!’”