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Woog’s World Black Duck’s near closure stirs up memories

November 10, 2018

It 2009, the Staples High School boys soccer team won the state championship. The game was played in Ridgefield. By the time the bus got back to Westport, it was clear where the celebration would be: The Duck.

Players headed to Saugatuck. Their parents were already there. When the team walked into the restaurant — their medals hung proudly around their necks — the entire place cheered.

Had they been 21, patrons would have bought them beers. Instead, they had sodas and feasted on wings, fries and burgers. People bought their parents drinks, of course. Kids and adults, soccer fans and football fans and oldtime Westporters and newcomers, all mixed and mingled.

It was a glorious afternoon, and it continued into the evening. That was a typical scene at the Black Duck.

For 40 years, the barge with the park-wherever-you-can lot, tilted floor and river view has been the go-to place for celebrations. It’s where nearly every Staples class gathers the Friday night before “official” reunions. It’s the spot to take out-of-town friends and relatives to show the “real” — as in, non-hedge fund — Westport. Of course, it’s the place hedge fund guys went to to unwind, because they like beer, nachos and onion rings as much as anyone else.

The Duck was the place where everyone knew your name. It was the “Cheers” of Westport, with an even more diverse and interesting cast of characters.

And, like the show about that Boston bar, it had a TV connection. In 2009, the Duck was featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Waiters, bartenders and everyone else with a Duck connection has dined out on those 15 minutes of fame ever since.

But for a few scary days last week, all those celebrations — the nights spent drinking and eating with friends, singing karaoke, dancing to bands like Voodoo Carnival and being part of a scene that was at once so un-Westport, and at the same time so much a part of this town — seemed to be memories.

The Duck shut abruptly. The end came with just five days’ notice, via a Facebook post. No explanation was given.

Duck fans were stunned.

Since the late 1970s, it has been one of the town’s favorite watering spots. Long before that, too: Before being christened the Black Duck for owner Pete Aitkin’s racing speedboat of the same name, it was known as Davy Jones.

And I mean “watering” spot literally. The marina out back was where thirsty and hungry sailors and powerboaters tied up. Long before the Saugatuck River was filled with kayakers, canoeists and stand-up paddleboarders, it was a destination for anyone out on the Sound.

As much as the Duck was part of Saugatuck — bridging the old Italian neighborhood with the new, redeveloped one — it belonged to the river.

And I mean “bridging” literally too. More than once, patrons at the bar and out back were startled to see someone leap off the railroad bridge — or even the I-95 one. They were teenage (or 20-something) dares. The guy would jump, sink and resurface. The patrons would cheer. Then he’d swim over, clamber up into the Duck, and sit — soaked — while folks bought him round after round.

In the aftermath of the Duck’s closing — which, fortunately, was very short-lived — Westporters past and present posted thoughts on social media. Some recalled having their first legal drink there. Others remembered drinking there even before they were 18 (or 21). Hey, times were different then.

They remembered bartenders. They remembered servers. They remembered making their way to the Duck during blizzards and power outages. Sometimes it was — literally — the only port in a storm.

But the storms have taken their toll. Westport floods both more frequently and fiercely than it has in the past. The gravel parking lot has been inundated often, and the water rises behind the Duck too.

Meanwhile, the town changes. As much as folks love the Duck, they don’t go there as often. They don’t stay as late. Even though the barge is right off I-95, and right around the corner from the train station, it takes longer to get there from work by car or train.

We’ve got our own home entertainment systems, so we can watch sports — or anything else — at home. Uber Eats delivers, and so does nearly every restaurant in town.

Still, the Duck survived. Enough longtime regulars, occasional diners and hey-I-should-try-it folks were stunned enough that things happened. Realizing how much the Duck means to the town, owners and investors and the landlord (who knew the restaurant even had one?) hammered out a deal.

The Duck lives. Westporters no longer have to cry in their beer.

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