03 January, 2010

Vintage Sunday: The Mountain Laurel Restaurant, Thompsonville CT

In the days before huge chain restaurants spread their homogeneous mediocrity across the country, dining out was more of a special occasion. There were casual places and dives, of course - diners, roadhouses and taverns were fairly common on state roads and US routes - but a real restaurant was different. Families wore their "Sunday Best" and visited a restaurant to celebrate a special event or anniversary. And every town, no matter how small, seemed to have a local restaurant that enjoyed some renoun.

In Thompsonville Connecticut, a small mill town on the Connecticut River at the Massachusetts border, that restaurant was the Mountain Laurel, and up through the 1960's, it enjoyed a reputation throughout southern New England for fine dining.

Originally opened in the early 1930's as Chef's Grille, by 1939 the restaurant was operating as The Mountain Laurel on US 5 just north of downtown. It soon became the venue of choice for local civic organizations and industries for banquets, award dinners, and charitable events, and it was equally popular with the public at large for anniversary dinners, wedding receptions, and celebratory nights out. The post card above, published about 1941, shows the original building in Thompsonville, backed up against open fields and woods which have been long since developed.

Throught the 1950's and 1960's, hardly a week went by without the restaurant's name in the newspaper, thanks to the number of local businesses and organizations booking it for their social calendars. And no place in the area was more popular for sophisticated New Years Eve celebrations than The Mountain Laurel. Over time, two large new dining rooms were added on the north and south sides of the building. The postcard image above shows how the building looked from the late 1960's on - the trademark awnings on the front of the building and the large mountain laurel bushes in front of the large windows in the original section.

After nearly forty years, original owner Hugo Trappe sold the restaurant. It was announced in the Hartford Courant in early October 1969; the sale was considered newsworthy not only because the Mountain Laurel was firmly established as a landmark and "destination" restaurant, but because the price - $800,000 - was staggeringly high at the time. For another ten years, the Mountain Laurel prospered, but by the early 1980's the handwriting was on the wall.

Restaurant dining had become more common and less special. Several good independent restaurants opened in the surrounding area and the Mountain Laurel was facing heavy competition from chain places like Olive Garden and Red Lobster as well as an explosion in fast-food, pizza, and Asian take-outs in town. The decor and menu at the aging restaurant were dated and felt "stodgy" to youger diners. When the restaurant closed in the mid-80's, it went quietly. Some people didn't even realize it was gone until the large lighted sign with it's distinctive script lettering and painted mountain laurel blossoms was removed and scrapped. The restaurant is long gone, but the building survives. Today (as shown below) it houses medical offices and has been renovated into a typically bland, characterless "professional center," stripped of its awnings, mountain laurel plantings, and the fireplace and chimney on the south side of the structure.

Like most local landmarks from the pre-internet age, there is a staggering lack of information about the old Mountain Laurel online, aside from a few postcards and old menus offered for sale by ephemera dealers. My daughter knows the Mountain Laurel only as "that medical center across the street from the bank." But when the Mountain Laurel died, a piece of the Connecticut River Valley died with it, and it deserves a better memorial than an "ephemera for sale" page in a dark corner of the web.

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