Dining

Noho’s Pearly Gate

At 40, Fitzwilly’s is both a vestige of Northampton’s hardscrabble past and a symbol of its successful present.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014
Paul Shoul photo

It’s mid-1986—date unspecified—and Roger Kirwood has owned Fitzwilly’s Restaurant and Bar for 12 years. Let’s say Space Shuttle Challenger had just exploded that morning. Let’s say Billy Sullivan’s Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the Bears 10 to 46 the previous evening. Here’s Kirwood, cruising around a boarded-up Northampton of a bygone era, thinking about Fitzwilly’s. Old photographs reveal a sleek, mustachioed gentleman, smile aslant like a lounge singer’s. Business was solid—reliable—but back then, Northampton’s army of yuppie-connoisseurs were still in boot camp: the Golden Age was years off.

Suddenly, along the southernmost edge of the Smith College campus, over where Bistro Les Gras and Pizza Amore now stand, Kirwood stops. “Maybe,” he muses, “I should relocate Fitzwilly’s to this part of town,” closer to the then-epicenter of pedestrian traffic. Maybe. Instead, Kirwood sold the place. “I wish I hadn’t,” he told me via telephone from his New Haven residence. “I practically gave it away,” his gruff voice continued, betraying a not-so-slight regret.

On this side of the Connecticut River, as you head southwest on Bridge Street, the road curves sharply southward, the rate of thigh tattoos per capita skyrockets, and today’s Northampton emerges in cosmopolitan dreaminess. Ahead, the crystallizing cityscape shimmers with a rustic urbanity, and there it is, unmissable in the collapsing distance, our very own HOLLYWOOD, painted in fading white on hundred-fifty-year-old brick: Fitzwilly’s, Northampton’s pearly gate, at once a vestige of the boarded-up past and a sign of the commercially successful present.

Fitzwilly’s Restaurant & Bar, the singularly longstanding staple of the local drinking and dining scene, the initiating domino in Northampton’s ongoing developmental chain, celebrates its fortieth birthday this year, and I had to learn more. I spent an hour with Fred Gohr, the current owner and behind-the-scenes personage to whom Kirwood sold his creation in 1988. “We just keep rolling along,” Gohr told me with understated confidence, smiling a familiarly slanted smile, like a lounge singer’s.

Gohr is easy company: a casual guy, completely unassuming, completely at ease. We sit together at a high-top toward the front of the restaurant, and in all directions Fitzwilly’s artifacts adorn the long walls and high ceilings like thematic shrapnel: copper placards and kettles, a strung-up miniature submarine, chandeliers both modest and immodest, backlit stained glass. He vacillates between serious and lighthearted in a manner that I particularly associate with middle-aged New Englanders. His arms cross and uncross, cross and uncross, perfectly in tempo with his vacillating demeanor. He speaks with a regional accent I can’t quite place. We make and break eye contact as needed, at times distracted by the unavoidable glitter of the decor, at times fully absorbed in conversation.

Gohr grew up in Meriden, Connecticut, and after high school enrolled at Johnson & Wales’ College of Culinary Arts in Rhode Island. Post-graduation, he headed to the University of New Haven to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Upon relocating, he answered an ad for a kitchen manager’s job at a restaurant called Peeper’s, which was owned by none other than Roger Kirwood. The two became fast friends, and in 1979, Kirwood asked Gohr if he’d be willing to ship out to Northampton and work for Fitzwilly’s. At that point, the restaurant had been open for five years, the kitchen had just been renovated, and it needed new management personnel. He immediately obliged. You can almost imagine a twenty-something Gohr, summer of ’79, as easygoing as he is today, driving north on I-91, entirely unaware of what he’d gotten himself into.

By the time 1988 rolled around, Kirwood had opened three additional Fitzwilly’s in New Haven, Danbury, and Bridgeport, cementing his reputation as a successful restaurateur. He was living in Connecticut, he was married to a woman from Connecticut, and his irregular commute to Massachusetts seemed increasingly needless. Gohr, who was still managing Fitzwilly’s in Northampton, saw his opportunity. He assembled a group of investors, and purchased the space as a condominium for $300,000. Kirwood’s voice echoes in my head: “I practically gave it away.”

Needless to say, Fitzwilly’s has thrived since ’88, concurrent with Northampton’s Golden Age. Gohr, despite a rapidly changing demographic, has purposely retained the restaurant’s characteristic old-fashioned feel while also sprucing it up enough to avoid aesthetic obsoleteness. Changes have been made: the Toasted Owl was appended in 2004; the building underwent substantial renovation in 2012. But to me, today’s Fitzwilly’s exudes authenticity and timelessness. It’s got a bit of the new and a bit of the old, a bit of the boarded-up and a bit of the yuppie-connoisseur.

Rather as dogs and their owners grow to resemble each other, Fitzwilly’s and Gohr share essential characteristics: an understated confidence, an unassuming personality, a manner somewhere between serious and lighthearted. The food, too, shares this lack of pretension. “It’s good,” Gohr fairly and straightforwardly describes it, “it’s consistent. It’s not gourmet, but it’s good, and every day it’s the same.” Gohr looks right at me, arms uncrossing. “It all came from Roger. He demanded excellence, he knew what he wanted to be, and he knew what he wanted Fitzwilly’s to be: a restaurant that’s approachable to the masses. And it remains to this day.”

At 5:45 p.m. on a Thursday, Fitzwilly’s is either half empty or half full. It’s loud—the televisions are on and a World Cup game has just ended—but it’s not too loud. An older, gray-haired waitress walks past with baskets of steaming appetizers, followed closely by a youngish, gel-haired waiter balancing a tray of assorted beers. I can see three young families eating at nearby circular tables, and six solo bar-squatters off to my left. From where I’m sitting, I count at least two half-Windsor knots and five pairs of flip-flops. A fourth young family walks through the front door, and the littlest girl’s eyes light up like it’s Chanukah evening.

“We have a lot of employees who have been here ten, fifteen, eighteen years,” Gohr mentions with evident pride. “Bartenders, cooks. Our staff is what makes it all work. They understand what needs to be done, and they enjoy their jobs because they enjoy their customers.”

I spend a few minutes walking around the spacious 180-seat venue, browsing the assortment of decorative objects. Turning a corner, I come across a framed old clipping from Hampshire Life. It begins: “Fitzwilly’s is Northampton’s own swinging but respectable, contemporary but nostalgic culinary melting pot.” There on the page, in the center of the third column, is an old photograph of Roger Kirwood, smile aslant like a lounge singer’s. He appears completely unassuming, completely at ease, and he’s sitting here, in Fitzwilly’s Restaurant & Bar, right where it began some forty years ago.

“We’re lucky to be in a town such as Northampton,” Gohr says in nostalgic summation. “We’re fortunate to have been a part of making Northampton what it is.•

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