Dining at Water Street Cafe is like eating blueberries; you can’t just have one or in the case of dining, going once just isn't an option.
I discovered 12 years ago. Working through college at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in San Francisco, I learned to enjoy the culinary arts. Once here, I fell in love with Water Street Cafe’s fare as well as the distinct experience of enjoying the stunning borough attributes while feeling somehow transported to an intimate New York City bistro.
Water Street Cafe's personable sophistication in both fare and ambiance is thanks to married couple Walter and Stephanie Houlihan. Stephanie describes Walter as the creative and quiet philanthropist who flies under the radar and I describe Stephanie as a warm, community minded and environmentally conscious beauty.
Stephanie, the daughter of an air force pilot and an eccentric artist and cook, was born in Puerto Rico. Her father who flew B-52 bombers, moved every three years taking the family in tow. Between Europe, the Middle East and America, Stephanie has lived in over 12 countries. As a result, she grew up with a multi-cultural flare and a holistic perspective.
It was in New York that Stephanie’s career in hospitality management took off.
“I made it a point to know who was who and from there I was highly recommended for the Parker Meridian and was part of the opening team of Hotel Millennium,” Stephanie said.
It was also in New York that Stephanie met Walter, a chef at the United Nations Plaza Hotel. The couple married in 1990.
“We lived in NYC which was very transient and we wanted to live in a community where people knew each other—we wanted to be part of a community,” Stephanie said.
The Houlihans were familiar with Stonington and thought it may be just the place to combine their talents and open a restaurant.
Water Street Cafe has seen its way around the borough. Initially, the restaurant was opened where is now and then took the place of historic Harbor View until September 1997 when a fire destroyed the restaurant.
“The fire started in the bar and was discovered by a fisherman coming into the harbor at one in the morning,” Stephanie said. “I closed the restaurant at midnight and an hour later, the restaurant was engulfed in flames.”
The difficulties of the loss were juxtaposed by an outpouring of community help. The and rallied together to raise thousands of dollars.
“Until recently, I couldn’t tell this story without crying,” Stephanie said. “It was like the movie A Wonderful Life—so heartwarming. We have been so loved in this community—they really united and came to the rescue for us.”
After the fire, Water Street Cafe found a permanent home at its current location, serving guests such as Ted Kennedy, Uma Thurman and Vigo Mortenson. The restaurant is filled with friendly faces during the week and mostly new faces on the weekends.
Water Street Cafe also does its fare share to support local farmers and environmental causes which Stephanie is passionate about. Using the restaurant as an environmental platform for Earth Hour, Stephanie participated in the international efforts by turning the lights out on a busy Saturday night for one hour. She brought 150 tea lights, lanterns and flashlights.
“It was magical—the lights went out and the place was glowing,” Stephanie said. “When the hour was over, I thanked everyone for being a part of Earth Hour and said should we turn the lights back on? Everyone echoed ‘no!’”
When asked about plans to expand Stephanie points to a sign on her wall, which reads, ‘the best things in life aren’t things’.
“We’ve been here 17 years and it’s boiled down to staying focused on this—this is what we do best and we want to continue maintain the quality of what we have.” Stephanie continued, “Everybody wants to make more money, but I have everything that I need.”