At Bistro 303, everyone has a gay old time.

Eat, Drink and be Merry 

At Bistro 303, everyone has a gay old time.

My old man spent most of his working life in the wholesale booze business, making calls on restaurants, bars and liquor stores. He liked to throw back a few with his customers, but I only saw him completely intoxicated on a few occasions -- all of which ended badly for me, a mouthy and obnoxious teenager. He'd chase after me with a belt or a wooden spoon or whatever else he could get his hands on, but he was big and fat, and if I got a good running start, I could leap over the fence in our backyard and stay out of his sight until he sobered up.

He didn't like the nasty, foul-tongued lout he became when he drank too much, so he usually kept a wary distance from the bottle. An alcoholic, he said, was someone who had a complete personality change after drinking too much -- and who liked his drunk personality better. He always cited a family friend who was drab and timid sober but after several cocktails would belt out blues songs and wail at the moon. My parents didn't mind the off-key singing, but one boozy night she substituted my mother's good embroidered hand towels for toilet paper and became persona non grata for life.

In my own drinking days, I was fascinated by how saloons underwent personality changes, too. In the daylight hours, a bar might seem morbidly quiet, dirty and forlorn -- only to transform into a brazen cabaret after nightfall, with sultry lighting, rollicking music and the seductive tinkle of glasses underscoring rowdy laughter. But after last call, when the patrons stumbled home and the lights went up, the place would be dingy again, like Cinderella after the magic spell has worn off.

In the case of Westport's new Bistro 303, the personality change between lunch and the cocktail hour isn't nearly that extreme -- it's a classy little joint on both sides of the clock -- but at a certain point, food becomes an afterthought.

During the day, the sunny dining room is a comfortable lunch venue with a simple but elegant menu. By dusk, that menu has been tucked away and the granite-topped tables and copper-sheathed bar are lit up by twinkling votive candles. A tiny blackboard at one end of the bar lists four or five appetizer plates and at least one dessert. By 9 p.m., food service is over and the square room echoes with a cacophony of laughter and clinking ice cubes, the occasional loud vulgarity exploding through the madness like a firecracker: "I told her," yelled one young, perfectly coifed boy at the bar, "that she was nothing but a fucking bitch."

My friend David looked up as he spread a layer of chicken liver pâté across a bite-sized crostini and wondered, "Do you think he's talking about a boy or a girl?"

At Bistro 303, anything is possible. In the evening, there aren't many femmes fatales at the bar. That didn't seem to bother our friend Jennifer one bit, because she -- and her attractive, fur-trimmed black ensemble -- got plenty of attention from the bartender, the owner and almost everyone else. Ditto for the pretty redhead carrying a purse that looked like a coal miner's zinc lunch pail. She and I had the same epiphany about that night's jazz soundtrack, created by daytime bartender and waiter Jon Fitzgerald: It sounded like bump-and-grind stripper music.

I had visions of a burlesque queen popping out of a closet near the bar. The redhead and her boyfriend pointed to a square niche above the entrance to the back hallway. "A really tiny stripper up there!" they said in unison.

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