For almost two and a half decades, Martha Newton of North Branford would bring her family to Madison on every fourth of July, and stay in Room 30 at the Madison Beach Hotel.
After the old hotel was torn down in the fall of 2009 to make way for a new hotel, Newton, 90, would drive by it just about every week to check on its progress. She was one of many, many area residents who made a spectator sport of keeping tabs on the hotel's progress over the past few years.
On Monday night, she got a call from her daughter, Jennifer Newton of Guilford. "Guess where we're going for dinner?" Jennifer asked her mom.
Marth Newton first to be seated
And so Martha Newton became the first guest to be seated in the new hotel dining room shortly after 4 p.m., when it opened Tuesday.
Martha said she was thrilled.
"Every week I drove by here to watch the progress," Newton said. "That's the honest truth. And I think it's lovely. Honestly."
While Newton was being seated in the dining room, Michael McNamara was in the bar, placing the first drink order. He opted for a Cosmopolitan martini.
"It's fun. It's fantastic."
"I didn't get out of my car until 3:59," he said. "I didn't want to be a pest." McNamara said he too was a fan of the new hotel. "I think it's the pride of Madison. It's fun. It's fantastic."
Rob Irwin of Madison, also at the bar ordering a Guiness, said he thought it was "top notch ... I like the restaurant and the bar and I enjoy the ocean views. You can't beat the views."
Trish McCarthy, the concierge at the hotel, said she felt she was "part of history in the making" as the new hotel opened Tuesday. The hotel does have a long and storied history in town. From its origins as a rooming house in the 1800's, it provided lodging to men who worked in Captain Abel Hoyt's shipyard. It later became a hotel with more than 50 rooms, with only some of them having bathrooms.
Rebuilding takes longer than projected
The Cooney family of Madison owned the hotel for almost four decades beginning in the mid-1960's. It was rebuilt and renovated several times, once after a fire, other times to keep it up to date. The hotel, under the management of the Cooney family and others, became popular with guests from far away and with locals too. The Crow's Nest became a favorite local hangout, often featuring bands until late at night. The hotel over the years also became a favored destination for weddings and other events.
In 2006, the Duques family bought it and in 2009 they tore it down to build a new one.
The rebuilding took longer than projected and the hotel made it through last summer relying upon a series of temporary certificates of occupancy when the town determined more work had to be done before a permanent certificate of occupancy would be granted.
346 restaurant/bar seats, 34 bar seats, 34 guest rooms ...
Several projected opening dates came and went as work continued, and the staff dealt with unexpected problems like the sprinkler accident that flooded the dining room not too ago. On Friday, the hotel finally got its permanent certificate of occupancy.
Some issues remain to be resolved. Parking is one issue that has been hotly debated, most recently at a meeting of the Madison Property Owners Association (MPOA) Monday night, which invited Madison Police Chief Jack Drumm and Police Commissioner Thom Cartledge to discuss the issue.
Board members from the MPOA pointed out that the Zoning Board of Appeals in November 2008 approved 346 restaurant/banquet seats, 34 bar seats, and 34 guest rooms.
... and only 86 parking spots
The hotel has 86 parking spots, Cartledge said. Both he and Drumm predicted parking would remain an issue, but Drumm said the town will deal with it by providing support where it can, and providing tickets and towing to those who violate the town's parking rules. Additional signage is planned for the surrounding area so there is no confusion about the rules, he said.
The hotel is evaluating several options for overflow parking, they said, including the commuter lot for employees, along with a local church and local businesses for event parking. The town also had been in discussions with the hotel over the possibility of providing a part of the town-owned Surf Club for parking.
Hotel General Manager John Mathers said Tuesday the hotel was mostly ready, but that some work is still left to be done. One example? The hotel is still establishing an optimal rate structure. Mather said the current range is between $375 and $425 a night for the summer season.
Some jobs still need to be filled
The hotel also still has a few jobs to fill. The spa, which is scheduled to open next week, is seeking two massage therapists and one nail technician. Mathers said there were a few other openings as well, in the food and beverage area of the hotel.
The hotel rooms had a soft opening Tuesday. The Duques family and Lou Carrier, president of the company that is managing the hotel, invited a few guests. And some members of a wedding to be held at the hotel this coming weekend are staying overnight as well.
Scott Duques of Ridgefield, CT, vice president of the hotel, was at the hotel Tuesday, along with his wife, Stephanie Gong, and their new baby Andrew. Gong, who is helping to set up and manage the spa, helped test out some spa treatments Tuesday. Spa Manager Patty Conroy of Clinton said the spa will be for guests of the hotel and restaurant, but that at some point it might be opened the members of the general public on a day pass option.
By 4:45 p.m., the bar is packed, diners are served
Working with his staff Tuesday to get everything ready, hotel General Manager John Mathers said they were looking forward to welcoming guests.
By 4:45 p.m., the small bar was packed and the first group of diners had started on their meals in the adjacent restaurant.
The new chef at the hotel is John Cortesi, who has worked as executive chef of the Saybrook Point Inn in Old Saybrook and at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in Meriden.
Preview menu offered, chef seeking input on items for final menu
His preview menu Tuesday included a selection of items from the lunch, dinner, Port Bar, and Ric's Raw Bar menus. A note on the menu said the full menus will be finalized by Memorial Day and that they are seeking feedback in the meantime.
Raw bar offerings included Jumbo Shrimp ($3.50 each) and Oysters and Cherrystones ($2.75 each). There were several soups and salads. Appetizers included Big Eye Tuna Tartar with avocado, cucumber, and spicy aioli ($16), three differents kinds of fries ($6 to $8), P.E.I. Mussels Fra Diavlo ($13), and a Mezze Plate with long stem artichokes, crisp vegetables, garlic hummus, and minted yogurt ($12).
Pizzas, including a Duck Confit Pizza, ($12 to $14); sandwiches, including a New England Lobster Roll served on toasted brioche, ($13 to market price); and a wide range of entrees round out the menu. Entrees include Grilled Filet Mignon with a side of garlic potato puree, a sunny side quail egg, charred green onion and broccolini ($42) and Strigoloni with shaved asparagus, brown alba mushroom, red bell pepper, garlic and olive oil ($23).
Mostly local crowd in the bar, including some old, familiar faces
The small bar got crowded quickly with a mostly local crowd, including some who used to frequent the old Crow's Nest bar at the old hotel. Some visitors, including two who got to the hotel before the opening at 4 p.m. and were not able to get in, felt like everything about the hotel was too new.
"I miss the old place," said the early comers, who asked not to be identified by name. They said they didn't want to jeopardize their chances of getting in later. "I miss the old historical feel. This is just a brand new, luxury class, 21st century hotel. It's too sparkling. It's too New York .. but I bet people will come. I bet they do well."
Madison resident Kerry Holmes, sitting in the bar area having cocktails and appetizers with her sister and some friends, said she hoped the hotel does well.
"I hope it goes gangbusters," she said.
Shortly after the opening, Mathers walked down the grand circular stairway in the center of the lobby, and heard the sound of guests in the nearby bar and restaurant. "That's the sound I've been waiting to hear," he said. "Instead of power tools, it's people."
This story was originally posted at 3:45 p.m. Tuesday, May 1, 2012, and was updated later Tuesday night.