| “It’s really all about the music. Of course, it’s also about the food, the atmosphere, and the overwhelming sense of being an important part of the community. For Elissa and George Potts, however, the common thread that winds playfully around and through The Fife ‘n Drum in Kent, CT, seems to be the music.” — MAIN STREET MAGAZINE
Elissa Potts grew up on Long Island, daughter of Audrey and Dolph Traymon…he a celebrated Julliard educated pianist who, in his long career, accompanied Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and countless other performers of the Great American Songbook …and she a representative for a greeting card company who visited Kent, CT, as part of her territory – and fell in love.
Humble Beginnings and Hard Work
When Dolph and Audrey opened The Fife ‘n Drum restaurant in Kent, CT, in 1973, the current vibrant village was in its infancy. Poised along Route 7, traffic would come through on weekends – especially in leaf season and during summer vacation times – but finding a place for lunch was a bit of a challenge. The old roadhouse at the north end of town had been a tavern of sorts since 1830. It clearly needed some love, but Dolph and Audrey saw possibilities, and “The Fife…” was born. It seemed only natural that Elissa would, on her vacations from Lake Forest College in Illinois, come home and work in the family business. For several years, the family continued to live on Long Island, commuting up to Kent at strategic times to include buying the produce (Tuesday in Hunt’s Point) the meat (Wednesday on West 12th Street in the City) and the fresh baked goods (Friday in Greenwich). Everyone pitched in.
“One vacation stint working in the restaurant and I was hooked,” professes Elissa who is the ever present, ever-gracious restaurateur in the flourishing Kent location that now includes an inn and gift shop. “I love everything about this business – and that’s not an overstatement.” She is decisive. She is in love.
Goalie or Guitarist?
For George, who also grew up on Long Island, music was to be his chosen profession. Attending Lake Forrest, where he met Elissa, he made the strategic decision to step away from being a hockey goalie to pursuing his mastery of the guitar. “Being the varsity goalie at Taft didn’t mean much in college when the guys from Canada showed up and I gracefully took my place on the bench.” With college completed, George joined with band mates and formed Redwood Landing, a folk/jazz/rock fusion group and set out to conquer the Chicago music scene. Voted #1 Unsigned Band in Chicago, they made their run at fame, toured the college circuit and evolved their membership and sound, but when the coveted recording contract didn’t materialize, life moved on and George moved with his young bride to Connecticut. The digital memories live on, however, and if one wanders onto YouTube and looks for Redwood Landing, their final reunion concert at SPACE in 2011 will appear with George featured on vocals.
Footsteps on the Ceiling
The “music” for Elissa? “I can be down in the wine cellar, pulling a bottle for a dining table and I can hear the shuffle of feet on the wide board floors, the momentary clatter of dishes being set in a bussing tray and the murmur of conversations and the laughter of folks celebrating and I think – ‘what wonderful music!’” Music at The Fife ‘n Drum has always been a major attraction. Until his death in 2016, her father was a fixture at the Steinway piano near the bar, playing from memory hundreds of songs. When George came into the family, he expanded his musical expertise by mastering the upright bass and joined the Fife ‘n Drum Trio.
“I wasn’t really looking to learn a different kind of music,” allows George, “but after playing with Dolph for years, if someone says ‘All the Things You Are in B flat,’ I’d be right there.” These days George continues to revel in his music, being an active part of The Joint Chiefs, a group that started with three people jamming in 1995 and now as a foursome, continues to attract a fiercely loyal following to fundraising concerts, special events,and the occasional appearance at Infinity Hall in Norfolk, CT. The Fife’s website offers up the music schedule a month in advance – and also allows the inquisitive to view a performance of The Joint Chiefs at Infinity Hall. After all, it’s a family affair.
Keeping the rhythm … and avoiding the Blues
There is an undeniable elegance required to run a successful restaurant. That elegance has a rhythm and tone that can surely be identified as musical. Elissa has maintained that nightly concerto as “The Fife …” celebrates over 46 years in business and welcomes regulars and newcomers every week.
“We were on vacation in the islands,” recalls Elissa when she identified the “true north” that keeps the restaurant consistent in quality, imagination, and customer loyalty. “We went into a well-known restaurant and when greeted, one of our party assured the owner that we were all looking forward to dinner.
‘We’ve heard this place is terrific …’ was the greeting. The owner shook his head and said ‘That doesn’t mean anything. We’re only as good as the last meal we served you. If we don’t please you tonight, you won’t ever come back.’” Every new employee that joins the team at The Fife ‘n Drum hears that line and subscribes to it. Elissa and George’s two daughters, Kate and Sarah, learned the “mantra” early and spent summer vacations from school working in the restaurant. George recalls, “we also used to dock them 25 cents each if they didn’t go up to a customer, shake their hand, and say hello after we had asked them to … a lesson they both learned very well.”
The unswerving focus on courtesy and service may well be one of the reasons the staff on the floor has had so few turnovers. Some of the staff have been at the restaurant for 20 year or more – an outstanding record of loyalty on both sides of the employer/employee relationship in the hospitality industry. And, as the restaurateur in St. Bart’s suggested, satisfied customers come back. There are always specials and imaginative seasonal offerings on the evening menu, but there are also the reliable dishes that folks begin talking about on Tuesday in anticipation of a Friday evening dinner reservation. “We still create a Caesar Salad at tableside,” reflects Elissa. “That and the duck, which we also carve tableside are the before. There are standing reservations for Friday nights as weekenders flee New York City and head into the Litchfield Hills and the Berkshires. There are weddings for the children of couples who had their wedding receptions at the restaurant years two dishes that continue to be the most popular after all these years.”
The song has ended … but the melody lingers on
There is a coda to this story, a kind of Twilight Zone moment that affirms that “the melody lingers on…” With the passing of Dolph Traymon, there was a question of whether Elissa would continue to offer music at the restaurant. George was in charge of bringing in performers to fill the “Fridays at the Fife” schedule, but most nights the classic Steinway stood silent. Out of the blue one afternoon, a stranger walked into the Fife and found Elissa who was behind the bar. “I heard you might be looking for a piano player…” he said, modestly.
Roger Young is a gentle soul, and though he’d never been to the Fife before, and never heard Dolph playing there, the word of the vacancy had found its way to him. It didn’t take long for Elissa, with George’s encouragement, to offer Roger a trial night or two. When he sat down to play, it was almost mystical how his style, his musical selection, and his impact on the dinners reflected that of Dolph. “I was blown away,” offers Elissa. “It was uncanny … almost eerie. Some of the same quirky songs, the linking of songs to diners who would appear and be greeted by their favorite tunes – it was as if he was channeling my Dad.” But, there was more – a moment that was so profound that it left George and Elissa Potts standing, speechless. Ready to offer his second set of the evening, Young turned to the two and said the same words her father had offered every time he sat down to play. “I guess it’s time to make some noise.”
Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Monday nights, the music lives on at The Fife ‘n Drum. The Fife ‘n Drum is open every day but Tuesday for lunch, dinner and, on Sunday brunch at 53 Main Street in Kent, KT. Reservations suggested: (860) 927-3509. Ask for Elissa. She’ll be there.
For more information about George and The Joint Chiefs, visit their website at www.jointchiefsmusic.com