Phil's Grill is the real deal

You can't say that Phil Santomassi doesn't do his homework.

He'll tell you about the many times he was camped out in a parking lot at 5 a.m., watching customers come in and out of the Doughnut Inn in the Noroton Heights Shopping Center.

He wasn't being creepy. Instead, he was studying. As a potential buyer of the longtime doughnut franchise, he wanted to know what he was getting into.

"I would sit outside and watch the traffic he had, the train commuters who came in, and how much sales they did," he said. "I was trying to figure out what the place might be worth, and I had to make sure it was making money."

Turns out it was doing just fine, and that's why he bought the place. That was back in 2000, and Santomassi went on to become a well-known fixture in the Noroton Heights area. Even now, almost five years after he sold the place, he can be found hanging out at the doughnut shop catching up with his buddies.

So it only makes sense that when he decided to open his newest venture, he wouldn't go very far.

Santomassi recently opened Phil's Grill, a new restaurant located at 340 Heights Road, in a building that once was a video store in the back of the parking lot that still houses the doughnut shop he once owned.

"I built my second hangout," he said. "People have been starving for something like this on this side of town. They've been thanking me."

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Judging from his lunch crowds of around 300 people every day since he opened in April, he's right. The new place, which he describes as a "family grill," features a menu that can appeal to just about any palate. Burgers, hot dogs, entree salads, soups, and panini sandwiches are just a few of the selections one can choose from. At dinnertime, try the ribeye steaks, pulled pork, or his creamy version of macaroni and cheese. While you won't find a bar there -- it is family place, after all -- Phil does serve wine and beer.

"I have a 16-year-old, and I don't know if I want my son going to a hamburger place with a bar," he said. "I know many parents, and they feel very safe with their kids here."

It's that attitude that reflects his love for Darien. A Bronx native, Santomassi grew up around hard work. He lost his father at a young age, and he said his mother instilled in him a strict work ethic. He can remember working at age 17 in the Archdiocese of New York doing laundry, and eventually working his way to be an emergency medical technician at the Misercordia Hospital. Down the line he found himself working as an administrator, and while he said he was doing fine, there was something missing.

"I woke up one day and decided that I wanted to work for myself," he said.

He started running truck routes for Canada Dry, and at one point found himself working as a CEO of a multi-specialty medical practice, and moved to Darien with his wife so his sons could go to the schools in town. But it was long hours, and he wanted a change so he could enjoy time with his family.

So started his stalking of the Doughnut Inn back in 1995, and the subsequent purchase of the franchise that led to his current success as a restaurateur in town. In 2006, he sold the doughnut shop and moved his family to North Carolina for an easier life and to save some money. But the schools weren't what they hoped for their children, and the family moved back to Darien.

He always wanted to open a burger joint, and it was a local newspaper article about a lack of restaurants in the Noroton Heights area of town that got him thinking. After some tweaking, Phil's Grill has turned into an upscale burger joint where the entire family can get a good lunch or dinner for under $20.

Keeping with the family feel, the kitchen is designed with an open design, allowing the diner to watch as their meal is being prepared. A large dining room with high ceilings and warm brown and amber colors invites the diner in to relax. Big screen TVs hang on the wall for those who want to catch sports action, and a dining bar along the wall provides an area for more casual dining.

Moving forward, Santomassi said an outdoor al fresco dining area will be available for outdoor dining during the summer, and he said he wants to continue giving back to the community. The restaurant features what he calls the "Posty Burger," and he donates 10 percent of the proceeds from the burger to Post 53 EMS. In addition, he said he sponsors a golf tournament for Hackers for Hope, which raises money for cancer research.

"This is a great little town," he said.