West Haven shoreline's 'iconic' Chick's Drive-In sign is no more

Photo of Brian Zahn

WEST HAVEN — For almost a decade, the 20-foot Chick's Drive-In sign beckoned beachgoers and drivers along West Haven's shoreline to a vacant restaurant.

For 65 years, the iconic restaurant grilled split hot dogs on Beach Street, before closing in 2015 per the request of founder Joseph "Chick" Celentano upon his death.

Last week, developers replaced the sign to advertise 12 luxury townhouse units that are being constructed on half of the former Chick's property.

"Chick was a pioneer and had an iconic shoreline destination for decades," said developer Chris Marone. "I remember going there as a kid, and he was a very close family friend to my partner and his family, so we knew Chick very well."

The sign, which had deteriorated over the years, has a new look to advertise the townhouse units with views of the water, called The Tides. The sign is now capable of being illuminated at night, Marone said.

City Councilwoman Colleen O'Connor, R-At Large, said it is "kind of sad to see part of my childhood go away."

"We spent many hours during high school sitting in cars in the parking lot flirting, laughing and being teenagers," she said,  as well as admiring the muscle cars parked in the lot. "At least half of my friends and two family members worked there at some point. So, yes, it is bittersweet."

Meli Garthwait, R-2, whose district includes the site, said she was excited to see development progress. She said she was glad to see they replaced the sign while maintaining its structure.

"It's nice the developers have repurposed it in homage to Chick's," she said.

O'Connor said that, despite the bittersweet feelings, she was "excited for the future."

"It is time to reclaim that space for West Haven," she said.

Vin Amendola, the attorney who represented the Celentano estate in the sale of the property to its new owners, worked at the restaurant from 1968 to 1969.

"It was a time when the beach was sprawling, the beach was very large, and there was always a big beach crowd. People would come off the beach and come into the stand for grilled hot dogs. Some summer nights were busy at 12 midnight on a weekend," Amendola said.

Amendola said the restaurant was "the best of West Haven folklore" with its own regular "cast of characters" and a solid source of employment for high school and college students in its era.

"You always knew you were in West Haven when you came down First Avenue onto Beach Street and saw that sign. It was iconic. It was almost the first monument you would see when you would come into West Haven," Amendola said. 

Amendola said that, although the "winds of change" can be expected, he does feel the changing sign has created "somewhat of a void."

"It was happier, happier times in West Haven back then. It's where neighbors would congregate," he said.

Christine Sullivan Gallo, chairwoman of the city's Economic Development Commission, said she has reservations about the townhouse development because she does not believe the area needs more housing density. However, she said she is "glad the Chick's sign is gone" and the new sign shows "there's something going on."

"It's better than nothing," she said.

Dave Killeen, a shoreline resident and former assistant city planner, said he believes the sign is representative of market demand.

“Any property owner has to figure out how they can best utilize their property and maximize their return on it,” he said. "There's more of a market demand for housing than commercial development.”

Killeen said he felt it was "unrealistic" to expect the Chick's sign to stay forever, but also the current sign — advertising Stacy Blake Realty — also appears to be a temporary advertisement until the townhouse units are purchased.

It is also potentially advantageous to the developer to keep the sign structure in place, he said, because it is possible that the same sign could not be built again under current zoning regulations.

“I look at this as a positive. If they can get development of townhouses there and enough interest from the public to buy and live in units there, it’s a positive,” Killeen said.

Mayor Nancy Rossi said that, while the changing of the sign may be "bittersweet" she is hopeful the property will be cleaned up and developed in the coming months.

Although the townhouses are consuming all of developers' "time, energy and effort," Marone said it only reflects half of the construction project. The other half of the parcel, which includes the former restaurant, is "on pause" until a beach road-raising construction project is completed. The most recent projected timeline for the project, which has been delayed multiple times, is slated to begin in April.