Going to culinary school was just an excuse to find out what Clyde Ripka didn’t know about food. Turns out it wasn’t much.
When he was 12, the Long Island native and current East Fishkill, N.Y., resident, spent his summer traveling to a New Jersey Holiday Inn, where his father was a partner, to peel potatoes and wash dishes. By 14, Ripka, blonde and tall—the stereotypical surfer dude—was spending his summers surfing while working as a soda jerk at a Massapequa bowling alley.
“Surfing during the day and working at a restaurant at night was right up my alley,” Ripka recalled. “And the money was good!”
Active in the kitchen since early childhood, Ripka credits his mother for his love of cooking and food.
“My mother is a great cook,” he said, “and I just love food. I’ve always had a passion for it.”
Over the ensuing years, Ripka tried to “quit” food. He lived in Maui for a while (perfect for surfing), gave modeling a shot in Manhattan, and even tried his hand at real estate in Montauk the 1970s, but he always came back to what he knew and loved: restaurants.
Ripka has been a fixture on the Fairfield County restaurant scene since 1987 when he took over managing a Mexican restaurant in Ridgefield before moving to Greenwich.
That didn’t last, unfortunately, as the menu with its $9 burritos couldn’t keep up with the $16,000-per-month rent.
“Where else can you enjoy two dozen oysters and a glass of champagne by the water while the guy next to you has a hotdog?”
Several different restaurants and delis followed. Tuscan Oven in Norwalk (now Oak & Almond)? Ripka helped open. Rowayton Seafood? Ripka played a role. Bull Market in Norwalk and Stamford? Ripka.
He found himself doing catering gigs and running the food kiosk in Norwalk’s City Hall, and it was there he heard of a unique opportunity: The building at Calf Pasture Beach was soon to be available.
“I grew up surfing and have had places on the water, so getting back to the water was kinda cool,” recalled Ripka. “I instantly had a vision of what the place could be.”
Ripka soon closed his other stores and focused on Ripka’s at the Beach at Calf Pasture.
“I just put all my love into it,” said Ripka. “It’s the best of all worlds for me.”
What has made it such a destination for even those traveling out of state? Its eclectic menu of beachside staples and unexpected culinary treats as well as its beach setting — and the special themed events like clam bakes, full moon watching, musical guests and October Fest weekends, to name but a few.
“Where else can you enjoy two dozen oysters and a glass of champagne by the water while the guy next to you has a hotdog?” laughed Ripka. “My clientele is every thing — from flip-flop wearers and skateboarders to an elite, older crowd.”
“I should be down at the beach grinding up margaritas and serving lobster rolls instead of sitting in my back yard.”
Ripka loves the people he meets and admits that simply striking up a good conversation with a client or two can be all that’s needed to turn a stressful day into something he says calms him and keeps him focused. For several summers now, he’s looked forward to serving a group of ladies from Brooklyn who visit his establishment every two weeks for the lobster rolls and view.
These days, Ripka wonders if he’ll be seeing his old friends as social distancing and mandatory closings have left Ripka’s at the Beach shuttered.
While he could do takeout, as many restaurants do, his location works against this since the city of Norwalk had gated the beach and not allowed any cars in since mid-March. So instead, Ripka has replaced the windows and doors and just finishing up the floors and ceilings. He’s also been working for Stew Leonard’s in Danbury and helping with take-home meals for free and reduced students at the school where his wife teaches.
“I’ve been busy as hell,” laughed Ripka, “just not making any money!”
Mother’s Day should have been a busy weekend, especially when paired with sunny weather. But not this year.
All that is about to change for Ripka and everyone else as Connecticut begins to open up. With outdoor-dining restaurants expected to re-open on May 20, Ripka is looking at May 15 for his take-out re-opening.
In a typical year, by this point, Ripka would be well on the way to hiring a full summer staff of 35 workers after manning the kitchen and counters solo all winter long.
“This has been like the longest winter in the world,” said Ripka. “I should be down at the beach grinding up margaritas and serving lobster rolls instead of sitting in my back yard.”
Hoping that longtime customers find their way back and new ones give it a try, Ripka is ready to open his doors and welcome everyone in (per state guidelines of course).
“I’m a chef and sommelier and have opened 25 restaurants — several for myself. I’ve been in this business for 50 years and take a lot of pride in what I’m doing,” admits Ripka. “This industry is not easy, to begin with; if you internalize and stress over it, it will kill you. You have to find the joy.”