SOUTHINGTON — The Popular Restaurant was a little of everything: bar, banquet hall, pizzeria and social club.
Horace Secondo, an Italian immigrant, hurt his leg while working at the Clark Bros. Bolt Co. and needed another profession. In 1937, he opened a bar, Horace’s, at the corner of Liberty and West Center streets. After establishing himself, he bought the building at 70 Center St. to open a restaurant.
His son Art Secondo, who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a restaurateur, said Horace Secondo hoped it would be a hit with locals.
“There’s the name, Popular restaurant,” Art Secondo said.
Horace Secondo and his family, including a young Art Secondo, ran the restaurant until selling it to his son Richard “Dickie” Secondo in 1965. In the late 1980’s it was sold to Germano Abatzides, a Greek immigrant, and John and Phillip Tsiranides.
While Horace Secondo ran it, it was a social club for Italian and other immigrants as well as other town groups. Horace Secondo would help them out financially or help them find work.
“He was very friendly, he was good to his patrons,” Art Secondo said.
Weddings, stags and political parties were held in the restaurant’s Rose Room, named for the patterned wallpaper. A tap room served alcohol.
The Secondo family lived next door and spent every holiday, except Christmas, working in the restaurant. Art Secondo called it the “Popular Restaurant college” – he started stacking cans in the stock room, progressed to washing dishes and waiting tables and finally graduated to working the bar with his brother and father.
“You learn a lot,” he said. “There’s no school that could teach you those kinds of things.”
People still rave about the pizza, Art Secondo said, and ask about the recipe. His mother and others made everything by hand and by memory.
“There was no recipe back then. The people who made pizza, there was no dough machine,” he said.
At the time, just three restaurants in town including Popular Restaurant served pizza.
James Verderame Sr. had his stag party at the Popular Restaurant and attended family weddings there.
“It was pretty much the place to go in town when I was growing up,” he said. “You met all your friends down there. Had really good food, the best pizza in town.”
In its heyday, Popular Restaurant and nearby Phil’s Restaurant, where Testa’s Banquet Facility is now located, were the only such venues in town.
In 1991, a fire destroyed the 70 Center St. location of Popular Restaurant.
“It was a very sad day. I remember standing there looking at the building, what was left of it, and it was really sad,” Art Secondo said.
The owners at the time said they hoped to rebuild.
Verderame also saw the fire since he was working nearby on Main Street. “I remember walking out one day and I saw the thing burning. I was in shock,” he said. “How can something like this happen?”
In 2006, Horace Secondo’s nephew Ralph Secondo opened Popular Restaurant at 75 Center St. across from the original location. The location became Machiavelli’s Restaurant in 2008.