In the 1970s, South Norwalk was a far cry form what it is today. Marked by vacant, dilapidated buildings and crime, it was not a desirable neighborhood.

That all started to change late in the decade when a developer bought the first-floor storefronts on Washington Street as part of an initiative to revitalize the area. This brought forth the Norwalk Art Festival, the Maritime Aquarium and the idea of dedicating a whole street to arts, culture and nightlife.

"At the time it was very unique in Fairfield County," Susan Sweitzer, senior project manager of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, said.

Fast-forward to today, and the area has been branded as SoNo, a thriving hamlet in Norwalk that has recently attracted millennials in droves.

Notable bars and restaurants

Blind Rhino
15 North Main St., Norwalk
Sports bar, brunch and happy hour

Donovan's
138 Washington St., Norwalk
Oldest bar in SoNo, pub fare and atmosphere

Johnny Utah's
80 Washington St., Norwalk, CT
Country bar and BBQ restaurant with a mechanical bull

Local Kitchen & Bar
80 Washington St., Norwalk
Modern American fare, craft beer, bourbon room

Mama's Boy
19 North Water St., Norwalk
Southern comfort food, bottomless weekend brunch

Match Restaurant
98 Washington St., Norwalk
Seasonal food menu, extensive cocktail list, modern industrial atmosphere

Mecha Noodle Bar
116 Washington St., Norwalk
Vietnamese noodle restaurant

The Spread
70 N Main St, Norwalk, CT
Notable chef, changing menu, outdoor patio

In the past five to seven years, Sweitzer said, the rental market has exploded in SoNo, and it's mostly thanks to young professionals.

"Younger folks want access to the trains, and its a fun place to live," she said.
Ken Tuccio, 33, is the voice of "Welcome To Connecticut," a podcast he started from his home office in Norwalk in 2014. Since then, he has been named one of Connecticut Magazine's 40 Under 40, and has hosted events around the area. Tuccio has lived all over the state, but Norwalk has been his favorite.

"One of the most appealing features of the area is the food and nightlife scene in SoNo," Tuccio said. "I love the fact that there are a ton of different options in SoNo depending on your mood for the night. You're not pigeonholed in SoNo. That's what's cool about it."

Laura Perry, 28, recently moved to Norwalk from New Haven and said the bustling atmosphere of SoNo was a deciding factor in her choice.

"There's always a lot to do and that was very important to me when I decided to move here." Perry said. "SoNo is unique. It's walkable like New York and Stamford and there are always new restaurants opening up and new things to try."

While restaurants and bars pop up and adapt to the changing clientele, Donovan's remains the original SoNo bar.

"They all have their own character," Sweitzer said. "But Donovan's is the real survivor. It's been there since before redevelopment."

Donovan's restaurant and pub has been on Washington since 1889. Tuccio said he heads there when he wants to "hang out with the locals at a no-frills bar."

If you do like frills though, eateries have been popping up in recent years that cater to what's becoming a more cosmopolitan population.
Chef Carlos Baez from the Spread recently competed on the Food Network Show "Beat Bobby Flay."

His food, Tuccio said, makes The Spread a destination in SoNo.

"No two meals at The Spread are the same. Chef Carlos Baez is like a culinary David Copperfield, the dude's magic," Tuccio said. "He'll introduce a customer to a entree they've never tried before and, by the time they take their last bite, it's their new favorite thing to eat."

Mama's Boy opened in 2013, jumping on the trends of southern comfort food and New York City-style brunch.

"Chicken and waffles, biscuits and gravy, fried green tomatoes, bottomless mimosas. It's amazing," Perry said.
Stamford is the place that gives SoNo a run for its money in terms of nightlife and culture in the area, Sweitzer said.

"I don't think SoNo will ever be the commercial center that Stamford is. I think we will always have the smaller niche market," she said. Sweitzer does believe there is great opportunity for growth by the railroad and on the waterfront, though. "The community is like an organism is grows and changes."

But Perry says SoNo has a certain charm that you can't find in other cities like Stamford.

"It has kept a historical look. The older buildings have been restored; they have the big storefront windows and the high ceilings. It's picturesque," she said.

For Tuccio, it's the people that make SoNo special.

SoNo is it's own unique animal, with it's own charm and appeal. I've found that the majority of the people in SoNo are intelligent individuals, excited to try new things," he said.

"The SoNo Arts Festival every year is proof of that. That event is packed every single year with people excited about supporting local vendors and artisans, seeing the different artistic creations cultivated by folks in the area, learning about sub-cultures that were previously foreign to them."

Tuccio has taken advantage of this in his own business. In February, he ran the first annual SoNo Bowl at the Blind Rhino (his go-to sport to host events). The event was a "Super Bowl pre-game game show" in which the crowd participated in games for prizes.

"For all intents and purposes, SoNo Bowl was a crazy concept," he said. "But I was confident we could do it in SoNo because the people who come out in that area like trying new things."