Elissa Potts was admittedly aghast when she first set eyes on the property her father had purchased on Main Street in Kent.

The year was 1972 and the "run-down structure" -- which was to become an icon in the village -- looked nothing like it does today.

"I couldn't believe it," Mrs. Potts said. "I thought `My father has lost his mind.' "

Her father, famed pianist Dolph Traymon, had his doubts, too.

"After we bought it, for seven months I wondered `Was I crazy?' The building was in awful shape," Mr. Traymon agreed.

Yet a year later, in 1973, gutted and rebuilt, the building opened as the Fife'n Drum.

It would eventually take its place as Kent's premier restaurant, drawing celebrities and locals alike with its French cuisine, excellent table service and Mr. Traymon's piano talents.

"After we bought the property, Audrey (his wife) and I asked a bunch of celebrities at a party what to name the new restaurant," Mr. Traymon recollected. "Most of the suggestions were awful. We wanted a New England name, and someone came up with Fife'n Drum."

This weekend -- Jan. 18-20, the Fife'n Drum celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Dishes from the original menu will be offered, including clams casino, and Sunday brunch for two will cost just $40.

Mr. Traymon, at age 93, will be at the baby grand piano as he has been for decades. Juilliard trained, he played with performers including Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee before opening the restaurant.

"When the Fife opened, Kent locals were doubtful that it could survive at all," Selectwoman Susi Williams said Tuesday. "Forty years later, we feel as if this restaurant/inn/gift shop is a major fixture in town."

She lauded the Fife for its "Good food, good service and good music... all of the staff contribute to the pleasant ambiance."

Mrs. Potts harkened back to the restaurant's beginning.

"My mother worked with Gordon Fraser gift cards and Kent was a town in her coverage area that she loved," she said. "She brought my father with her one day to show him the town."

"I liked the location of this building because it was close to the train tracks, not knowing that the train didn't run at that point," Mr. Traymon said, with a laugh.

"That first year was rough," recalled Mrs. Potts, who began working summers at the restaurant while home from college and now manages it and the accompanying inn, opened in 1983.

"The country had the gas crisis, meat was hard to get with the cattlemen's scandal," she recalled, "and no one delivered from the city to Kent."

"We'd drive to Hunts Point on Long Island," she added, "load up with food and bring it back to prepare and serve at the restaurant."

The late artist, Eric Sloane, was a regular from that first year and became a family friend.

He brought celebrity friends with him and the restaurant soon became a favorite for stars including James Cagney, Gregory Peck and Paul Newman.

"Eric used to order wine, burn the cork and use it like a piece of chalk to sketch on people's faces," Mr. Traymon recalled. "Nobody ever complained about this, not even people like actor Dustin Hoffman."

These days, signed artist's proofs by Mr. Sloane hang in the Fife's north dining room. An Eric Sloane weather vane, created by metal smith Peter Kirkiles, was mounted on the restaurant's cupola this past Christmas Eve day.

Over the years, the restaurant grew.

In 1977, the luncheon area was added with its fireplace, booths, bar area and lighted, decorative panels overhead.

In 2003, a south-end dining room, called the Wine Loft, was added. It offers a "quieter space a little distance from the piano," Mrs. Potts noted.

The signature pewter plates, ordered by Mr. Traymon when the Fife opened -- saying "Dolph Traymon's Fife'n Drum Restaurant & Tavern, Kent, Conn." -- have remained the same, placed beneath white china plates at dinner time.

"It was incredible, the company that made the plates still had the original dye cast," Mrs. Potts said. "When we opened the (Wine Loft) we were able to order more."

The Fife'n Drum's wine cellar has won Wine Spectator's "Best of Excellence" award every year since 1992. It contains 1,400 entries and 12,000 bottles.

The restaurant still offers French style, table-side flambeed dishes, including filet mignon au poivre flambeed with brandy and roast half duckling carved and flambeed at table side.

Harriet and Stuart Bonnell have been patrons for 25 years.

"When we were looking for a house in the area, we had lunch there," Mrs. Bonnell said, "so you could say we've been patrons from day one."

"There's a sense of family there, a mix of traditional with legacy dishes," she added. "And then there's the music as a constant, unique presence that fills the restaurant with a celebratory air all of the time."

Mrs. Traymon, who for years ran the restaurant and inn, now operates the Fife'n Drum Gift Shop.

Lubo Pecarina, the chef from the restaurant's opening, retired in the last decade.

Yet the staff is still full of familiar faces.

Dussan Gabric, the original head waiter is still active part time.

Chef Leon Bouteileer has been with the Fife for 17 years and the serving staff are all long-time employees.

Mrs. Potts' husband, George, plays piano on days Mr. Traymon takes a break.

Her sister, Tracey Whitehead, is on the floor during busy fall weekends.

"Our customers love that recognizability of staff," Mrs. Potts said. "Most of the boys know where they (guests) like to sit, what they like to eat, and will say `Don't order that, you won't like it' or `You'll be sure to like this.' "

For more photos, visit www.newmilfordspectrum.com.

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322

Photography by Norm Cummings