Nov 14, 2011
10:45 AM
Discover Connecticut

Best of Connecticut Road Trip: Capital Cruise


It used to be that on any given day in Hartford once the clock struck 5 p.m., the business and political communities would exit en masse and leave behind a ghost town, bereft of meaningful social activity aside from the occasional Whaler game. Fortunately, those days are loooong behind us.

A visit to Hartford now offers some of the finest culinary and cultural delights the state has to offer, including several Best of Connecticut 2011 winners. And for those of us who don't do daily business within city limits, it's certainly worth a visit or two (or twenty). 

To start your exploration, there are two nice options—which one you choose depends on your predilections, of course. For those who enjoy a jolt to start the day, a cup 'o joe would be the way to go, and thus Jojo's Coffee would be the preferred route, where freshly roasted beans provide the base of a great mug of coffee. Others may like a more ... leisurely ... beginning, in which case, it would be to Tisane Euro-Asian Cafe for an award-winning Bloody Mary would be an appropriate way to kick off things. Either way, you may want to leave the driving to someone less impaired (or caffeinated; red lights + caffeine = buzzkill).

What you want to do for yourself, however, is to enjoy the entertainment options, and although there are many from which to choose, the two "Best of" winners in Hartford offer different experiences. If it's live theater, then the choice is Hartford Stage, where A Christmas Carol plays through the holidays, followed by the Tony Award-winning comedy Boeing-Boeing to start 2012. If you like your entertainment a bit more two-dimensional (not that there's anything wrong with it), Cinestudio features a great mix of celluloid gems, including independent, foreign and classic films, such as It's A Wonderful Life, which plays during December. Of course, there's nothing stopping you from catching a matinee at one and an evening show at the other, right?

If you do go for that sort of a double dip—and why not, we roll like that—then you need a meal to break up the action, and there are four "Best of" destinations from which to choose. For "Dinner and ... A Bird's Eye View" it would be PolytechnicON20 for a gourmet meal on the 20th floor of the Hartford Steam Boiler building with Hartford and the surrounding countryside spread out before you. If you're looking for more of a good meal with friends in a comfortable setting, First & Last Tavern is the choice, dishing up fine Italian cuisine in a family setting. For those who prefer their meals with a taste of the Emerald Isle, McKinnon's Irish Pub should sate your hunger just fine—lamb stew and a pint of Guinness will make any Irish eyes smile. And finally, for those who hanker for a good Caeser sald (and we mean a real, good, authentic Caeser salad), get yourself to Carbone's, where they still mix it up tableside and include the egg and anchioves.

Again, with all the options and possible combinations, there are multiple visits that can be worked out here. Hartford is no longer a ghost town, so there's nothing to be scared of. Enjoy!

Below are the original "Best of Connecticut 2011" write-ups.

Bloody Mary
Tisane Euro-Asian Cafe, Hartford, (860) 523-5417 (

 You might be surprised to learn that Connecticut’s best Bloody Mary lives at a place that calls itself a “Tea and Coffee Bar.” Nestled behind a stony garden that protects the place from a slightly seedy section of Farmington Avenue, Tisane features a menu in which Asia meets Europe. And there, nestled in the back pages of said menu, is the “Bloody Good Mary,” made with house-infused vegetable vodka and an original 12-ingredient Bloody Mary mix, presented with a salt-and-peppered rim and a pickled jalapeño suspended on a wooden skewer. Delightful, especially when enjoyed on the patio at noon on an “Oh, what the hell” weekday.

Coffee Bars
Jojo’s Coffee
Hartford, (860) 524-1488, and New Haven, (203) 785-8888 (

How fresh are Jojo’s coffee beans? “So fresh, we have to slap them,” according to owners Bill Sze and Cathy Wei. Now that’s what we like to hear. We also like that Jojo’s roasts its beans lighter than the prevailing fashion—all the better to maximize the flavors and aromas the pair gathers from around the globe. If you’re looking for a coffee shop that smells like, well, coffee, as opposed to a crazed “Southern Amaretto-Banana-Cinnamon-Hazelnut-Snickerdoodle” amalgamation, this is the place for you.

Dinner and . . .
A Bird's-Eye View
Hartford, (860) 722-5161 (

Who says dinner with a view always has to involve the ocean or a blanket of rolling hills? Nestle into ON20’s big windowed aerie on the 20th floor of the Hartford Steam Boiler building and see why this dreamlike restaurant captivates everyone who dines here. Survey the city, the Connecticut River and beyond as you enjoy cutting-edge cuisine from top chef Noel Jones. At dusk it’s the perfect romantic setting as the sun drapes its light all around the building.

Neighborhood Restaurant
First & Last Tavern
Hartford, (860) 956-6000, and other locations (

Maybe it’s the vintage photos that adorn the walls of this rustic tavern, or the regulars who come to enjoy the unforgettable pasta sauce and other original family recipes that haven’t changed since 1938. Whatever it is, you feel at home from the moment you walk in the door. The Neapolitan pizza, topped with simple yet exceptional ingredients, is delicious, and the bread made at their bakery across the street will have you singing “Home Sweet Home.”

Carbone’s, Hartford, (860) 296-9646 (
Carbone’s has been tossing its signature Caesar salad tableside for more than 50 years, and honestly, we’ve yet to find a better one. Consistently delicious, the salad has become a ceremonial staple for patrons who come here to celebrate special occasions, meet up with friends and enjoy romantic dinners. When the spotlight is on the salad making, servers use a bit of showmanship, especially when cracking the egg over the anchovies (oh, yes, Carbone’s still follows the original recipe). The suspense builds as the olive oil, garlic, vinegar and lemon are whisked into the dressing before it’s poured over crispy Romaine and topped with a grating of fine Parmesan and homemade croutons. Then comes the best part—the eating.

Irish Pub
McKinnon’s Irish Pub, Hartford,
(860) 524-8174 (

Have a hankering for a pint and some Guinness lamb stew? Head straight to McKinnon’s, a quintessential Irish pub offering live entertainment (the weekly Irish jam sessions are a hit), drink specials and, naturally, great food and beer. Even cooler, it’s housed in a brownstone building constructed in 1861 to house the Charter Oak Bank and features the original bank vault (now home to McKinnon’s kitchen), complete with two massive doors and encased in 18 inches of concrete and rebar.

Equity Theater
Hartford Stage
(860) 527-5151 

New artistic director Darko Tresnjak has some terrific credentials—he was the AD of San Diego’s Old Globe Shakespeare Festival 2004-09 and has worked with Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company (as director in residence), the Joseph Papp Public Theater, Williamstown Theatre Festival and Los Angeles Opera. He’ll still have to stay on his toes to match the legacy of Hartford Stage’s Mark Lamos and the just-departed Michael Wilson, largely responsible for the theater’s record of eight plays transferred to Broadway, 11 to off Broadway and 55 world or American premieres—not to mention sterling productions of classics by Shakespeare, Molière, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. For now, we’re especially looking forward to this season’s Water by the Spoonful, a new drama by Pulitzer finalist and Tony winner Quiara Alegría Hudes (In the Heights).

Independent Cinema
Cinestudio, Hartford,
(860) 297-CINE (

In 1969, when a group of Trinity College students tacked up bedsheets in the basement of the Clement Chemistry Building to begin screening movies for other campus cinephiles, no one thought the initiative would last beyond semester’s end. What’s best about Cinestudio is not how sophisticated its operation has become—beginning with a permanent location in Clement, the addition of a beautiful Austrian shade curtain, eventual state-of-the-art (70 mm) film projection and sound, etc.—but how little its grassroots “labor of love” character has changed. Two of its student founders (James Hanley and Peter McMorris) still oversee the theater’s daily operations, along with a staff of 50 student and community volunteers. And the schedule remains both remarkably innovative—veering from mainstream/forgotten classics and indies to foreign films, animé and exclusive screenings—and stunningly astute.

Best of Connecticut Road Trip: Capital Cruise

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