Best of Connecticut 2012: Nightlife
The Spotted Horse Tavern
Westport, (203) 557-9393 (spottedhorsect.com)
Take a neglected old Federal-style house (circa 1802) in downtown Westport, spruce it up with sparkling white paint, tidy shutters and a picket fence outside and lots of handsome weathered barn wood inside; put in a big horseshoe-shaped bar; and throw in an eclectic menu (lobster & avocado BLT, steak frites, grilled portobello panini)—and what have you got? An overnight success, that’s what. Owners Kevin McHugh, Tommy Fabbrio, Peter Mennona and George O’Connell opened The Spotted Horse in March and the place has been jamming ever since. We can’t help wondering: Where did these throngs of people hang out before?
The Griswold Inn Tap Room
Essex, (860) 767-1776 (griswoldinn.com)
This celebrated tap room, once the town’s schoolhouse, was called “the most handsome bar in America” by journalist Lucius Beebe in 1930. Eighty years later, the Gris still fits that bill, but its appeal goes well beyond wood-panelled walls adorned with Currier and Ives prints and the charming potbellied stove. It’s the joie de vivre of its patrons who join in lively sing-alongs as they drink and enjoy—an image that harkens back to the days when a ship’s captain and crew wandered in for a few mugs of ale after coming into port. Musicians play here nightly.
Mikro Craft Beer Bar
Hamden, (203) 553-7676 (mikrobeerbar.com)
All hail the two Mikes (owner Farber and chef Fox) who created this adventurous, beer-centric oasis, with 18 rotating taps and a formidable bottle list that runs the gamut from handcrafted altbiers and cream ales to porters and stouts. We love the pub menu, which matches local and seasonal foods to the brews on hand (the beet salad, caramel corn and fried chickpeas are awesome beyond belief). Better still are the beer flights, which are a kind of barley-and-hops personality test: Based on your stated preferences (light versus dark, rich versus mild, etc.), your bartender will set up four different 3-ounce “tastes” that, you’ll hopefully find, taste good together. Addictive.
Willimantic Brewing Co.
Willimantic, (860) 423-6777 (willibrew.com)
When it comes to brew pubs, is there any other choice? Let’s see: This Willimantic landmark brews 10 hand-crafted beers each month, plus offers 20 craft microbrews on tap, many from New England, and does so in a super cool former 1909 U.S. post office building complete with a great view of the seven-barrel brewery. On top of that, the menu—post office-themed, of course—is fantastic. Yep, Willi Brew wins again.
Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts
Storrs, (860) 486-4226 (jorgensen.uconn.edu)
The Jorgensen Cabaret has a comfortable feel and an intimate vibe of its own. Enjoy food and drink by candlelight as singers, musicians and comedians entertain. This season features Mary Chapin Carpenter, vocal group Under the Street Lamp, Dr. John & the Blind Boys of Alabama, The Birdland Big Band, Celtic Nights, Latin Fest 2013 and acoustic jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spaulding.
cocktail: bloody mary
Glastonbury, (860) 652-3474
Max Fish started serving brunch recently, and a very nice brunch it is—with raw bar items, great sounding entrée salads, crab cake Benedict and steak and eggs. But what really caught our eye was the Bloody Mary Bar. You start with Max’s signature Bloody Mary mix and either Russian Standard vodka or a house-made infused vodka. Then a mixologist helps you create the bloody of your dreams by adding in the garnishes and “heat” of your choice. There are over 30 options, from the banal to the extraordinary—including lemon, lime, cucumber wheels, white anchovies, pepperoncini, asparagus and saffron onions—whatever floats your boat!
South Norwalk, (203) 838-6555 (theloftsono.com)
So you think the cosmo has had its day? Think again. Then hightail it over to The Loft, where you’ll find a roster of excellent martinis (the chocolate one was voted best in the U.S. a few years back) including a superb cosmopolitan. Made with Smirnoff, Cointreau, cranberry juice and lime, it seems the perfect libation to sip while seeing and being seen at one of the area’s chicest nightspots.
New Haven, (203) 777-3116 (116crown.com)
It’s maddening, we tell you, maddening—the pages and pages of inventive mixology you’ll find at 116 Crown—and frequenting the place may lead you into a unique vice: theme drinking (“‘NLT/King Pan Remix,’ ‘Forth & Clyde,’ ‘Belmont’ . . . now, have we tried everything that incorporates St. Germain?”). When we’re really feeling scandalous, we go for the $25 Boutique Manhattan (with 10-year-old Michter’s Bourbon and exceptional Carpano Antica Formula red vermouth). But the beauty of 116 is that it’s even an adventure to be on the wagon—drinking non-alcoholic cocktails like a fennel-lemonade spritzer—or to settle in with a simple bottle of beer, as long as your tastes run to Red Stripe and Ommegang Hennepin.
Coyote Blue tex-mex café
Middletown, (860) 345-2403 (coyoteblue.com)
Some might think a margarita is a margarita, but nope . . . one sip of Coyote Blue’s cool, refreshing margaritas, and you’ll never look back. Made with a formula that strikes just the right balance of tequila, lime and sweetness, these strong and delicious cocktails are served in 16-ounce mugs. And when we say strong, we mean it: There’s a two-per-customer limit. Choose from yummy flavors like strawberry and pomegranate, or go with the original. Either way, you’ll leave happy.
The Gray Goose Café
Southport, (203) 292-8779 (thegraygoosecafe.com)
More often than not, the porch, bar and dining room at The Gray Goose are packed and humming with banter. On a recent Friday night, two friendly female bartenders were attentive and ready to help us choose our poison, patiently explaining flavors and options even while the crowd around us grew. Looking to try something ‘different’, we decided on their Crop Organic Cucumber Martini, a blend of cucumber vodka, muddled cucumber, St. Germain Elderflower liquor and lime juice. Clichéd descriptions come to mind, but are absolutely accurate for this cocktail: light, refreshing, the perfect late-summer drink. Not too sweet, this martini would complement any food it’s paired with (the café’s small plate of lobster macaroni with manchego cheese, panko crumbs, a hint of white truffle creme and generous portions of chunky lobster is a delicious accompaniment). A must-try for those tired of the same-old cosmo.
New Haven, (203) 772-4002 (pacificorestaurants.com)
It may be the muddling—a delightfully old-fashioned way to start concocting a cocktail—or the flat-out unbeatable refreshing zing we experience at first sip, but we are serious mojito lovers, and Pacifico is where we like them best. In our humble opinion, they’re worth the trip to New Haven from anywhere in Connecticut—and if you like good food with your fabulous drinks, Pacifico’s Nuevo Latino fare will seal the deal. Lunch, dinner and tapas are served daily. Oh, and do not miss Sunday brunch!
The Cottage Restaurant & Café
Plainville, (860) 793-8888
Ahh, the Manhattan. Bartenders can’t resist messing with the basic formulas; purists grumble. Fearless Cottage sommelier (yes, he’s got a fine-wine list, too) David Queen excels at the classics—the Perfect Manhattan with bourbon, sweet and dry vermouth and bitters, and the Canadian Manhattan, which couples Canadian Club rye and a touch of cherry juice. He’s also as deft as Philippe Petit on a high wire when it comes to variations like the New Orleans (Frangelico and Jack Daniels). Those grumbly purists will be won over by the Raspberry Manhattan (Old Grand Dad and Chambord); the fruitiness is definitely “present” yet seductively subtle.
Brew Ha Ha at City Steam Brewery Café
Hartford, (860) 525-1600
A termite walks into City Steam and asks, “Is the bar tender here?” [*insert rimshot*] Luckily, the jokes are better than this at Brew Ha Ha, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary of tickling Connecticut funny bones. Showcasing the best in local talent and national headliners—Denis Leary, Kevin James and Ray Romano have all appeared here—Brew Ha Ha continues to bring the funny every Friday and Saturday night. And with a 200-seat club and more than half a dozen beers brewed on-site, it’s a perfect setting for comedy success.
Thomas Hooker Brewing
Bloomfield, (860) 242-3111 (hookerbeer.com)
Built on the premise that beer tastes best when it’s fresh, Thomas Hooker Brewing handcrafts its brews from the finest malts, hops and other ingredients by traditional brewing methods, and immediately delivers it to liquor stores and bars across the state. The results make for award-winning beers, eight of which are available year-round (American Pale Ale, Blonde Ale, Irish Red Ale), plus four seasonal brews, including the popular and currently available Octoberfest lager, a Bavarian-style, full-bodied blend of imported German malts gently hopped and delicately balanced. Whatever your preference, it’s sure to be a winner.
Shelton, (203) 929-8425
We admit it: We think there’s something awfully appealing about a farm whose home page leads with “be good to the land and the land will be good to you.” So, the Jones Family Farm had us at hello. But our affection has only grown (along with the succulent grapes on its slopes), as we’ve come to enjoy the fruits of those vines. The list is modest; we recommend you try them all if you can. Failing that, be sure to sample the Stonewall Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc. And don’t miss the classes, workshops and dinners scheduled at the Shelton winery now through fall.
New Haven, (203) 776-8835
You’ll leave happy, all right. Weekdays from 5 to 7:30 p.m., power down that computer, grab your co-workers and head straight to CM’s, a State Street staple since 1989, for the happiest hour around. At this lively spot (which also features a fine-dining restaurant), sip discounted drinks, indulge in wings, build-your-own tacos, a carving station and a raw bar, and enjoy the 50-inch flat screens.
The J House
Greenwich, (203) 698-6980 (jhousegreenwich.com)
This exciting, sexy new hotel has not one but two spacious bar areas. One’s inside, right on the edge of eleven14 Kitchen restaurant, with a stunning brick-faced wood-burning open hearth clad in custom copper panels as a stunning backdrop. The other’s a large indoor-outdoor patio, with a striking glassed-in fireplace set in the wall at eye level and lots of comfy seating areas. The patio can accommodate 80—the place has been packed since the day it opened, and since it’s protected from the weather by a clever system of trellises and heating units, we don’t expect that to let up anytime soon. After all, with 86 guest rooms an elevator ride away, it’s the perfect spot for a romantic rendezvous (no designated driver needed)!
Bridgeport, (203) 335-3655 (acousticafe.com)
The Acoustic Café is the heart of the Black Rock Arts neighborhood, and the place where local indie bands cut their teeth. Young musicians from acoustic singer/songwriters to full electric bands are nurtured here and given the opportunity to showcase their talents. Many local musicians now entering the national scene started here (including the Step Kids, Darian Cunning, Dave Ross, Kenny Owens, John Pioli and Saint Bernadette) at the club’s Open Mic night. The bar keeps reasonable prices for cover fees and drinks, and when a crowd gathers here, it’s a party.
The Blue Point Bar & Grill
Stratford, (203) 375-2583
The Friday night karaoke soirée at The Blue Point Grill in Stratford with DJ Bill Richards is still going strong. The show gets started around 10 but things don’t really start to heat up until around 10:30. More than two-dozen singers from sweet 16 to 80 years old take the stage every week. Prospective performers drop in throughout the evening and usually get a chance to sing their favorite country ballads and rap hits to classic tunes of the Great American Songbook. The show goes on till the bar closes at 2 a.m.
McKinnon’s Irish Pub
Hartford, (860) 524-8174 (mckinnonsirishpub.com)
There’s something so refreshing about an Irish pub—there’s no room for pretension, because when you’re there, you truly become part of the gang. At least that’s how it is at McKinnon’s, a lively spot that serves food sure to comfort, like Guinness lamb stew, features great live bands and delivers what really matters: great drink specials. Enjoy $4 Irish pints, $3 domestic bottles, $3.50 margaritas and more. We’ll drink to that.
New Haven, (203) 785-0468 (firehouse12.com)
Nick Lloyd’s recording studio/jazz club is definitely the coolest place in the state to listen to live jazz. This friendly club draws some of the greatest classic and modern jazz veterans in the Northeast (especially from the New York City jazz scene) as well as brilliant up-and-comers. After the show, head downstairs to the full-service bar for old school cocktails (think Harvey Wallbangers) or specialty beers. The fall jazz series begins this month; visit the website for the list of shows.
New Haven, (203) 495-1111 (barnightclub.com)
Friendly crowds and popular trendy music make BAR’s Night Club a welcoming nightlife atmosphere for ages 21-plus. Live bands, both local and regional, play their tunes on Wednesday nights, while DJs get crowds dancing the night away to popular dance music Thursday through Saturday nights. Music paired with BAR’s own micro-brewed beers and thin-crust brick-oven pizza create a diverse and exciting nightlife scene in the heart of New Haven.
Glastonbury, (860) 430-9989 (rooftop120.com)
We typically don’t think of bars as “romantic,” but Rooftop 120 has changed our minds to the nth power. If we were to remake An Affair to Remember, the spacious four-season Sky Deck—reportedly, the largest one in New England—is where we’d set the final meeting between Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant. In our vision, they’ll toast each other with organic blood orange martinis and nibble on a house-made oval “Margarita” flatbread (or perhaps, tempura-fried Double Stuf Oreos), their faces backlit, not by the stars, but by the rainbow-hued assemblage of bottles that psychedelicizes 120’s matching indoor bar, the glass-walled River Rock. Compared to all this, the Empire State Building is just so King Kong.
Keys to the City
New Haven, (203) 624-6200 (terminal110.com)
To paraphrase Billy Joel: Play us a song, piano men! That’s what you get every Friday and Saturday as dueling piano men take center stage at Keys to the City at Terminal 110 on Long Wharf in New Haven for an entertaining night of rocking and frolicking singalong fun. In addition to an evening of partylike fun and terrific live music, you can enjoy great food and top-shelf liquor. Plus, upstairs in the recently opened Bourbon Room, there are deejays and dancing, as well as giant TVs to catch the big game.
Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant
South Norwalk, (203) 899-0088, and other locations (barcelonawinebar.com)
Simply stated: We can’t get enough of the fruity, refreshing sangria served at Barcelona. Choose from white (white wine, rum, peach schnapps, brandy and white peach nectar), red (red wine, brandy, rum, tequila, triple sec, amaretto, orange juice, sugar and soda) or sangria flora (French Rosé, St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, soda and fresh fruit). Pair it with out-of-this-world tapas and some good company, and you’ve got yourself a great evening.
Sliders Sports Bar & Grille
Plainville, (860) 747-4477, and three other locations (sliderssportsbar.com)
Big-screen TVs? Check. Lots of great food, including award-winning wings in 19 different flavors? Check. Plenty of ice-cold beer on tap, including Flippin Bird Ale, brewed by fellow Best of Connecticut winner Thomas Hooker Brewery? Check. An abundance of tables and space for all your buddies? Check—so text them all and get over to Sliders, where avid sports fans have been coming since 1993 to enjoy football, baseball, basketball and more. And with four locations—including the original in Plainville—there’s sure to be one near you.
wine by the glass
Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
West Hartford, (860) 676-9463 (flemingssteakhouse.com)
In wine, and life, we like to keep our options open. The Fleming’s 100, a vast and varied collection of 100 wines by the glass, allows us to do just that. Better yet, instead of taking the traditional route and listing wines alphabetically or by region, this primo steak house employs a more user-friendly approach: wines are listed in order of intensity, first whites, then reds. From lightest to fullest, sweetest to driest for the whites, and least to most tannic for the reds. This much-appreciated system goes a long way in helping you the best match for your meal, whether Alaskan king crab legs or porcini-rubbed filet mignon. You may also choose any three wines on the list and create your own wine flight (a trio of two-ounce servings) to experiment.