In late summer, a new spot opened in downtown Hartford called The Press. It’s all about newspapers.
You had me at “Extra! Extra!”
Gung-ho as I was, as a longtime journalist, my reaction was accompanied by skepticism. Would enough people subscribe to an idea that some would label narrowcasting? At the very least it’s interesting timing for the launch of such an endeavor, with the number of people working in newspapers dropping as steadily and reliably as the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
My fears start to become realized as I walk into the Allyn Street space that previously housed Black Bear Saloon and Coach’s. On Saturday night of Thanksgiving weekend the parking lot across the street holds about a dozen cars. And not all the passengers are inside The Press. But there’s more to the story: Everything we try is excellent. The sparse crowd belies the quality of the offerings. Granted, the food menu is not overly ambitious, but the execution is spot on. And the cocktails, as originally intended, are the headliners.
General manager Starling Arch IV, who took over the reins after a management shakeup in November, spent the last decade in the West Hartford restaurant scene. “The idea was to bring a premium cocktail bar to the Hartford area,” Arch says. “We just want to give that West Hartford experience over to the Hartford community. … They’re really classic cocktails that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Six months of renovations following the closure of Black Bear have produced an industrial chic space with rich, wood floors and tables, exposed brick and plenty of Hartford Courant front pages chronicling big moments in our state’s history — the collapse of the Civic Center roof, the departure of the Whalers and the launch of a submarine in Groton, to name a few. The light fixtures are little globes, symbolic of The Press logo, itself inspired by the Daily Planet newspaper from the Superman comics.
We belly up to the bar, with round one consisting of the Scofflaw (bourbon, dry vermouth, fresh lemon juice, housemade grenadine) and Strawberry Fields (vodka, strawberry shrub, simple syrup, fresh lemon juice, muddled strawberries, ginger beer). The latter is the No. 1 seller and clearly the easiest-drinking selection, and the Scofflaw is a smooth, solid start to the evening.
Much like a clever tabloid headline, double entendre permeates The Press’ menu. Despite the overarching nod to news, the literal meaning of “press” applies in many cases. Fruit juice is freshly squeezed at the bar, and the food options are primarily paninis and flatbreads. However, the menu was in the process of being revamped at the time of my visit to add entrées like steak and salmon. Details were embargoed as of this writing, but the quality of chef Matthew Terase’s current creations provides optimism for what’s coming next.
“We didn’t want to be a full-scale restaurant; that’s why we call ourselves a cocktail lounge,” Arch says. “But we still want to offer food that matches our cocktails and our whiskey. People love the flatbreads and the paninis but the menu just seemed like that’s all we had to offer. We felt that we could add a little more to that.”
Regardless of what is added, popular items will remain. That should include small plates like the steak and cheese empanadas — a delicious dish despite being a tad skimpy on the beef — and four generous cubes of pork belly served with an apple-carrot slaw. We double down on the pork belly and order the salad of the same name (pork belly is both a small plate and a salad at The Press). This is stunningly satisfying with grilled watermelon, goat cheese, and bourbon molasses dressing. If your New Year’s resolution is to eat more salad, start here.
Every great newspaper story you read starts with a scoop. Every future flatbread you eat should be measured against The Scoop, a sweet and savory combination of spiced apples and Brie over flatbread from Hartford Baking Company. And who would you get a scoop from? The Informer, of course. This panini is built with sliced meatballs and cheddar with a bourbon mango barbecue sauce. Again, fairly simple but flawlessly executed.
A second round of drinks includes the gin-soaked Aviation and rum-based Painkiller. An Old Fashioned accompanies dessert beautifully as our full stomachs try their best to muscle through housemade donuts with vanilla cream and caramel sauce and a sweet chocolate mousse. We walk out stuffed and pleasantly surprised. In a word, impressed.
One regret is not ordering the Paul Revere, a concoction of whiskey, barrel-aged maple syrup, tobacco bitters and molasses bitters. Not my cup of tea, but it sounds like a show. “We put it in a lantern, and then we use our smoke gun that we fill with applewood and oak chips and smoke up the entire lantern to let that smoke flavor seep into the drink,” Arch says. “There’s also candied bacon in there.”
Lamenting the lack of Press patrons takes up a considerable chunk of our ride home. But Arch and his team are hard at work figuring out how to attract crowds. A new hire will handle marketing and social media. There’s brunch on Sundays with bottomless mimosas and bloody Marys, jazz happy hours on Fridays, and a DJ every Friday and Saturday night. And with the XL Center right down the street, there are deals to be had by showing your UConn or Wolf Pack ticket stub at The Press following the game.
“We just have to knock it out of the park and show people what we’re about and give them a reason to come back,” Arch says. “We’re just trying to show that Hartford can offer what other towns offer.”