In the Connecticut restaurant scene, New Haven often stands as a giant, with what feels like a great restaurant on every block.
Opening a restaurant just a few exits up I-91 in Wallingford can be a risky move when restaurant-goers have so many nearby options. In this respect, however, Wallingford punches above its weight. The city has long been home to a number of popular spots like the Half Moon Coffee and Grille Cafe, a local outpost of chicken-wing legend Archie Moore’s, and more than a few truly great Mexican spots.
The newest offering in downtown Wallingford is Tap & Vine, stepping into the tremendous hole left by the closure of the beloved Old Dublin pub. Though it only opened in July, Tap & Vine has already garnered a following, according to co-owner Hector Samuel. When I mention to Samuel that the Old Dublin was a popular spot, he releases a weary laugh. One gets the sense he’s heard that before. “We changed the inside quite a bit, so if you walk in, you know you’re not in the Old Dublin,” Samuel says.
While the decor and theme of the space has changed, there is one significant carryover to the new place: the cozy atmosphere. I chose a strange night to stop in for a meal. It was a night when everyone’s mind is on one thing, when everyone has an immediate conversation topic with a stranger because we’re all thinking about it — election night.
While the restaurant was fairly empty, it still felt comfortable and welcoming. Of the 10 people there, seven or eight were sitting at the bar, glued to the television as early results rolled across the screen. A heaping plate of Prince Edward Island mussels with corn, chorizo sausage and tomato in a smoked paprika butter sauce was a lovely starter snack, the perfect counterpoint to exit polls and voter turnout.
Tap & Vine
171 Quinnipiac St., Wallingford
Hours: Mon. closed, Tue.-Thu. 4 p.m.-midnight, Fri. 4 p.m.-1 a.m., Sat. 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m., Sun. 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
Price range: Appetizers: $8-$13 (steamed PEI mussels $11); flatbreads: $12-$14 (andouille flatbread $12); burgers/sandwiches: $12-$18 (Tap & Vine burger $12); small plates: $15-$21; desserts: $7-$8 (pumpkin cheesecake $7, cheesecake eggrolls $8)
Not wheelchair accessible (staff on hand to assist with the single step up)
AMBIANCE The cozy interior of the restaurant complements the neighborhood vibe of the place. Tap & Vine is within walking distance of a number of other bars and eateries, and just down the block from the Wallingford train station. As such, the restaurant has a lived-in, comfortable feel.
SERVICE Funny, helpful and friendly.
FOOD Combines the relaxed feel of pub grub (small plates and large ones, fries, lots of opportunities to snack and share), with the bold flavor combinations you might find in high cuisine. Generous portions, brash tastes and a great beer selection.
For a main course I opted for the flatbread with andouille, Gorgonzola, onion marmalade and arugula. The bold flavor of the sausage mixed with the creaminess of the Gorgonzola, the rich flavors cut by the piles of arugula on top.
Samuel says that rather than building a beer and wine list to complement the food offerings, Tap & Vine is oriented the other way. “It started with craft beer, which is a passion of mine, and I wanted food that would match the flavor of the beer. … If we’re gonna have beer with a lot of flavor, then I want food with a lot of flavor,” he says.
He’s not lying. Trappist ales and Belgian saisons rub shoulders with intense IPAs and local lagers. An American lager from Branford’s Thimble Island Brewing Co. soothed my election anxieties, while the pretzel bun on the Tap & Vine burger made for a sturdy, well-balanced bite.
If you are a beer drinker, and your dining companion is a wine drinker, Tap & Vine is built for you, Samuel says, adding that he put just as much effort into the wine list as the beer selection. “One of the complaints I always have when I go to a craft beer bar is that they have lousy, old wine lists, or you go to a wine bar, they have lousy beer lists,” Samuel says. At Tap & Vine, there are 31 wines on the list, with 19 offered by the glass, Samuel says, with no particular emphasis on any one varietal, region or winery. The beer is almost as diverse, with 24 offerings on tap, featuring a mix of imported and domestic, larger breweries and limited-release specials. According to Samuel, about a quarter are from Connecticut at any given time.
There was chatter up and down the bar about the election. The waitresses, too, were watching, bantering with us about the results in North Carolina, Florida, or wherever. A waitress told me she had showed up late to her shift because she stopped to vote on the way, wagering that her boss would be more annoyed with her for not voting than for being late. The honesty of the conversation and the relaxed way the staff interacted made me feel like a regular, even though it was my first time in.
Watching endless maps flicker across the screen in blue or red, I was reminded what comfort food is all about. That feeling of comfort isn’t an accident. “I went out of my way to hire people that I thought were very personable, and that would do a great job creating conversations between themselves and customers, and get customers talking to each other,” Samuel says. “That’s really how it’s worked out.” The sense of community is evident in his sourcing, using local outfits like Thurston Foods in Wallingford and Number One Fish Market in Hamden.
As a veteran of the industry for some 40 years, Samuel knows what it takes to create a good atmosphere. He was a cook at Scoozzi Trattoria & Wine Bar in New Haven, and worked for the Eli’s Restaurant group for some 12 years. Tap & Vine is his first venture as the boss. While he had some shakeups in the kitchen staff in the late fall, his new head chef Chris Micci will keep most of the menu items going forward, while adding his own flair from the South, where he has spent the last several years.
The desserts I tried were a combination of old-school New England flavors with that rich, Southern soul food quality. If the winter offerings are anything like the pumpkin cheesecake, I’ll be back. Another highlight was the Samuel-invented cheesecake eggroll, with a crispy crust and velvety filling.
As for the location, Wallingford was always a goal for Samuel. “I was somewhat targeting Wallingford — I really like Wallingford. It’s a town with a really diverse population, and I really liked it for that,” Samuel says.
Feeling at home is a rare quality to find in a first visit to a restaurant. For me on election night, it was the atmosphere, as well as the food, that hit the spot. Tap & Vine is the rare place that can do that.