Bristol is known primarily for being the home of ESPN and, especially in the summer months, Lake Compounce. Its history is steeped in clocks, bells, carousels and chrysanthemums. What Bristol is not known for is its food scene. Fair or unfair, perception has become reality. But not every Bristolite agrees. “I definitely think there are great places to eat in Bristol,” says J.R. Rusgrove, owner, along with his wife Leanne, of the newly opened Main Street Pint & Plate. “It’s just that it becomes a mindset. You tell a lie three times and it becomes the truth. And that’s what’s hard.”
The Rusgroves also own Parkside Cafe, a critically acclaimed breakfast-and-lunch spot in the Federal Hill neighborhood where J.R. grew up. He says he told his family at 14 that he was going to open a business on that property someday. Instead, a career in manufacturing awaited. Ten years ago, while working for a biomedical company, he made good on that childhood promise. “I came home one night in a snowstorm after a two-hour ride back from Enfield to Bristol, got to the door and told my wife, ‘I’m leaving my job,’ ” Rusgrove says. “I wanted to open a breakfast-lunch cafe, and that’s how I wanted to cut my teeth in the business.”
With his culinary degree firmly in hand — “I graduated from FNU: Food Network University” — Parkside became wildly popular right out of the gate. The Rusgroves also opened Garnish, in the Forestville section of Bristol, and Cafe 2 North at Cedar Lake in Wolcott. They sold Garnish after 2½ years and left Wolcott, according to Rusgrove, because the building, with no public water or public sewer, couldn’t handle the volume.
“The city of Bristol saw our Facebook posting about having to close Cafe 2 North and that we were going in search of a new location,” Rusgrove says. The space at 182 Main St. was vacant because of the closure of Barley Vine, and the city of Bristol, seemingly eternally in search of a way to revitalize the downtown area, reached out to the Rusgroves. After five months of renovating, fixing up the kitchen, putting together a team and a menu, Main Street Pint & Plate officially opened in late April. “We’ve been open four weeks. We’ve had roughly 5,000 people already come through the door, which has been astronomical,” Rusgrove says. “It’s been very, very well received.”
This comes as a surprise to no one in my party of four after paying a visit in late May. My brother and I and our wives checked off a good portion of a smart, 13-beer tap list which included regional heavy hitters such as #NoFilter from Hooker, Back East’s Rakautra, Grey Sail’s Captain’s Daughter and Two Roads’ Two Juicy. Now that we know they have the Pint covered, bring on the Plate!
Bring it on they did. The Brussels sprouts appetizer ($9), fried with caramel powder and Vermont cheddar, already has a cult following on the “Bristol Talks” Facebook page. The trendy vegetable was on the menu at Cafe 2 North, but its newfound reputation had yet to take hold. Rusgrove would bring the sprouts to tables, almost begging people to try them. “Now it’s by far one of the most popular things on our menu,” Rusgrove says. The pub fries ($8), house made, thick and tossed with herbs, sheep’s milk cheese and white truffle oil, were also a hit. Then came the hush puppies, which were not yet on the menu while the recipe was under construction. The table’s unanimous decision: They are ready for prime time.
Every entrée was on point as well — mac and cheese ($12) with blackened chicken and blue cheese ($7 upcharge), meatloaf ($23) with smashed potatoes (“stick-to-your-ribitosis” was my brother’s diagnosis of the comfort-food staple), a half-pound cheeseburger ($15) with sweet potato fries, and the risotto du jour (mushroom on the day of our visit). But make no mistake, Pint & Plate serves up much more than bar food and burgers. Also offered was an espresso-rubbed, 14-ounce ribeye ($38); Faroe Island salmon with Cajun shrimp ($25); and Prince Edward Island mussels ($18). There’s even a kids’ menu with a handful of $5 options.
Already on their third different menu since opening — pork belly burnt ends, brisket, shrimp scampi, and blackened scallops have joined the party — the plan is to take the best of all three, a greatest hits so to speak, and have that run throughout the summer. The menu manages to be small while still covering all the bases. Part of that is from necessity due to the relatively small space (it seats about 100), but it’s also the way Rusgrove wants it. “We don’t freeze anything. The only thing that we have frozen in our restaurant is gelato.”
For now Main Street Pint & Plate only serves dinner, but the plan is to open for lunch once construction of the Bristol Hospital ambulatory care center across the street gets further along. “It’s just nice to see the start of this resurgence and Leanne and I are very, very happy to be a key part of that rebuilding process that’s going on.” Regulars at Parkside will vouch that J.R. is constantly walking around, gauging customers’ reactions and talking with people. There are no plans for that to change at Pint & Plate.
“I know there’s a lot of restaurants out there that do what we do menu-wise, but there’s not as many people out there that actually take the time to invest in their customers at the level that we do,” Rusgrove says. “We’re all-in in getting to know our customers and what makes them happy and whatever we can do to make their experience with us more than amazing. I just don’t want to ever hear ‘good,’ because you can have ‘good’ anywhere. I want people to be thoroughly happy that they chose to open their wallets and purses at our establishment, and they deserve that every time they walk through the door.”