This piece by Food & Wine Contributor David Landsel originally appeared on Food & Wine September 18, 2017
These days, there’s very little good news coming out of Hartford. That’s nothing new, actually—Connecticut’s capital city has for years been stuck in a downward spiral, watching wealthy suburbs and more fashionable cities bleed its tax base dry, leaving behind a growing pile of economic and social problems.
Barely a year goes by, it seems, without another major news story about Hartford, filled with dire data and ominous predictions—we’re almost at the point where it’s impossible to find anyone who will say anything nice about the centuries-old city, once-upon-a-time home to a parade of American luminaries like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain. Hartford has not gained population since the 1950s and is home to a dwindling number of the major corporations that once gave the city its cache. Surely, this must be one of the last places you would ever want to visit?
And then you go there.
On a recent Saturday night, inside the gleaming new Harlan Brasserie, the action was practically spilling out of the doors and on to Asylum Street, one of downtown’s main thoroughfares. Brightly lit and smartly appointed, the restaurant opened to positive reviews, serves good, fun, French-American fare (foie gras meatballs, short rib pot au feu), pours a great drink and is a very pleasant place to spend a weekend evening.
The brasserie occupies the ground floor of The Goodwin, a historic hotel and apartment building, known for its distinctive terra cotta exterior—the hotel was recently stripped down, reimagined and relaunched recently as the city’s first genuinely exciting hotel opening in perhaps a generation, maybe more. In Hartford and its suburbs, it seems as if you’re never far from someone talking down about Hartford, but this is one of those places that seems to make everybody—temporarily, at least—forget what it is they’ve been so disappointed over, for all these years now.
The Harlan is not the only place in town that appears to be having this effect on people now, drawing them to someplace they may not have considered frequenting after dark, or on their weekends. A block and a half from scruffy Park Street in the Frog Hollow neighborhood, fronting a meticulously restored industrial complex much older than some states, Firebox has become a destination for its accessible farm-to-table menu and a terrific weekend brunch. It’s just one part of the package at Billings Forge, an exemplary, community-backed (and focused) enterprise operating a casual café, a garden, a year-round farmers market and a job-training program, along with beautiful residences.
The scenario seems to be repeating, over and over again, all over town, right now—down Park Street and underneath the overpass where I-84 ferries travelers through town, barely forcing them to even contemplate its existence, Hog River Brewing’s lively taproom is more West Coast Nouveau than antiquated New England city, an industrial space with wooden picnic tables and counters filled with happy drinkers, sampling the brewery’s saison, red ale, its proper kölsch and much more. Thursdays, there’s live music, weekends, there are very good food trucks camped out, right outside the door. It’s a formula that’s winning over fans, some of whom might not have previously considered dropping disposable income and spending their free time in the city.
On and on it goes, these days—good barbecue at Bear’s, inventive pizzas and drinks at The Blind Pig; if you think whatever you’re looking for couldn’t possibly be in Hartford yet, look harder—it just might be here, or coming soon.
Better still, these newer offerings aren’t exactly stepping into a void—what you’ll soon learn about Hartford, once you get to know a little bit more about it, is that the recent arrivals are joining a decades old scene in a city with a long tradition of dining out.
Downtown, power spots like Max Downtown (which has spent the last few months renovating, to appeal to a younger crowd) have been a thing for ages; Hartford’s South End, traditionally the city’s Little Italy, retains a handful of its original institutions—the perfect day of eating here might begin with pastries and coffee at the century-old Mozzicato DePasquale Bakery, continue with chicken parm sandwiches at the vintage-y La Rosa Marketplace, and end in dinner at the crowd-pleasing, old-school Carbone’s.
Then there are the newer offerings from the more recent immigrants to Hartford—Tangiers, a market just around the way from Mark Twain’s old home, serves up terrific, cheap, Middle Eastern eats, while back on Park Street, El Mercado is a great one-stop for lunch, with different vendors serving up a variety of Latin American foods.
If a new generation of locals and travelers end up falling in love with Hartford and giving the city a newfound popularity, it wouldn’t be the first time a city with an image problem has unwittingly enlisted its food scene to help improve the local brand. This is a story that has been repeated, time and again, not only across the United States, but around the world, aided by the dramatic changes in recent years to the way we eat and talk about (and obsess over) food.
More than a few former dead zones have quickly been transformed into the newest must-sees—for the most striking example, perhaps, we can look to Detroit. After decades of what was perceived to be unstoppable decline by many, the city managed to pull itself out of the bailout-era doghouse and flip the script—almost by accident, it should be noted—when young entrepreneurs opened a slew of exciting, new restaurants that managed to attract suburbanites into areas of the Motor City they might not have seen in years, to park their cars on streets they previously might have preferred not to drive down, to go inside, to soak up the vibe, to leave feeling really warmly toward a place they’d probably been trained from birth to dislike, or, at the very least, feel bad about.
Like any city where money seems to have been running toward the exits for generations, there will be plenty of heavy lifting in Hartford’s near future. Insurance giant Aetna recently announced they’ll be vacating their long-time home on Farmington Avenue and moving to New York City, where the company feels it can attract more talent—it’s just another body blow to a town that in places feels as if it cannot take much more.
Compound this sort of bad news, never in short supply, with the fact that Hartford’s growing food scene faces stiff competition from its own, affluent suburbs—just fifteen minutes from the city center, the pleasant, walkable downtown of West Hartford is already crammed full of restaurants and cafes, there’s a food truck park coming soon—and it becomes almost painfully clear: The road ahead will be difficult, just like always. Still, as neighborhoods and cities that have traveled down this path before can attest, even in the face of what would appear to be insurmountable odds, sometimes all it takes is a spark.