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A Good Time To Eat, Drink And Be Wary

Restaurateurs Say Business Is Fine, Despite Lack Of 'Feet On The Street'

February 25, 2007
By JENNIFER HUGET, Special to The Courant

Downtown Hartford's restaurant scene is hopping, and the theories on why are as varied as the cuisine.

Some say that diners from the suburbs are getting more comfortable with downtown Hartford. Others say that regulars who work downtown and the convention center are giving the eateries a boost. And some say it's simply the good food.

What they do agree on is this: It's not because of a spike in people living downtown.

Richard Rosenthal, co-owner of Max Downtown and owner of Trumbull Kitchen, said that his restaurants in downtown Hartford had a record year in 2006, and he attributed that partly to suburban residents getting more comfortable with dining out downtown.

But an influx of city residents hasn't happened - at least not yet, said Rosenthal, whose Max Downtown is right across the street from the Hartford 21 residential tower.

"There isn't this feeling that all of a sudden there are feet on the street," Rosenthal said.

The units appear to be "filling slowly," he noted, "but the developers seem to be happy with the pace." And, he said, there's optimism among restaurant owners that people will soon be "living down the street and around the corner."

Restaurant owners throughout downtown agree with Rosenthal's assessment.

"There doesn't seem to be a huge number of people moving into the city, not right now," said Johnny Vaughan of Vaughan's Public House on Pratt Street.

Part of the problem, Vaughan thinks, is the lack of basic amenities that are attractive to would-be city dwellers - among them, movie theaters and gas stations and dry cleaners. Even so, Vaughan thinks, housing will fill up "sooner or later. These things don't happen overnight."

Despite a lack of new city dwellers, restaurant owners said they were pleased with receipts in 2006 and look forward to more growth in the year ahead.

Dino Cialfi, owner and chief cook at Peppercorn's Grill, is almost giddy about how business is going. "I don't know where it's coming from, but I'm thrilled," he said. "We're doing terrific."

Cialfi said that sales last year were up 18 percent over 2005, with just a minor increase in menu prices to offset continuing rises in energy, employment and food costs. "Food prices have skyrocketed," he said. "Italian wines have gone up because the dollar is so weak. Prices are up on fish and meat."

And to what does Cialfi attribute the success? It's all about the food, he said.

Mark McGovern, the city's director of economic development, said he believes that the strength of the downtown restaurant scene is a combination of students coming downtown, the convention center and the arts-and-heritage visitor.

McGovern noted that in the past two years, 81 new bars, restaurants, cafes and coffee shops have opened citywide - 20 of them downtown Several of those, including Dishes restaurant in the former Comet Diner on Farmington Avenue, have closed their doors, too.

Bill Sze, who with his wife Cathy Wei opened Jojo's Coffee Roasting Co. on Pratt Street in March 2005, has seen a similar business boom. In the fourth quarter of 2006, sales showed a 17 percent increase over the same period in 2005.

Sze says they've seen new residents of the former Sage-Allen building come in, and a few from the Colt Gateway and 55 on the Park apartments. But like Ciali, Sze doesn't think a new pool of Hartford residents has fueled his restaurant's growth. He credits a bevy of regulars from offices in the Gold Building, CityPlace and along Market Street.

Although Vaughan is concerned that rising rents are putting a squeeze on restaurants, he also worries that apartment rents in the central business district might be too high for young professionals starting out - a population segment seen as key to the revitalization of downtown Hartford.

In any case, Vaughan said, "We decided we want to be here for the long term. We've reinvested $100,000 in the past 18 months, buying new computers, new TVs, having the place cleaned on a regular basis and training staff."

Others also are investing for the long term.

James Varano's got enough depth and breadth of experience as a Hartford restaurant owner to truly appreciate his businesses' current good fortune. The owner of both Black-Eyed Sally's BBQ on Asylum Street and the new Sally's Fish Camp on Ann Street, which replaced his well-regarded but foundering French bistro Pastis late last year, Varano said: "It's kind of exciting being downtown now. There's a renaissance."

Varano said he "started out in the worst of times, the 1990s," when Hartford's economy was at an especially low point and opening a restaurant there was viewed as an act of wishful, even naïve, optimism.

But Black-Eyed Sally's has built a loyal following, in part because of its program of live music, and it is still going strong - strong enough for Varano to be willing to pour $100,000 into its renovation and a revamping of the menu this year. "We have to keep up with the neighborhood," Varano said. "Things are looking pretty good around here. Even though we are one of the longest-established restaurants in town, we don't want to look like it."

Sally's Fish Camp opened in early November. "We started off a little bit slow," Varano said. "It was around holiday time." But by early February, Varano started to see lines of people waiting for lunch on Friday and dinner on Saturday, even when "nothing particular was going on in town" to draw a crowd. "Word of mouth is spreading," he said, even among former Pastis customers who Varano said were "a little timid at first" about the venue's change of décor and fare.

Varano was reluctant to give up on Pastis, he said, but "after almost eight years in the space, the rent going up every year, Pastis wasn't growing." Last year's rent increase was the largest ever, he said. And Varano recognized that the restaurant's following, although loyal, was small and static. "I either had to walk away from it or double down."

As for the anticipated resident-fueled bump in business, Varano feels "the hype is a little ahead of the reality. The tower across the street [Hartford 21, across from Sally's Fish Camp] holds 250 units, but he's heard only 40 of them are filled. "Management there is not surprised; they say it will take 18 months to fill it all up," Varano said.

Eventually, he predicts, the Hartford restaurant and bar scene will "reach a tipping point, where there are so many bars and restaurants concentrated here that it will be a destination. That's still one or two years off, though."

In the meantime, some of those early adapters of downtown living have made their presence felt.

"One customer from the tower comes to my restaurants at least three times a week," Varano said. "He's a young guy, he doesn't cook. That's a good demographic. If they keep filling them with people like that, we'll be in good shape."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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