While Hartford's endlessly debated downtown Front Street "entertainment district" remains just a taxpayer-financed hole in the ground, a private philanthropy is putting its weight behind an intriguing idea in Frog Hollow.
This premise hangs on a difficult question: Can a restaurant aimed at suburbanites and yuppies help revive a struggling, blighted city neighborhood?
The Firebox restaurant quietly opened a few weeks ago with dreams of becoming a force for change along Broad Street, just off Capitol Avenue.
"We are trying to spark investment in the community. We are putting our money where our mouth is, enticing people into a neighborhood that they might not have discovered yet," said Cary Wheaton, who moved here to oversee the initiative for the Melville Charitable Trust.
Wheaton knows much about creating restaurants where people want to go. She is a co-founder of two landmark Boston hangouts, The Blue Room and East Coast Grill & Raw Bar.
"The space is spectacular. The food is spectacular. I think Hartford is fabulous," said Wheaton, who is not yet infected with our local fatalism. "I think a lot of this is about making connections that aren't being made."
The restaurant is part of a larger Melville initiative. It includes an adjoining community center that provides after-school programs for children and job training for adults, including Firebox employees. On Thursdays in July, the parking lot will be converted to a farmer's market. A bakery is planned.
But the restaurant, with its sleek bar and 1,000-bottle wine rack, where the kitchen will feature Connecticut-grown and raised food, is the focal point. Located in the former Billings Forge complex, it has been completely renovated.
Chef Jason Collin said the idea is to "blur the lines for people of where they won't go. There's got to be a reason for people to come here."
Firebox general manager Dan Meiser, formerly of the Max Restaurant Group, reminded me that "an OK restaurant will not succeed here." Meiser said the idea is to convince suburban folks to come to a street they might rarely drive down for a quality meal in an unusual space.
Meiser and Collin have a big incentive to motivate them. If the restaurant succeeds, they will have the chance to buy the place from Melville. If the restaurant flourishes, the hope is that other neighborhood investment will follow.
Where the idea has worked, such as the South End of Boston or South Norwalk, "it has been a way of breaking down established patterns and perceptions and getting people to take a second look," said Ken Greenberg, a city planner who has been advising Hartford.
"Food is something that brings people together," Greenberg said. "It's one of those attractors that crosses all kinds of lines. Hartford has this characteristic of a lot of things are near and yet so far."
With a mission to end the causes of homelessness, opening a high-end restaurant doesn't at first seem like the next step for the Melville Trust. But executive director Robert Hohler believes that a successful for-profit restaurant fits perfectly with the trust's mission of creating jobs and fighting poverty.
"In order to accelerate change you have to invest in entrepreneurial development. You have to invest in people," he said. "We are not afraid of failures, of taking risks."
Maybe, as we continue to search for the big bang to spark a Hartford revival, at least part of the answer lies in the small and unexpected.
So make a reservation. Eat dinner. Open your eyes.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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