A Fervent Believer In Downtown Has Created A Warm Space To Meet And Eat
By JOANN KLIMKIEWICZ, Courant Staff Writer
January 03, 2008
On an otherwise cold, quiet evening in downtown Hartford, there's a spot that glows, like candlelight, at Pratt and Trumbull streets. Heads down and hands in coat pockets, folks hustle by without much notice. But every once in a while, the music that spills from the restaurant catches one, and they stop to look into the warmth of its windows.
When they peek inside The Russell this Thursday night, they see a woman at the microphone belting a soulful tune through closed eyes. They see people sipping on sweet cocktails, shoulders swaying into the beat. And, weaving around it all, they see that familiar face whose familiar name is stamped on the restaurant's front.
It's owner Hugh Russell. And like a host at his own private house party, he's greeting guests table side with a kiss to the cheek, a pat to the back and the offer to fetch whatever else they may need.
"That's Hughie for you," says regular Jorge Calderon, 50, a local businessman perched on a bar stool, drinking a post-work beer. "He's a real gentleman. He knows everybody. And if he doesn't, he introduces himself. He goes out of his way to make you feel comfortable."
Little more than two years after opening his restaurant and jazz spot, it's fair to say, then, that Russell has succeeded in his vision — one built in the former Xando coffee bar, financed by selling his own house and deemed a crazy idea by more than a few.
Yet here it now thrives, the warm spot in downtown that city residents, and Russell himself, had long been craving.
"It was always a struggle to find a place in downtown where a more mature crowd gathered," says Russell, 40, dressed sharp as ever in his sleek suit and crisp, pastel-colored tie. "I wanted a place that I could go to. ... I wanted to create a home away from home. And people have told me The Russell has been home for them.
"I found a family here."
So have customers. They were drawn first by the live music, by the eclectic Caribbean menu (a nod to Russell's Jamaican roots) and the plush, inviting setting — candlelight and cozy couches, walls painted in spicy crimsons and golds. But Russell is the first to say it: People will come for the jazz and Jerk chicken only so many times. Here in the land of steady habits, he's constantly challenged to offer up new reasons to nudge folks out a new art exhibit, a networking event, a rotating musical lineup.
But talk to a few of the regulars, and they'll tell you what really brings them back time and again is the easy, familiar atmosphere that lends itself to meeting friendly faces.
"It's so homey and laid back," says Erin Williams, squeezed behind a tiny cocktail table with friend Latasha Douglas, both 21. "Every time you come, you see a lot of the same people. So, you just get to talking. I've made new friends here."
Her older sister, Carly, returns just then from mingling across the bar. Wine glass in hand, she explains The Russell is a cool spot in part because she sees no other place like it in Hartford. She's come over the past two years for poetry nights, jazz performances, the international Sunday buffet series.
"It's just a really nice vibe," she says, looking out to the streets as more folks pass by, stopping for just a glance before trudging on. "I just wish more people would come in. They walk by and look in, but they don't come in. I don't get that."
Russell does. He's a believer in downtown, even making his new home in a building a short walk from the restaurant. But he says downtown needs more — more retail, more foot traffic, more parking. And more support from its own.
"A lot of the natives don't treasure what we have in Hartford," says Russell, who gained industry experience at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art cafe, and later his own catering business. "There's this whole idea that this is Hartford and there's nothing to do. ... But there's a lot of energy right now. It's not quite a destination spot just yet, but I think it can be."
He ticks off a list of spots for music, art, great food or a hip scene — the hive of downtown bars and restaurants you'll also catch Russell at himself on any night of the week.
"It's never a competition with the other restaurants," he says. "It's like back home in Jamaica, when you're out of milk or you need some sugar? You go next door. It's like that downtown. It's family."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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