When I Danced For My Dinner in Downtown Hartford, Connecticut
Posted on January 14, 2016
(One day after I published this story highlighting the flavor and commerce, once popular eateries brought to Hartford, CT as part of the tapestry of the city, Hartford’s newly elected mayor, Luke Bronin, was quoted in an editorial titled -“Don’t Brown-Bag It” – in the Hartford Courant, citing the importance of restaurants to the capital city. The piece reads: “Everyone wants Hartford to succeed. It’s the seat of government, a cultural gem, the nation’s insurance capital. But the city struggles with a small tax base and a communter culture. Now comes a dynamic new mayor with the daunting task of turning around this beautiful but beleaguered city. How can we help? corporate and civic leaders asked him this week at a meeting of the Metro-Hartford Alliance, the region’s chamber of commerce. ‘Eat here,’ he said” …)
The history of Hartford, Connecticut can be told in many ways. One way is through the personal memories of restaurants that once graced the downtown landscape. Here is a sampling of mine …
1. MARBLE PILLAR Sara Bronin, wife of the city’s new mayor, recently cited on Twitter the purchase of some grand ole’ brownstone buildings across from the Old State House. At one time, adjacent to those brownstone buildings stood the Marble Pillar, a German restaurant where executives and blue-collar workers lunched side-by-side on knockwurst and potato pancakes on a daily basis.
Opened one year before the Civil War as a “men’s-only saloon” in the basement of a building on Main and Asylum streets, ‘The Pillar’ relocated to 22 Central Row in the 1880s, according to eggvan.com/great-hartford-connecticut-restaurants-from-the-1970s-and-1980s/. Before hard times – including layoffs at Travelers Insurance Co. – led to its demise in July of 1993, ‘The Pillar’ was thought to be the oldest restaurant in Hartford. Concurring with the description of the Marble Pillar as a “mainstay of old Harford” when “culinary excellence” and “top-rate service” ruled the day, it was a go-to spot for my father, who worked in Hartford for some three decades.
Reared in the hotel business, Dad’s family – well, my family – owned and operated The Bennett Hotel and Sunnycrest Farm in upstate New York before moving to Connecticut, and at one time Dad was himself a business owner as a partner in Hyde’s Magazine Shop in Windham, CT. As such, Dad was keenly aware of good business practices. Within the context of dining out, restaurant quality, cleanliness, good food and courteous service were of paramount importance to him. All of us in the family humorously remember him using his cloth napkins to polish his set of silverware at restaurants before eating.
If my father patronized an establishment it was high praise, a seal of approval. When I was in my teens, I joined him for lunch at the Marble Pillar. Although the food was excellent, I recall the interior as dark and dated – it is unfortunate the type of revitalization initiatives currently underway in Hartford, or preservation efforts were not available then to help rejuvenate this historic place.
2. SPAGHETTI PALACE, INC. My memories of another great Hartford enclave, the Spaghetti Palace on 67 Asylum Street, date back beginning around age 4. This was no pasta joint, it was a popular restaurant where we went often as a family. After a Saturday of shopping at G.Fox & Co., my mother, my sister Candy and I would join my father for dinner in the city when he got off of work. One of Dad’s favorite destinations was the Spaghetti Palace. Not long ago I came across a Spaghetti Palace bib among my mother’s momentos.
I can distinctly recall donning such a bib during our dining excursions. At that time a visit to Hartford meant getting dressed up. For me that entailed a fluffy dress with matching tights, a ruffled slip and black patent leather shoes. Oh, those black patent leather shoes!
At the Spaghetti Palace worked a waiter of whom my father thought highly. Dad had great respect for folks who did their jobs well. Dad would ask that we be seated at this waiter’s table; he always made a fuss over me and my patent leather shoes. Whenever we ate at the Spaghetti Palace – encouraged by my father – by request I would stand up in the aisle by our table and do a little shuffle dance to show off my patent leather shoes for the waitstaff.
Yes, there was a time when I danced for my dinner in downtown Hartford! HA!
3. Frank’s Situated across from the Hartford Civic Center, Frank’s was known for fabulous Italian cuisine, as well as, where the movers and shakers of a vibrant, by-gone political era could puff on cigars and “hold court”.
“Dempseys, Dodds and other Democrats”, noted AP News Archive, came here not only to dine but to be seen. Former Gov. Ella Grasso was said to have been a frequent customer. Perhaps an indicator of my later gravitation into journalism, my experience of Frank’s was fueled by an early interest in politics and a curiosity to see firsthand if what I had heard was true – indeed, seated at tables towards the back were recognizable politicians.
4. CHUCK’s & Margaritaville When I was attending the University of Connecticut, to enjoy nightlife or dinner out one picked up Route 44 west to Hartford from sleepy Storrs. With UConn basketball games and NHL Hartford Whalers hockey played at the Hartford Civic Center, two of the busiest restaurants were both located inside the HCC, Chuck’s Steak House and Margaritaville Mexican Restaurant. Lines would snake out the entrances from both on weekend or game nights, and it was nothing to wait an hour or so for a table while enjoying drinks in the standing-room only bar section. A best selection at Chuck’s was always Teriyaki Sirloin. Though now closed, these restaurants had staying power well past when I was graduated and became a reporter for the Manchester Herald. It was not unusual to see some of the Whalers’ star players stop in to Chuck’s late in the evening after a game.
5. VALLE’S On the edge of the city near Brainard Airport was Valle’s Steak House. I have already shared one of my most vivid recollections of this once bustling Hartford restaurant – the infamous lobster claw flipped across the dining room story. Valle’s was always a treat and another place where lines and a wait were to be expected. Aside from lobster, they prepared a wonderful Veal Parmesan. As time went on, driving into Hartford restaurants more often marked a special occasion – such as entertaining visiting relatives.
6. PARKVIEW HILTON RESTAURANT Demolished in 1990 after the owner could not find a buyer for the vacant building, the “glass-walled” Parkview Hilton was known as one of the city’s “first modern skyscrapers”. Located across from Bushnell Park and just down the hill from the State Capitol, the restaurant had a great view. I remember fondly being invited to dinner there.
7. ARCH STREET TAVERN These days when I eat in downtown Hartford – not to worry, I’ve hung up my black patent leather dancing shoes – my choice is most likely the casual Arch Street Tavern. They put out an excellent Turkey Melt – roasted turkey, (I skip the avocado), Applewood smoked bacon, Vermont Cabot Cheddar on grilled rye – and I enjoy its cozy, vintage decor.
To think a Tweet about Hartford brownstones and the discovery of a Spaghetti Palace bib sparked so many Hartford memories. Should anyone be so inclined, I would be interested in reading in the comment section below about other’s memories of Hartford restaurants, or news of promising new capital city restaurants on the horizon.