By LEEANNE GRIFFIN, Special to the Courant
The Hartford Courant
May 30, 2013
Nearly everyone in New Haven has a Richter's story, including native son and restaurateur Jason Sobocinski. The historic tavern on Chapel Street welcomed beer-drinking crowds for nearly 30 years before closing in 2011.
Sobocinski's memories are fond – he points out the booth where he spent one of his first dates with his wife, and he laughs as he recalls a verbal spat between a group of his friends and Yale students in blue blazers.
"I can literally say I've been kicked out of my own bar," he said.
Since April, the old Richter's is now Ordinary, the newest manifestation of the space that has actually served as a drinking establishment since the 1600s. Sobocinski, known best for Caseus, his Whitney Avenue bistro and fromagerie, and his three business partners came together to reimagine the centuries-old watering hole.
The bar is nearly as old as the Elm City itself, starting as the town's "ordinary," or tavern, in 1659. Another iteration of the venue, the Beers Tavern, was the site of Revolutionary War history, with appearances by Benedict Arnold and George Washington.
As the New Haven House hotel, the space is said to have housed Abraham Lincoln during an 1860 campaign stop and a later revival as the Taft Hotel brought in more noteworthy names: William Howard Taft, Ted Williams, Albert Einstein, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn and Marlon Brando. Yale graduate Richter Elser bought the bar and turned it into Richter's Café in 1983, where it stood for 28 years.
The storied record of his new bar fascinates Sobocinski, he said, and as part of the design process, he commissioned local author, historian and architectural designer Colin Caplan to create a timeline mural that now wraps around the walls leading to the bathrooms. "It is so much fun to learn about the history," he said.
Mindful of the bar's remarkable past, the partners — Sobocinski and his brother, Tom; longtime Caseus manager Tim Cabral; and Mike Farber, owner of MiKro Beer Bar in Hamden – chose to keep the space's original interior as authentic as possible. The dark wood paneling, intricate carvings, mahogany bar and plaster ceiling are all there, restored to a gleaming finish.
"We refurbished it," said Sobocinski. "We just kind of scraped it down, sanded it down and built it back up. First off, we had to find people who were willing to do this."
Ordinary preserved some of Richter's character with the help of former owner Richter Elser, Sobocinski said. Fans of the bar remember "the moose" – the majestic wall mount of the creature Elser's grandfather shot in 1908. Elser agreed to let the partners display the moose, along with the iconic "yard" glasses of beer. (The bar also serves half-yards of beer, equivalent to two pints.)
And though they've upheld the look and feel of the original setting, the partners have designed a cocktail and food menu all their own. The miniscule kitchen doesn't allow for much production, so Sobocinski has stuck to his areas of expertise – cheese and charcuterie. A dozen cheeses, separated by categories of cow, sheep or goat's milk, are available daily with crackers, jam and nuts, along with a half-dozen meats, pâtés and mousses with pickles and mustard. These customizable slates are priced at $5 for one, $8 for two, $12 for three and $14 for four.
For heartier fare, Ordinary has partnered with Sixpence Pie Company of Southington, which delivers fresh-baked savory pies daily. The pies ($9) are filled with fresh, locally sourced ingredients, including beef from Four Mile River Farm in Old Lyme, pork and bacon from Stonington's Terra Firma Farm and cheeses from Cato Corner Farm in Colchester. Other snacks ($4) include varieties of nuts and olives.
Sweets ($4 to $9) are equally simple and streamlined, including cookies and local milk; a dark chocolate raspberry tart from La Palette Bakery in Watertown; dark chocolate fig bonbons filled with a chocolate brandy mousse and chocolate-covered nuts and espresso beans.
Much attention is paid to the cocktail menu, with boutique spirits, fresh-squeezed juices and specialized ice cubes, thick and solid and measuring 1-1/4 inches – thanks to a Kold-Draft machine. They're "absolutely perfect," Sobocinski says, keeping the drinks cold without diluting the creations. Ordinary also has no soda guns, instead mixing libations with botanically brewed Fentiman's sodas from England.
Cabral, a wine and spirits expert, was tasked with designing the cocktails. He decided to keep them as classic as possible, as an homage to the past.
"We thought [having] classic cocktails was a great way to respect the space," he said. "Having cocktails and drinks and spirits that are very minimalistic – one, two, three ingredients – this way you can taste the products that are in them."
Priced at $9 to $13, the list includes a Manhattan, a rye Old Fashioned, a Bee's Knees with Botanist gin, local honey and fresh lemon; a Sazerac with High West double rye and a Duplais absinthe rinse and a Viking Funeral with El Tinieblo mezcal, Luxardo orange liqueur, fresh orange and bubbles.
Sobocinski has begun to design cocktail and cheese pairings for upcoming classes and also as suggestions and reference for patrons. Among the pairups: a Calvados Sidecar with Robiola Rochetta, the Bee's Knees with Mystic Cheese Company's Melville (another side project of his); and El Dorado 15-year aged rum with Roquefort Papillion and Fentiman's Cherry Tree Cola.
The partners aimed to open Ordinary quietly, but word spread quickly. "People have walked in here and said, 'This is my bar,'" Farber said. "When we told people we were doing this, everyone had a story to tell about this place. And from all age groups."
"I had a customer who said, 'I can't believe how eclectic your crowd is. Mid-20s, up to 65, 70 years old. You've got professionals, blue-collar, people who are coming in to check out the nostalgia of the place,'" Sobocinski said.
"As far as the demographic, I don't think we have one. …We want people who are interested in trying something new."
>>Ordinary is at 990 Chapel St., in New Haven. It is open Sunday through Tuesday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Wednesday and Thursday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Friday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.; and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Happy-hour specials run nightly from 5 to 7 p.m., with discounted drinks and meat pies. Information: 203-907-0238 and ordinarynewhaven.com.
>>Alforno Trattoria, 1654 Boston Post Road, Old Saybrook, has introduced a new lunch menu. Items include sandwiches on fresh-baked Roman flatbread, composed salads, a burger on a Cuban roll, pasta and thin-crust pizza. Information: 860-399-4166, alforno.net.
>>Fleming's Steakhouse & Wine Bar brings back its Small Plates, Big Pours offering through June 30 in the bar. The plates include New Zealand petite lamb chops, Fleming's lobster tempura, colossal shrimp skewers, New Bedford scallops, sliced filet mignon, braised short ribs, or ahi tuna matched with one of seven premium Big Pour (a glass and a half) specially-selected wines. Each pairing is $24.95. Fleming's is at 44 South Main Street in West Hartford. Information: 860- 233-1116 and flemingssteakhouse.com.
>>Oddfellows Playhouse hosts Food Improv: Take 2 on June 6 at the Wadsworth Mansion in Middletown, highlighting fare from local restaurants and vendors along with the performing arts. The event will raise funds for the theater's programs and scholarships. Tickets are $75; $125 for a couple. Doors open at 6 p.m. Information: http://www.oddfellows.org.
>>Dinners at the Farm marks seven years of its open-air dinners at three shoreline farms this season, kicking off the first event at Barberry Hill Farm in Madison. The group will host four dinners there July 11 to 14, then move to Scott's Farm & Greenhouses in Essex for four nights (July 25 to 28.) The series wraps at White Gate Farm in East Lyme with four dinners August 1 to 4 (the August 3 event is sold out.) Tickets are $150. Information and schedule: dinnersatthefarm.com.
>>Max Restaurant Group presents the fifth year of its Max Chef-to-Farm dinners, led by Max's Oyster Bar executive chef Scott Miller. The schedule includes 10 events, held at Rosedale Farm & Vineyard in Simsbury, The Farmers Cow Greywall Farm in Lebanon and Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry. The dinners are themed by seasonality, beginning June 14 with "Berries and Blossoms." Tickets are $115, plus tax and gratuity. Information: maxcheftofarm.com.
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