Bistro on Main: A French Restaurant With A Social Mission

Each plate of steak frites, duck confit or bouillabaisse means a little bit more at Manchester’s new Bistro on Main. It may lead to a better life for the line cooks and waiters who’ve prepared and delivered your meal.

The social enterprise restaurant connected to Manchester Area Conference of Churches, Inc. (MACC Charities), which opened Nov. 8, is an extension of MACC’s culinary jobs training program. Last spring the organization purchased the former Landmark Cafe on Main Street, transforming it into a French-inspired bistro.

“We’ve been dreaming about this idea for a while, and honestly thought it was further out,” says Ben Dubow, Bistro on Main’s executive chef and general manager. “But then a number of things fell into place and it came together fairly quickly.”

About 90 percent of the kitchen staff members have completed MACC’s culinary training program, a 24-week curriculum intended to teach advanced kitchen skills in addition to basic life and job skills and ServSafe food handler certification. Once students finish the course, they’re eligible to apply for employment at Bistro on Main.

Students and program graduates had been working with MACC’s full-service catering operations, but “we realized they really need line restaurant experience if they’re going to make it in this industry,” Dubow says. The restaurant will also help create a stream of income for the agency.

MACC assists individuals who have serious barriers to employment, Dubow says: people who are homeless or may be at risk for homelessness, people with past criminal records, victims of domestic abuse, people with disabilities or any other life circumstance that may limit their potential to work.

“Our mission at MACC is to break cycles of poverty,” he says. “Whatever’s getting in the way for people, we want to help them. It’s about a hand up, not a handout.”

The restaurant is a non-tipping operation, with hospitality already included in the price of the food and drink. Staff members are paid fair wages for their work, with about 95 percent of employees receiving $15 an hour, Dubow says.

Dubow says the casual French bistro concept was chosen carefully, with the Manchester restaurant scene in mind.

“We didn’t want to be a burger bar, or pizza, or Italian, or other things that are existing around here,” he says. (Though Cavey’s, specializing in upscale French and Italian fare, is less than a mile away on East Center Street, Dubow notes that it’s more of a fine-dining destination.)

French cuisine, with its classic techniques, seemed ideal for an educational program, Dubow says. “We really wanted a concept where the skills and methods they were learning would be transferable.”

It was important for MACC to present a “legitimate, high-end good restaurant” that also happened to benefit the community, Dubow says.

“We knew people would come out of curiosity once or twice to support a charitable thing, but for them to become regulars and really kind of buy into it, we needed the restaurant to stand for itself. For it to have any legitimacy on a resume, to matter for training and career, it had to be a good stand-alone restaurant.”

Food service is “an industry that loves to give second chances,” Dubow says.

“At the end of the day, equipping people with jobs doesn’t just provide income, but also dignity, and that is so huge.” He shares an anecdote about a restaurant staff member who was able to buy his young daughter a Christmas gift for the first time ever, with money he’d earned.

“As we start thinking about breaking cycles and legacies of poverty, it starts with those kinds of moments. We don’t win them all, but it’s those kinds of moments that remind me that it’s so key to what we do. That’s why jobs are so important.”

FEATURED/NOTEWORTHY DISHES: The menu changes regularly and seasonally, but classics like French onion soup, moules frites, coq au vin, cassoulet and trout meunière have appeared in recent weeks. Bouillabaisse features salmon, monkfish, mussels, clams, calamari and shrimp in a saffron fish broth, and a canard aux lentilles entree spotlights local Marwin Farms duck breast with blackberry dijon glaze, black lentils, ratatouille and winter green pistou. Bistro on Main works with about a dozen local and regional purveyors for locally sourced meats, poultry, dairy, breads and produce.

Other dishes may represent cultures with French influence, like a queue de porc tagine: pork shank with North African spices, olives, preserved lemon, apricots and pomegranate, sweet potatoes, harissa crema and pearl couscous.

At lunch, soups, salads and sandwiches are popular: tartines, salad nicoise with pan-seared salmon, a quiche du jour with mixed greens, croque monsieur and a bistro burger with turkey bacon, fried egg and peppercorn demi glace. Desserts rotate frequently, with recent features like a 20-layer crepe cake, filled with chocolate crème pâtissière with a burnt sugar topping and drizzle of salted caramel.

THE BAR: Bistro on Main features what Dubow calls a “well-cultivated” wine list, with French and American selections, and a full bar. “French classique” cocktails include the Bistro’s spin on a French 75, with Bloomfield-made Waypoint Spirits gin; a Sidecar with pear eau de vie from Connecticut’s Westford Hill Distillers and a Le Riviére Seine with champagne and Hartford Flavor Company’s Wild Moon rose liqueur. Others are inspired by world cuisines with French influence: a Moroccan spice Manhattan, a Vietnamese tea cooler, a coffee-tini with Haitian rum, crème de coconut and crème de banana. Cocktails are $9 to $13.

PRICING: Appetizers are $9 to $13; soups and salads are $8 to $16. Lunch sandwiches and plates are $10 to 15. Dinner entrees are $17 to $29. Desserts are $3 to $8.

HOURS: Bistro on Main is open Wednesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Happy hour runs from 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday in the bar area. The restaurant is available Sunday, Monday and Tuesday for private events.

Bistro on Main is at 867 Main St. in Manchester. 860-432-5267, bistro-on-main.com.

Copyright © 2018, CT Now
42°