Few people would look at an empty vintage gas station and see potential for a stylish wine bar. But fewer still may have looked at the site of a dormant airplane hangar and envisioned it reborn as a coastal vineyard and event space. Michael and Merrily Connery have done both.
The couple behind Stonington's Saltwater Farm Vineyard have branched out to restaurant ownership, opening Mystic's M/BAR, an upscale cafe with small plates and an extensive wine list. Its location in a former service station is unlikely, but the Connerys are no strangers to complete transformations.
In 2001, they purchased 108 acres of land on Elm Street in Stonington, which were formerly used as a farm and an airport, and planted 15 acres of grapevines at what would become their vineyard. Within five years, they were renovating the property's World War II-era airplane hangar into a tasting room and function area, which now welcomes crowds of weekend visitors and hosts 70 to 75 annual weddings.
More recently, the couple saw the possibility of a second wine-related business in the inactive service station on Broadway Avenue. The pumps had been removed long ago and the garage area was serving as storage.
"It just was sitting here for the longest time," Merrily Connery said. Michael Connery pursued the building's owner to express his interest, she said, and they took over the space in October 2015, beginning construction to create what is now a 92-seat cafe. M/BAR opened on June 29.
The renovated gas station project is unique to the area, but it's a trend that's taken hold in other areas of the country, Merrily Connery said. In Mystic, M/BAR's decor retains a touch of the industrial, with cement floors, cinder block walls and three bay doors that allow open-air dining in the warm weather. But it's sophisticated as well, with round pendant lights and comfortable booths upholstered in blue velvet. An outdoor patio offers more seating, with fire pits.
"It's a garage, but we didn't want it to be hokey in terms of style," Connery said. "I think we're pretty pleased with the way it all came together."
M/BAR started out with evening service, offering its menu of small plates and wine, "and then we worked backward," Merrily Connery said, adding morning coffee (using Chicago-based Intelligentsia as a supplier) and croissants and other assorted pastries. Now it's a popular stop for breakfast ($2.75 to $9) with housemade bagels, quiche, a yogurt parfait, a wide selection of egg sandwiches on English muffins and toasted brioche, mashed avocado with goat feta and pita chips, and the Connerys' favorite, a hardboiled egg "slider" with Kalamata olive aioli. Several breakfast dishes are available daily until 3 p.m.
Chef Scott Mickelson, an alum of Foxwoods' former Paragon restaurant, is behind the refined small plates served at lunch and dinner, ($9 to $18) complete with eye-catching presentation. Spicy Merguez lamb sliders arrive with round plastic pipettes full of garlic jus, poised to infuse even more flavor into the miniature burgers. The sugar-crusted Downeast bacon pops are thick, hearty chunks of pork, speared on decorative picks and served with maple vinegar. Sweet king crab tops a light salad of grapefruit, avocado and arugula.
Connery said a summer panzanella salad with burrata has been a top seller, along with a "naked BLT" salad with organic heirloom tomatoes, avocado, bacon, Bibb lettuce and Roquefort and a madras cauliflower curry. More indulgent dishes include a grass-fed steak tartare, macaroni and cheese with Taleggio and pommes frites with house ketchup.
Guests also graze on cheese and charcuterie plates (3 items for $18; 5 for $25) that feature local selections, like Cato Corner's Womanchego and Beltane Farms' goat feta. Merrily Connery said Mickelson has relied on the close relationships he's built with local purveyors and suppliers.
The menu is not "static," Merrily Connery said, noting that Mickelson would likely move toward fall-themed ingredients as the seasons change. Desserts ($6 to $8) like choux doughnut holes with Cabernet Franc jam and chocolate; white chocolate panna cotta and milk and cookies, are a newer addition.
As a wine destination, M/BAR offers an extensive, varied list, with many options available by the glass. Four Saltwater Farm varietals — the Gold Arc Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and rosé — join red, white and sparkling choices from California, Spain, France, Italy, Argentina and beyond. "We really wanted our menu to be accessible to a variety of people," Merrily Connery said.
Beyond wine, guests also enjoy craft beers from assorted Connecticut and Rhode Island breweries, and the bar also features an array of cocktails, with twists on a classic mojito, bloody mary, espresso martini and Negroni. A new happy hour, running Wednesday through Sunday from 4 to 6 p.m., offers $10 wine flights and deals on draft beer, sangria and select cocktails.
M/BAR, 30 Broadway Ave., Mystic, is open daily for breakfast and lunch from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner service runs 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. 860-245-4499, mbarct.com.