When Massachusetts-based Distinctive Hospitality Group bought the Hilton Mystic in March 2014, it had big plans for a top-to-bottom makeover. Though the Hilton brand would remain in place, DHG was intent on renovating the space to better reflect its prime location within a major New England tourist destination.
"One of the things that we petitioned when we bought the hotel, was to create some flexibility around the design … to be able to represent local flavor and flair, and sort of integrate some of the historical components of the area," says Lou Carrier, DHG's president. "Mystic has a history that's super rich; we wanted to give nods to that as often as we could without being kitschy."
Over the next year and a half — in several phases — DHG executed a full refresh of the 182-room hotel, modernizing guest rooms, opening up common areas and adding a new courtyard with gas fire pits and comfortable couch seating. One of the most dramatic transformations, though, was its on-site restaurant, renamed in tribute to Irons & Grinnell, Mystic's famed shipbuilders of centuries past.
The Irons, a gastropub-style eatery, reflects Mystic's maritime history with stylish touches like nautical alphabet flags (spelling out the restaurant's name along a back wall), reclaimed shiplap and sleek hues of blue, steel-gray and white. Historical scenes of Mystic line the walls, and a stone slab bar commands the center of the room, surrounded by tufted booths and tables with Windsor chairs.
As a hotel operation, The Irons caters to multiple audiences, including traveling overnight guests and area residents. The Hilton Mystic is about to head into its first full summer post-renovation, and Carrier expects business to be "explosive" as visitors stream into the area to visit Mystic Seaport, the aquarium and the charming waterfront downtown.
But as the high season fades into fall and winter, local and regional attention becomes that much more important, Carrier says. DHG spent time speaking with locals during the planning process for their opinions on what the restaurant might become.
"[We wanted] to make sure we weren't overshooting it," he says. "They didn't want it too upscale. … We notched above mid-scale [and] hit the right price points."
Those measures proved fruitful. "We've been able to develop a clientele here: a gang of regulars who are here two, three times a week. That's exactly what you want."
The menu is varied and crowd-pleasing, with dishes that "we really felt the local community and our hotel guests were going to want," says the hotel's food and beverage manager Mitch Marron.
Best-selling starters ($5 to $12) include housemade white cheddar tater tots, drizzled with a jalapeño truffle mayonnaise; and firecracker shrimp in a zesty sweet and spicy sauce with Thai slaw. Other small plates include Reuben rangoons with Thousand Island dressing; crispy Point Judith calamari with peppers and lemon aioli; truffled deviled eggs; wings; and Buffalo chicken dip.
Burgers ($11 to $15) crafted with a blend of short rib and chuck, features a preparation with caramelized onions, prosciutto and mozzarella and a "blue ribbon" version with blue cheese and bacon. Sandwiches include a traditional Reuben and turkey club and a "twisted" BLT with country-fried bacon, iceberg wedge and balsamic aioli.
Entrée options ($16 to $25) include steak frites with "gorilla fries" (baked potato wedges, deep-fried and topped with Parmesan and parsley), pan-roasted salmon with mango cilantro relish, baked local scrod with buttered herb crust, classic fish and chips and a Cajun bayou pasta with shrimp and andouille sausage. Hearty comfort dishes like Buffalo mozzarella-topped meatloaf parmigiana with pasta and brick chicken with loaded smashed potatoes fit the bill for the cold months.
Marron said the menu will change four times a year in keeping with seasonal eating habits and availability of ingredients. Expect to see even more fresh seafood on the menu in the coming summer months, including Stonington scallops and lobster rolls. (Marron said he'd like to present both cold and hot lobster preparations.)
The bar offers an ever-rotating selection of draft beers (including local selections from Groton's Outer Light, Oxford's Black Hog, Stratford's Two Roads and Branford's Stony Creek) and specialty craft cocktails. Happy hour runs Monday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m., with three signature drinks for $5 apiece; $5 wines, $4 local drafts and bar bites for $3 to $6.
An a la carte Sunday brunch, served from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., features such indulgent plates as Nutella crepes with crushed Heath Bar, lobster Benedict, steak and eggs and build-your-own omelets. Entrees are $11 to $23.
"We look forward to welcoming our local neighbors, as well as our hotel guests, to what we think is a very special and unique local dining experience," says Marron. "We want to be the social and gathering hub for Mystic."
The Irons, 20 Coogan Blvd., Mystic, is open Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. for a breakfast buffet and from 4 to 11 p.m. for dinner Sunday through Thursday. On Friday and Saturday, lunch is served starting at noon and the restaurant closes at midnight. Breakfast is served from 7 to 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday; Sunday brunch runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Hours may change during the upcoming summer season. 860-572-2504, hiltonmystic.com/dining.