At many barbecue joints, a lack of frills is seen as a benefit — where you're encouraged to get messy with your food. But at Nat Hayden's Barbecue in Windsor, which opened in 2010, Norm Sinnock was soon looking for an upgrade to the space originally intended as a takeout spot.
"It was pretty rugged, kind of like camping," Sinnock said of the location at 226 Broad St., with just four tables, a screen door and no air-conditioning. "We had the smokers right out in the dining room…People always wanted it to be a sit-down place, and they got upset when we didn't have enough seats."
In 2013, the ideal spot for a bigger Nat's became available, within walking distance of the original address. At 144B Broad St., the new and improved barbecue restaurant, with seating for about 60 guests, opened its doors on Dec. 29.
The spacious eatery, with roomy booths and a lunch counter/bar area, has allowed Sinnock and crew to accommodate guests much more easily. A full prep kitchen with additional smokers also means an expanded menu, augmenting the meat-heavy combination plates with a slew of fried appetizers and new sandwiches. Draft beer is now an option as well, with taps offering several local brews from Back East and Thomas Hooker.
"We wanted to offer items you couldn't get away with serving on paper plates," Sinnock said, explaining he'd eventually like to feature entrée courses like fresh fish in addition to the barbecue favorites.
Meat is still king at Nat's, with fixtures like pork and beef ribs, pulled pork, brisket and smoked chicken remaining constant. But the addition of deep fryers means a full menu of starters ($2.95 to $8.95) like the instantly popular Smoke 'n' Thunder wings, fried and tossed with housemade smoked habanero hot sauce. Pulled pork nachos, pan-fried Creole crab cakes and deep-fried catfish fingers with lemon-horseradish cream are also new to the lineup.
Sandwiches ($6.95 to $8.25) that ran as specials previously are now permanent options, like the Santa Fe smoked chicken Caesar wrap, a "Pork-Adelphia" cheese "steak" with pulled pork and a fan-favorite Smokehouse Cuban, with pulled pork and smoked turkey on press-grilled French bread. Catfish po'boys are now available with blackened or fried fish, topped with shredded cabbage, tomato, pickle chips and Creole remoulade. These join originals like a beef brisket "burger" with cheddar and bacon, a Carolina pork hoagie and the simpler pulled pork and brisket sandwiches: "just meat and sauce."
But with the new, plentiful seating, Sinnock says most diners come in and order large barbecue dinners, noting the best-sellers are combination platters. The Whole Hog ($16.95) includes a half-rack of pork ribs, one Andouille sausage, pulled pork, collard greens, red beans and rice and cornbread. The Rib Taster ($19.95) features a half-rack of pork ribs, one large beef ribs, two side dishes and cornbread, and the Farmhand has pulled pork and brisket, red beans and rice, macaroni and cheese and cornbread. Basic barbecue dinners ($10.95 to $22.55) feature a choice of just one meat, with two sides and cornbread.
Among the best-loved sides, Sinnock says, are the red beans and rice, roasted garlic mashed potatoes made with skin-on Yukon Golds, a "kitchen sink" potato salad made with hard-boiled eggs and pepperjack cheese grits. "We also had a lot of requests for a small garden salad," he said. "I think people feel better about tucking into a plate of pork when they have a salad."
Sauces are all made in-house, including a Carolina mustard style, a sweet Memphis style with molasses and a "hot and tangy" Kansas City-style thin sauce. The smoked habanero sauce that coats the wings is bottled and sold at the restaurant, incorporating peaches for a little sweetness.
Several desserts are provided by Get Baked, also in the center of Windsor, with sweets like a cranberry-bourbon bread pudding, pecan pie and the bakery's signature Nutella brownies (which are gluten-free.) Nat's also makes a cobbler in-house.
Each day, Nat's offers several specials: a featured side, two soups and a sandwich, which the restaurant advertises through social media (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.) Recent specials have included a smoky pork and bean burrito, house-smoked beef kielbasa with mustard and sauerkraut, five-alarm chili and cheddar, ale and sausage soup.
"We'll have regulars who check Facebook in the morning to see what the specials are that day," Sinnock said.
With the expansion, "we've tried to stay true to the old place," he said. "We were afraid we were going to get away from what we've done so well for four years, keeping the food true to itself. But we haven't. That's been our focus since we got here. How can we make it nicer, put it on [real] plates and stay true to our original mission? But I think we've done that pretty successfully. We've gained customers here that had never visited us over there."
Ironically, Sinnock's background is in fine dining. A Culinary Institute of America graduate, he's worked steadily in Connecticut restaurants, including a stint at Black-Eyed Sally's in Hartford. Nat Hayden's came about as business started to dry up at his Manchester-based catering service, Great River Catering, during the 2008-2009 economic downturn. Catering is now a considerable portion of Nat's business, from May to October.
"We recognized there's something unique about barbecue that people really gain enjoyment from, pleasure from… I say barbecue makes people smile," Sinnock said. "There's something really visceral about it. A combination of wood smoke and meat…it smells like comfort."
NAT HAYDEN'S BARBECUE, located at 144B Broad St. in Windsor, is open daily, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. 860-298-8955, haydensrealbbq.com.