A.C. Petersen Celebrates 100 Years

Restaurants come and go, but when it comes to family eating, you can't beat a classic like A.C. Petersen Farms in West Hartford.

The Park Road landmark is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and generations of families have been the beneficiaries of a business that was started by a Danish immigrant with a milk route.

It really is a wonderful story, said A. C. Petersen owner Catherine Denton, who was the company's longtime accountant and purchased the business from the family in 2002.

According to Denton, Andrew C. Petersen purchased a couple of milk routes, shrewdly parlaying them into the purchase of the Park Road site where he produced milk and ice cream. The Park Road location expanded, adding an ice cream bar and food, eventually growing to 13 full service locations in the Greater Hartford area.

Over the years, all but the West Hartford restaurant closed, with the original flagship maintaining its celebrity, serving tens of thousands of meals and twice as many ice cream treats, all the while maintaining the charm and the credibility established by its founder.

"I think I have a sense of what this business meant to the family," said Denton. "Besides being a restaurant, it's a community gathering place, an institution in in town," she said. "I grew up in West Hartford, and A.C. Petersen's was part of your life. And that has maintained over all this time. And that's what I want it to continue."

Ask anyone who has eaten there, especially the many "regulars," what A. C. Petersen is best known for and you will likely hear the same answers: hand whipped heavy cream for the signature A.C. Petersen hot fudge sundae, the classic "Hungry Viking" breakfast featuring eggs, bacon or sausage, hash or ham, home fries and juice; and the legendary ACP Burger, a beef burger on a toasted bun with cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onions and mayo.

But those are just the classics. The menu is extensive, featuring all the comfort food synonymous with Petersen's, including its club sandwiches, tuna salad, seasonal over- stuffed lobster rolls and deli-worthy Reubens.

But Denton is smart when it comes to keeping the place current, understanding that food tastes and trends have changed. Along with Nick Faenza, formerly of Prospect Café and longtime head chef Ernie DeLaura, the menu also includes paninis, a larger salad menu and popular appetizers including quesadillas, chicken wings and fried dough.

But there is one thing you don't mess with at Petersen's: the ice cream, all 33 flavors.

"Vanilla is still our top seller," said Denton. Ice cream for the store is still manufactured in West Hartford and in Massachusetts. Vanilla shares front-of-the-store freezer space with an assortment of such classics as cherry vanilla, rum raisin, strawberry and coffee, and such "boutique" flavors as cake batter, tie die, mocha mud pie and cotton candy.

In recent years the restaurant, which also sells hand-packed quarts and pints to go, has added sugar-free ice cream and has adapted some flavors to accommodate allergies.

As part of its 100th anniversary celebration, the restaurant received a makeover, one that maintains its charms but also boasts of its history and makes some much-needed upgrades.

"We had these wonderful old pictures reflecting the history of A.C. Petersen so we had them blown up and turned into a wallpaper, said Denton. New paint on the walls, new lighting, installation of some historic memorabilia, reupholstered booths, and upgrades to the kitchen's venting system were all part of the centennial sprucing up.

"We gave it a little bit of a facelift, but we kept the configuration and elements like the glass block wall and the chalkboard menus because we didn't want to give it a whole new look," said Denton. "Part of the success of A.C. Petersen is the familiarity when people come in. We have seen generations of families come through here, and even the kids that worked for us in high school come back with their own kids now.

"We have found a balance, I think, with a menu that includes the choices people consider part of A.C. Petersen along with new choices that reflect tastes today."

The restaurant also offers patio dining, as well as live entertainment courtesy of singers from the nearby Playhouse on Park.

Denton, well-known for her many in-kind contributions to West Hartford organizations, has also opened a second, seasonal location in Old Lyme, where the former Hallmark Drive-in was located on Shore Road. Burgers, hot dogs and ice cream are served there.

"I do feel a responsibility to continue the good reputation the restaurant has enjoyed," she said. "It's hard work but we have a good team and really, how could we be anything but happy serving ice cream."

>>A.C. Petersen is open in West Hartford Sunday through Thursday from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday 6 a.m. to midnight. The Old Lyme location is open for the summer from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day through Labor Day. Information: 860-233-8483 or acpetersenfarms.com.