WEST HARTFORD — In the last decade, Bob McCue has seen the town evolve into a vibrant nightlife destination, the assistant police chief said.
West Hartford did not become a hot spot until around 2009, resulting in a steady climb in drunken driving arrests — as many as 150 a year, McCue said. But a townwide effort over the last three years has resulted in a substantial decrease of drunk-driving arrests, which are down 38 percent to about 62 a year.
"If you go back the last three or four years, there was a peak where [DUI] activity was really booming in the center, before Uber cab really existed," Daniel Coppinger, assistant police chief, said, referring to the mobile cab service.
"We would saturate the town center with police cruisers," Coppinger added. "Over the course of two years, the word got out that police are all over the place."
This isn't to say the town has no problems.
Just last month, an intoxicated woman entered Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and attempted to order a drink, McCue said. The bartender didn't serve her and tried to call her a cab, which she refused, he said. Even though police were called, the woman insisted on driving herself, hitting two parked cars before officers could stop her as she pulled away.
DUI arrests now average about 1.2 a week from a community that may have well over 7,500 people at bars and restaurants in town over the course of a weekend, McCue said.
More than 20 bars and restaurants are currently open in West Hartford Center, with nine offering late-night entertainment, such as DJs, he said, or live music.
McCue says he hasn't seen such a social scene in town since the late-1970s and '80s, when places like the Agora Ballroom on Dexter Avenue and Cypress Arms on Park Road attracted hordes of young people to see live shows, play pool and dance. In the early 1980s, neighbors frequently complained to the town council about rowdy crowds.
By 2009, the center had some established and popular restaurants like Max's Oyster Bar, Grant's and the Elbow Room. When Blue Back Square was developed in the late-2000s, these bars and restaurants saw an uptick in business, he said.
"The Elbow Room expanded with the addition of the Tap Room, and Grant's added DJ entertainment later in the evening," McCue said. "With the addition of all the restaurants in town, this creates the ability for patrons to go from restaurant to restaurant."
Recent years have seen the opening of new venues like McLadden's, bartaco and Barcelona Wine Bar.
Around 2011, the town passed a string of ordinances in an effort to bring the number of drunk drivers down.
"We had some friction with folks who wanted to be nightclubs, do bottle service and be 21 and over," McCue said. "If folks are interested in that nightclub feel with bottle service and cover charges, go to the city, or go to a casino."
The town added an open-container law and prohibits clubs in which serving alcohol is the primary function. West Hartford only allows restaurant liquor permits, and restaurants are not allowed to deny entry based on age, McCue said.
A grant from the state Department of Transportation allowed the police department to increase foot patrols and buy two portable breath-testers for the field, said police Chief Tracey Gove.
Gove said the department also sends out letters to business owners when a person who received a DUI reports having come from their establishment.
In 2015, the department saw a 15 percent decrease of DUI arrests.
"We want it to be safe, we want it to be vibrant and we want businesses to do well," Gove said. "We want to enhance it by making it safe."
Editor's Note: This story was updated shortly after its initial publication.