Sometimes you go to a restaurant just to be there, the place is that cool. Butchers & Bakers is located in The Exchange, an office complex in Farmington designed in 1973 by renowned architect Charles Callister. Inside the cavernous space, a vaulting ceiling directs your awed gaze upward, toward massive beams and moon-globe chandeliers — and an arena-style jumbotron, its giant screens encased in barnwood. Booths look out on a patio dining area, complete with bar and fire pits, guarded by a trio of mammoth stone stanchions topped with gas torches. By the door, an array of white plastic hydroponic towers lends a futuristic effect. The vibe is spaceship, with a bit of lodge.
In charge is the Locals 8 Restaurant Group, whose dozen venues include multiple Plan B burger joints as well as Hartford’s Tisane and Half Door pub. They have experience putting out food shrewdly keyed to conviviality, and the formula does not fail them here.
Showcasing house-made breads, pastas and sausages, and with all meats butchered on site, Chef Luis Vasquez’s Italian-accented fare includes appetizers, served on long rectangular plates, that are perfect for sharing: fried calamari jumbled together with artichokes, sliced green olives and sun-dried tomatoes; four tender (and tasty) meatballs lined up in a row, with light pomodoro and a big gob of ricotta.
A starter of scallops came in a two-handled, cast-iron miniature serving dish, pooled with very garlicky, very yummy herb-laden olive oil. Sop up with ciabatta and pass it along!
A spinach salad offered crowd-pleasing sweetness and crunch, combining pears, a shower of almonds and gorgonzola, and pickled red onions. A pizza presented a nice mingling of pesto and mozz, with plump cherry tomatoes and strips of prosciutto. Roast cauliflower came laden with paprika and nestled into microgreens and an unusual, bright green romesco sauce.
Among main courses, a superb butcher-board entree paired a lamb sausage, spicy like a merguez, with an extremely tender, sliced filet of beef, arrayed around a colorful heap of lightly sautéed veggies and roasted small potatoes flecked with sea salt. The addition of a zingy chimichurri sauce provided the closing touch. A BBQ platter, served on an aluminum tray, combined meltingly tender brisket, a quarter rack of ribs and housemade Texas hot links with big flecks of hot red pepper inside. Salmon — overly salty, alas — came atop a layer of spinach in a big white bowl with arborio rice and a somewhat overpowering sriracha sauce.
This is a kitchen that kicks it up a notch whenever possible. Even the coleslaw comes spiked with jalapeño.
All that heat seems in keeping with a restaurant that places the accent on being loud and fun. Butchers & Bakers is a captivating place to hang out. There are interesting things to look at — both place and people. There’s fast and friendly service. There are pals eating $8 happy-hour pizzas at the bar and having a great time. If a bowl of farro, piled with chickpeas, mushrooms and bell peppers, comes off as little more than the obligatory vegetarian option, so be it. And if an entree of short rib cavatelli tastes much the same as those meatballs (same sauce, same ricotta), who’s going to complain? Who’s going to even notice? It is all certainly as good as it needs to be, and then some.
The restaurant holds upwards of 300 people, and even on a weeknight it can get pretty packed, with groups of employees from UConn Health across the street kicking back after work, enjoying an early-evening escape that begins with groovy cocktails — a beer and mango concoction; a bourbon-blackberry lemonade — and ends with supremely shareable desserts. So go ahead and let an order of s’mores decorate your tablecloth with dribbles of melted chocolate. (A crème brûleé studded with blueberries provides a somewhat more dainty treat.)
There is a special mojo to mass conviviality, and restaurateurs who master it know how to optimize its raucous charms. The skew here is young, befitting a noise level that says, to the 30-year-old, “You’re here!” — and to the 50-year-old, perhaps, “Get out of here!” But that’s OK. The spaceship is all about the future, after all. So come to Butchers & Bakers and prepare for a highly enjoyable blast-off.
270 Farmington Ave., Farmington ■ 860-470-7414 ■ butchersandbakers.com