Almost two decades after Steven Wolf's family sold Calimari's, the fish restaurant it operated on Jerome Avenue in Bloomfield, he and his partners are giving the location another shot — with a whole new vibe and name.
Republic opened in June. The self-styled "gastro pub'' offers the warmth of an ale house, with the ambiance of fine dining, an open kitchen, pizza bar and an eclectic menu.
This new venture is the latest descendant of the old Calamari's. Tuscan Twins and Mavi were the two most recent offsprings. Eight months ago, Wolf and his partners — father Helmar Wolf, Jared Cohen and Tomas Diaz — looked inside at the remnants of a brick building ravaged by fire and in foreclosure.
"It was a shell,'' said Cohen, 33. "The fire department had come in and ripped everything out. But you could see there was potential. There was nice open space and different rooms, which was nice because you could get a lot of dining experiences out of it, if it was put together right."
After extensive building renovations, Republic now is a two-story loft, with a brick-faced pizza bar, granite counter top and an open kitchen so patrons can watch their pizza, salad or dessert being prepared.
Everything in the building is new. There is a sparkling drinking bar with an aluminum counter, refurbished wood tables; tile floors on the ground level, wood floors in the front dining areas and upstairs. The staircase is new as is the tin ceiling on the upper level. There is refurbished wood tables and antique decorative lighting. Exposed aluminum air conditioning vents and sprinkler systems give the establishment an urban and funky feel, even as rock music plays in the background.
Make no mistake; 17 years after Calamari, The Republic does not look, feel or smell like a fish house.
"I think its better today than it was previously,'' said Steven Wolf, 41. He was in his mid-20s when Helmar Wolf sold Calamari. "We transformed it into something else. I don't think of it as the old place. I think of it as …. Republic."
Cohen came up with the name and the partners concurred. The restaurant's motto is "Great Beer. Better Food." The gastro pub genre emanates from England, Cohen said. "For us, it means the marriage of fine dining in a pub. There are places where you can go and get really good beer, but the food might not be so great. And there are place where you can go to get great food, but the beer and bourbon might not be exceptional. We're trying to have pub-style food with fine dining quality and presentation."
The new venture is both the passion and purpose of the partners. Cohen and Wolf work pretty much seven days a week. The 110-seat restaurant staffs about 40 — 20 behind the scenes and 20 on the floor.
"Restaurants are like babies,'' said Wolf. "They need a lot of attention." Both of his parents were restaurateurs.
Consistency in food quality, presentation and service is the daily aspiration of for any food business,
Three years ago, Cohen was a server at Abigail's Restaurant in Simsbury, then managed Mill on The River for Helgar Wolf. Both restaurants are part of the Mill Restaurant Group chain, of which The Republic is a member.
Wolf has cooked up a menu that is not exactly pub-style.
There is a pork belly concoction, cooked in duck fat and accentuated by bacon-roasted brussel sprouts.
Potato Gnocchi with tomato fondue and basil pesto is a $7 appetizer, along with Truffle onion soup ($8); and a $17 dish called Trofie a la Vodka, with chicken caramelized onions, tomatoes, pancetta, peas and basil. Standard fare such as seared salmon and fish and chips are also available, along with a good old fashion hamburger and wings. Appetizers range from $5 (deviled eggs) to $14 for a chef's selection of cured meats. Lunch ranges between $11 to $15. And full meal offerings range from $15 (Truffle Mac N Cheese) to $46 for the ample "Heart Attack" burger meal.
So, outside of spoken compliments, how does a chef know that indeed a patron has enjoyed a meal?
"I always check plates coming back,'' Wolf said. "Because if they're not full, no matter what a customer says, that is the ultimate test.''
Competition will also test the Republic. Bloomfield is beginning to bustle with restaurants and word is that a Carbone's franchise will be coming to the vacant Blue Smoke restaurant.
Both Cohen and Wolf say that competition is healthy and that a wide array of eating options is good for Bloomfield and the restaurant business as a whole. In the meantime, they will work on growing the restaurant's lunch and late-night fare clientele. The happy hour and dinner sides of the business, they say, are doing well.
"Our biggest goal right now is keeping the quality up and making sure people are leaving happy — and coming back,'' said Cohen. "But you can't get too comfortable. You have to look at every little thing, every single day.''
One month into their new business, the two partners are encouraged.
"We've seen a ton of people who've come in multiple times — and they're bringing new people every time,'' Cohen said. "That tells me people are enjoying themselves. And that's great for us because word of mouth is the truest form of advertising.''
Along, of course, with those empty plates being returned to the kitchen.
Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' (www.ctnow.com/stan and Saturdays, 6:30 a.m., on FoxCT) and senior executive adviser at the Hartford Journalism & Media Academy. His 'Faces of business' column appears monthly. Know someone who'd make a good subject for 'Faces of business'? Contact Simpson at Faces@email@example.com.