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September 18, 2017

Downtown Hartford restaurateurs invest in renovations, eateries to compete

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever Steve Abrams, partner in Max Restaurant Group.
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever Steve Abrams, partner in Max Restaurant Group, stands outside Max Downtown, which closed for the summer for a $1.5 million facelift, as noted on the window sign in the upper right photo. The project at Max Downtown aims to modernize Max’s look and broaden its customer appeal.
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever Rob Maffucci, inside his new V’s Trattoria he opened downtown in May, likes the activity he sees on Hartford’s streets from things like the new Dunkin’ Donuts Park and new apartments.
Photo | HBJ File Cheryl and Jamie McDonald, owners of Bear’s Restaurant Group, have expanded their presence significantly in downtown since opening Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ three years ago.
Photo | Contributed Stephen Lewandowski, chef/owner of Harlan Brasserie, opened the restaurant in May inside the recently reopened Goodwin Hotel.
Photo | John Stearns

Max Restaurant Group shuttered its flagship property, Max Downtown, this summer for a $1.5 million facelift aimed at modernizing Max's look, broadening its customer demographic and competing with restaurant powerhouse West Hartford, where Max also has a formidable presence.

The new Max Downtown, scheduled to reopen on or about Sept. 20, is perhaps the highest-profile restaurant project in downtown Hartford given its 21-year history and reputation for top-notch dining. But Max isn't the only one sticking a fork in complacency and forging ahead with big investments in downtown's future.

Among them, Rob Maffucci in May opened his new downtown Hartford restaurant, V's Trattoria, replacing his former Vito's By The Park in a project costing upwards of $1 million, and Stephen Lewandowski opened the Harlan Brasserie in May inside the renovated Goodwin Hotel.

Others include the June opening of Chango Rosa in the former Hot Tomato's at Union Station by the owners of Bear's Smokehouse BBQ, whose busy year also included debuting Blind Pig Pizza Co. in January in their former Bear's location on Arch Street after Bear's Smokehouse relocated to Front Street near the new UConn Hartford campus last October. They also opened a Bear's concession inside Dunkin' Donuts Park in April and partnered on a restaurant, The Cook & The Bear, in West Hartford this summer.

The proprietors are doing what they say they must in a competitive restaurant industry, stay fresh and relevant, while also benefiting from and contributing to an increasingly improved — dare we say “cool” — city center enlivened by the new baseball stadium, university campus, and apartments commanding healthy rents and occupancies from young professionals to empty-nesters.

Steve Abrams, a partner in Max Restaurant Group, said West Hartford is a good example of synergy established by multiple restaurants where customers exposed to one get exposed to others, benefiting all.

“The best thing that could happen to Hartford is more restaurants being opened,” Abrams said, excited by Harlan's opening across Haynes Street from Max Downtown and by a downtown that real estate developers tell him is about to get a jumpstart.

Harlan's Lewandowski said he'll be among the first to visit the new-look Max to see if there's anything he can learn and possibly apply to future restaurants, including one in Bridgeport this fall and a couple other possible projects in and out of Connecticut. He already has three among Hartford, Stamford and Norwalk.

Restaurants shouldn't fear new or updated competitors and must stay fresh with changes that extend beyond seasonal dishes, Lewandowski said.

“I think you're foolish if you don't look at it as an educational thing,” he said. “If you look at it as a negative of, 'Oh it's just another restaurant that's trying to compete with me,' I think it's shortsighted when you do that.”

Cheryl McDonald, co-owner of Bear's Restaurant Group with her husband, Jamie, aka “The Bear” from his competitive eating days, thinks similarly.

“We've always believed that having choice increases business for everyone,” McDonald said.

People were skeptical when Bear's said it was opening in Hartford three years ago after starting in Windsor, McDonald said.

“They're like, 'Are you crazy? Do you know Hartford's dead on the weekends, dead at night, you're not going to have any dinner business and you'll have no weekend business?' ” she said. “I think we've proven them wrong, we've given them a reason to come to Hartford” for barbecue, along with the many other reasons people come downtown, whether for the arts, sports, school, work or home.

There's a lot to do downtown and its continued improvements bode well for restaurants serving the traffic, McDonald said.

Maffucci of V's Trattoria, said Dunkin' Donuts Park injected welcome traffic onto the streets and sidewalks of Hartford over the summer, a typically slow time for restaurants.

“Anytime you have all these little activities it helps,” he said. “Baseball is great because they play a lot of games.”

Baseball brought him customers and he likes being among choices visitors and residents have downtown, whether attending a game at the stadium or XL Center or a show at the adjacent Hartford Stage.

“The whole balance of the restaurant industry is important, that people have a choice” of more than steakhouses and Italian food, Maffucci said, happy to see Harlan enter with French cuisine, for example.

“I've never seen the city look so good as it does right now, with the ballpark, with the residents that are living downtown,” he said, excited by additional apartments planned at 101-111 Pearl St.

Max renovation

Abrams said Max renovated to attract a wider audience and to reflect times different from the no-jeans rule it had when it opened and from a white-tablecloth setting some today consider stodgy.

“This project was thought of and crafted very carefully to make the restaurant a little more casual, but not alienating any of our guests who like it the way it is — and that's plenty of them,” Abrams said.

Indeed, last year was the restaurant's best ever and 2017 was on target to beat that before the shutdown, he said.

“But we knew that if we didn't do this project in a certain amount of time, in the next couple years, 2019 and 2020 we were not going to have our best years,” Abrams said.

While customers from 20 years ago are older and may not dine out as much, the project wasn't done solely to appeal to younger palates, but to make it more comfortable for everyone, he said. While casual attire — jeans and shorts — have been welcome for years, not everyone knew that, he said.

The menu is evolving too, with choices to share items, “and I don't mean small-plate sharing, I mean steaks and chops that will be encouraged to share,” he said.

As for the motif, Abrams said it will be modern without being contemporary. The look will borrow from their longtime restaurant designer's visits to London, where brass and wood distinguish restaurants of Max's caliber.

Max's CityPlace I landlord, with which Max renewed its lease for 20 years, is contributing to the renovation cost, Abrams said.

Other restaurant projects

Max Restaurant Group's next project is to renovate Max A Mia in Avon. Recent projects include renovating the bar at Max's Tavern in Springfield about six months ago and the private dining area about a year ago. The bar at Max Burger in West Hartford was recently renovated and the group's Trumbull Kitchen in Hartford is constantly being freshened, from furniture to paint.

Bear's, which hopes to draw more people to its Chango Rosa at Union Station, also plans early next year to provide a café for quick items like ice cream and coffee in the station's Great Hall for travelers and others.

Next spring, Bear's plans to open a location in New Haven and relocate its commissary midyear from South Windsor to Hartford's former Swift Factory, where it also might bottle sauces for retail. It's installing a bar at its Windsor location.

Maffucci, who also has Vito's by the Water in Windsor and Vito's Pizzeria in Wethersfield, doesn't have any immediate plans for more renovations or new restaurants, instead focusing on dialing in his V's Trattoria, which has about half the seats of his prior location and is under the same roof as his Vito's To Go Café, a quick-service eatery that opened last year.

Being creative is key in restaurants, which must change with the market, or die, Maffucci said.

“You have to constantly keep things fresh in everyone's mind; you have to stay relevant,” he said.

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