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Something Special

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karaokeBars and restaurants push ‘experiencesÂ’ to lure finicky patrons

New Haven has an ever-growing number of restaurants and bars, many offering their own unique atmosphere, from danky dive to hipster casual to high-class.

Not that the city has much on par with some of the more unusual eateries one might have experienced elsewhere — restaurants housed in converted prisons, such as Great Escape in there Mass., where the multi-stationed Dinner in the Sky seats diners at a table suspended by crane more than 160 feet in the air, or even school-field-trip staple Medieval Times — but there is certainly something out there for those in search of something other than buy ambien online no prescription food from their dining/drinking experience.

Karaoke Heroes (pictured above) is one of the city’s newest additions, having opened in late August. As its name suggests, it’s a karaoke bar and is currently the only dedicated one in the state, which means you can go sing along to “Hey Jude” any and every night of the week. It also carries with it an over-the-top superhero theme, complete with wait staff who wear capes.

Andrew Lebwohl, who practiced bankruptcy law at the now-defunct Dewey & LeBoeuf firm before getting his MBA at Yale (he graduated last May), says opening a karaoke bar was always his “escapist fantasy.”

“We have a concept here of making nightlife interactive,” he explains. “For the most part when it comes to nightlife, there isn’t much to do besides sit and drink. Maybe you can dance, but that’s it.”

Stepping into Karaoke Hereos is like stepping into a comic book. The brightly lit interior boasts walls adorned with artwork commissioned by a Marvel Comics artist. Elaborate light fixtures branded with “POW!” (remember when Batman would knock out bad guys in campy fight sequences?) dominate the ceilings, and the bar counter is equipped with motion-sensitive LED lights that track patrons’ movements across its surface. But the comic-book themes go deeper than mere aesthetics.

“When you’re singing karaoke, you see yourself as that rock star.” Says Lebwohl. “And that’s what superheroes in comic books are about — seeing yourself in that cape embodying your best values, being your best self.

“There is an opportunity to feel celebrated and accepted … no matter how bad you are, people will still clap for you at the end of your song.”

Lebwohl, who lived in Manhattan before coming to Yale, is a fan of Asian-style karaoke, which puts small groups in private rooms versus the more common public style here. Karaoke Heroes has three private rooms to accommodate private parties small or large. Otherwise the bar’s main area features no stage; the microphone is passed around as a patron’s turn comes up. Song requests are managed by the bar staff.

“People get to know each other in this great way,” Lebwohl says. “When the microphone starts going around people join in on the songs. How can you do ‘Sweet Caroline’ and not expect everyone to join in with you?” he says.

Word of mouth has been his main source of getting the word out, and he says repeat patrons will typically return with friends. He never saw it as a hindrance that the bar has no frontage at its location at 212 Crown Street — there is just a door that leads one down an alleyway complete with light projections, phones with pre-recorded voiceovers, and speakers playing the theme music to the ‘90s TV series The Flash — just an opportunity for “adventure.

“I think that more than ever, coherence is important,” Lebwohl says. “Many people up and down the block have said this is the slowest they’ve seen nightlife downtown in a long time. So having a clear idea that’s different is vital for drawing people in and getting them to see you as a destination. If you don’t have a distinctive idea, there’s no reason for people to come to you.”

 

The Sky’s No Limit

davenportsMeanwhile, high above most of downtown New Haven, the 19th floor of the Omni Hotel on Temple Street offers a dining experience with a view that possibly none others in town can rival.

John Davenport’s (pictured, right) has been in operation for 14 years, The 50-seat restaurant boasts a sweeping panorama of almost the entire city, from the gothic spires of the old Yale buildings all the way to Long Wharf, depending where you are seated.

In keeping with the Omni’s upmarket aesthetic, John Davenport’s’ vibe is similarly upscale, and the view adds to the ambience. Food and Beverage Director Wayne Kirsten says each season provides its own atmosphere — from fall foliage, to winter snow, to summer fireworks.

“We recognize [the view] as one of the truly sustainable assets we have,” Kirsten says. “There’s always a reason to look out this window. You can see the entire Yale campus, and on a good fall day it’s wonderful out there. Even in the dead of winter when you have that white blanket across the city, it’s just fantastic.”

Autumn can be one of the busiest times at the restaurant, particularly with Yale families, or October’s Restaurant Week, but Kirsten adds that the Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and Mother’s Day holidays are consistently busy and booked well in advance.

It’s easy to imagine the 19th floor’s setting as ideal for a romantic evening, and indeed Kristen says marriage proposals are a common occurrence there. Often times a prospective groom will call weeks in advance to plan the proposal with the staff.

Much of the restaurant’s business understandably comes from hotel guests and those booking private parties, weddings or meals in either of its two event rooms, but that doesn’t mean John Davenport’s is exclusive to that clientele. Kirsten says the restaurant is actively working to make its presence more widely known.

“We don’t have that street-side presence so naturally we pull more from the hotel, but it’s our objective to appeal to a larger demographic,” Kirsten explains. “We’re not just a special-occasion restaurant, but one you can come to on a regular basis. It’s a smaller percentage, but that clientele is on the rise.”

Kirsten even appeals to those who might think of the restaurant as pretentious or off-putting; you’re welcome to sit and admire the view with a hamburger if you like. He adds that Sunday brunches are consistently sold-out.

Speaking of the menu, he takes pride in offering as much locally sourced items as are available — cage-free eggs, fruit and produce from Connecticut farms, New England seafood — to give guests, especially international visitors, a true taste of the region.

Sundays add an interactive element with make-your-own Bloody Marys — the vodka comes to the table and you’re off to mix the rest as you prefer. “People like an interactive experience,” Kirsten says, adding that there are plans for more full-scale bar mixology lessons planned for guests in the near future.

“It’s not just the food or the view we offer,” Kirsten says. “It’s the whole experience.”

 

Liquid Assets

mikroCROPThere has been a noticeable boom in craft beer over the past decade, particularly over the last five years, and it flows plentifully in the City of Elms. A craft beer, or microbrew, is one that typically is the product of small, independent breweries — basically something that isn’t Budweiser or one of the other big brands that dominate beer sales.

Photo: Hamden’s Mikro Beer Bar provides patrons a constantly updated list of craft beers on tap in a small and intimate setting, as well as a menu of gourmet food. Pictured are owner Michael Farber (right) and chef Michael Fox.

So those looking for a sophisticated brew can have their pick. Establishments such as Rudy’s, BAR or Prime 16 (among many others) boast impressive bottles and taps as primary reasons to visit.

It is the latter venue that Mike Farber — who’s been in the restaurant business for 30 years — helped to establish in 2009 before branching out to his own Mikro (pronounced “micro”) on Whitney Avenue in Hamden at the end of 2010. It’s not just a clever name, either: The intimate (53 seats), dimly lit space is usually full. The bar is also intentionally spare: you can get cocktails, but you won’t find vodkas of every imaginable flavor.

It was Farber’s primary goal to have a restaurant that put good food and beer together like any good gastropub should. And while Mikro boasts an impressive and creative menu, a beer drinker can’t help but be drawn to the 18 daily changing taps.
“You used to either go to a restaurant or you went to a bar. Any time you had good food you generally didn’t have good beer,” Farber says. “Most restaurants you go into I could close my eyes and tell you what they have on tap. It’s the same everywhere.”

It’s been over the past five years or so that Farber has noticed a greater cultural appreciation of craft beers, particularly from the maturing palettes of younger generations.

“Without Sam Adams, we probably wouldn’t be here,” he notes. “The truth is, they started this mass-produced version of a craft beer and gave everybody access.”

Farber says that while the 18 beers on tap may not be instantly recognizable, he always keeps standard styles on hand — IPAs, wheat beers (or “witte”), stouts, browns and a Belgian. He tends to hire only staff who are passionate about the beer as well; all the better to help patrons discover new brews.

“People are adventurous, and we try to have something for everyone,” Farber says. “When craft beer has gained a customer, we have gained a customer.”

Mikro already stages special events including multi-course meals paired with beers from a selected brewery. In the future Farber plans to make those more educational, so patrons can walk away learning a little more about their beer as well.

Notwithstanding its proximity to Quinnipiac University, the bar doesn’t exactly draw students as a typical college bar would. Farber says his clientele is more of a restaurant crowd.

He acknowledges that the craft-beer business is a major growth industry, as evidenced by the large Two Roads Brewery set to open in Stratford in December. And that abundance — 14 pending breweries in the Connecticut alone — may mark the apex of a craft-beer bubble.

“I’m hopeful that the bubble might burst a little bit, but maybe it’ll just spread out,” Farber says. “It will shake itself up, and the strong will survive. Maybe too much of a good thing, but so far so good for us.”