SOUTHINGTON, Conn. — Haute cuisine? Not quite.
Smokin’ With Chris
No, Smokin’ With Chris is the ultimate restaurant for, if you will, the 99 percent. Most people dining out are not in search of haute cuisine. Most people dining out want good-tasting food, and lots of it, and they want it at a price that will not require an emergency trip to the ATM just to pay the bill.
Smokin’ With Chris is what the 99 percent have in mind.
Now the “Smokin’ ” does refer to barbecue (there are smokers out back), but owner Chris Conlon offers a lot more. His impressive menu includes the requisite array of steaks, ribs, and chicken selections, along with seafood, pasta, stews, chili, soups, salads, even jambalaya. “And all of it with natural ingredients,” says Conlon. “Nothing out of a can.”
He has never advertised. All he’s ever needed is word of mouth.
Prices range from a cup of soup for $3.95 to a smoked filet mignon for $22.95. Ten other steak, ribs, and chicken entrees top off at $21.95. Sandwiches start at a $9.95 build-a-burger to $14.95 for a “Barnyard Burger” (8 ounces of ground sirloin topped with grilled turkey, Virginia ham, smoked Gouda, a fried egg, onion rings, and JR’s BBQ sauce served on a toasted onion roll).
OK, that one is a bit too much for me, but there is an abundance of somewhat more manageable offerings. What’s really enticing about the Smokin’ With Chris menu is that each entree and sandwich comes with a choice of two sides, which range from a great creamy coleslaw to baked beans to-die-for to hand-cut fries to what Conlon calls Lincoln sweet potatoes to baked mac and cheese, and even superbly moist, baked-daily corn bread.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about people wanting smaller portions when they dine out, but I don’t know any of these people.
I know I dream about dining experiences like Smokin’ With Chris. There is no dessert menu for good reason. You’re never going to need it.
Take the baby back ribs, the half rack going for $13.95 and the full rack $21.95. If your name is Vince Wilfork, you might want the full rack. The rest of us fare very nicely with the half rack. On the sandwich side, prepare for your eyes to bug out when you receive your blackened chicken sandwich, which you can get with blue cheese dressing, lettuce, tomato, onion, and hot sauce on white, wheat, rye, roll, onion roll, or wrap. You will slice off the enormous overhang portion and finish eating the chicken with a knife and fork. It’s the best blackened chicken sandwich I’ve ever had.
Conlon is not your typical restaurant owner, unless you regard 20 years spent as a firefighter and two years traveling the world as the aide-de-camp to singer José Feliciano a suitable apprenticeship to become a restaurateur. Conlon just happens to be one of those can-do people.
Where is Southington and why would I go there, you ask? Well, Southington abuts Bristol, the home of ESPN, which is how I discovered Conlon’s restaurant. Nearby attractions include the water-activity park Lake Compounce and the New England Carousel Museum.
Conlon took control of the property in 2006. There has been a restaurant of some sort located there since 1877, the most recent of which was called the Whistlestop. Smokin’ With Chris is a classic American bar-restaurant, the bar being a horsehoe affair. The restaurant side consists of two adjoining rooms. In addition, there is outside seating.
Conlon takes his bar business very seriously. Of course, there is Guinness. You will also find a rotating array of craft beers, currently featuring a Scottish brew called Innis & Gunn, which Conlon claims will not be found anywhere else on these shores. “When I first tried it, I said ‘Wow!’ ” he proclaims, and I concur. If you’re the type who insists on a Bud, he’ll dig one out for you.
Wine is a priority as well, and Conlon’s eyes light up when he addresses the subject. “Just a wonderful part of life,” he says.
The business is a family deal. Laura, his wife of 33 years, waits on tables, while son Dylan, 26, who initially resisted involvement in the business (you know how kids are), is now behind the bar and may have found his calling. “He’s a natural,” says Conlon. “a mini-me, only better.”
Daughter Atla, Dylan’s twin, is a professional singer, which leads to the music policy. There is jazz in the main dining room on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
When I first started going here, the only TV was a teeny-weeny thing stuck up in a corner. “TV wasn’t part of my thinking in the beginning,” Conlon explains. “I wanted to foster conversation.”
But I wanted to watch games at the bar, and it turns out I wasn’t alone. One Saturday last fall I walked in to discover four nice flat screens. “I was losing too much business on fall Sundays,” he reasoned. He’s a good businessman; he adapted.
There are no lack of dining options in the immediate area. But if you’re not looking for specific ethnic cuisine, if you’re really hungry, if you don’t feel like spending a lot of money, if you want to walk into a welcoming place teeming with smiling help — the last place I was so overwhelmed with waitstaff was in Beijing — then Smokin’ With Chris is the restaurant of your dreams.
One night I told my bartender I was debating between the beef brisket sandwich and the Southern pulled pork sandwich. “No problem,” he said. “I’ll give you half and half.”
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit 49 states. I like to eat. I’m here to tell you there really is no place quite like this.