HARTFORD — We were eating lunch downtown and pondering the fact that the city was recently named No. 2 nationwide in the Parade Magazine/Total cereal ranking of America’s “top 25 hardest-working towns.” Actually, we were pondering the fact that Boston didn’t even make the cut.
“You could say that Boston works smarter,” said Brian Cournoyer, who relocated from the Hub about five years ago. He was sitting at the table next to us at farm-to-table bistro Firebox, a short walk from the State House, and had joined two colleagues for a break from government business. “I worked until midnight last night,” he lamented, giving proof to the Parade/Total conclusion that people in Hartford are unduly willing to give up their personal time.
So, we asked, what do the hard-working people of Hartford do for fun? Cournoyer and his companions all cited Hartford’s strong restaurant scene, complete with happy hour specials, fine dining, and live entertainment.
On the weekends, Cournoyer might head to the Connecticut shore. But a series of parks along the riverbank provides plenty of ways to work off excess energy — and enjoy the outdoors — without leaving the city. Thanks to three decades of hard work by the nonprofit organization Riverfront Recapture, Hartford has reclaimed the banks of the broad Connecticut River.
Aptly named Riverside Park actually predates the highways that otherwise cut Hartford off from the river. Constructed in the early 20th century north of the city center, the revitalized park is anchored by a Victorian-style boathouse with ambitious adult and high school rowing programs. (One of the high-school-age crews recently represented New England at the junior national championships.) It’s also filled with playing fields and boasts a boat launch and woodsy hiking trails. There’s even a supervised “Adventure Course” for groups that sounds suspiciously like corporate team-building. (These hard-working folks need to learn to relax.)
Visitors and non-rowing locals can get out on the water aboard either of two cruise vessels. The 200-passenger yachts of Lady Katharine Cruises mainly operate lunch and dinner cruises from the deep-water docks at Charter Oak Landing, just beneath the Charter Oak Bridge. Cruisers might see blue herons skimming over the river or eagles fishing from overhanging trees. Human fishermen frequent the shores as well. The Hartford Belle, a 49-passenger riverboat with a cabin that accommodates 35, offers scenic cruises along the river from both Charter Oak Landing and the convenient downtown Mortensen Riverfront Plaza, which is the centerpiece of the riverfront parks. During July and August, Hartford’s hard workers can get a jump on the weekend with happy hour cruises on Thursdays.
Located in the heart of the city, Riverfront Plaza cleverly joins downtown to the river by spanning Interstate 91 with a pedestrian walkway across the Founders Bridge and a plaza that opens onto office towers and the new Connecticut Science Center. Downtown workers can take a restorative stroll along the Lincoln Financial Sculpture Walk at the riverfront. The series of pathways that links the parks is great for joggers, cyclists, and dog-walkers.
While the plaza gets a workout during the workweek, it’s also a big downtown draw on weekends. The plaza descends to the river in a cascade of grassy terraces, where folks can spread a blanket and a picnic to take in concerts and other live performances on the stage practically on the river’s edge.
This summer the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford’s venerable public art museum (and the country’s oldest), is celebrating the end of the workweek by screening classic film comedies in the courtyard. Audience members can enjoy live jazz and a la carte food from the museum’s cafe until it’s dark enough for the films to begin. The museum’s regular film series — mostly contemporary international cinema — is screened in its Aetna Theater, a restored Art Deco masterpiece decorated with flamboyant murals. Hartford’s film buffs are also looking forward to the late summer opening of a new luxury movie venue on Front Street.
Hartford has plenty of other evening spots where workers can let off a little steam — including one appropriately known as City Steam Brewery Cafe. The business takes its name from the brewing process. The 15-barrel brewery operates with steam provided by Hartford Steam Company, which pipes steam and cold water to much of downtown Hartford to heat and cool buildings.
The venue occupies the former Brown, Thomson Co. building, for many years one of Hartford’s three major Main Street department stores. The Romanesque Revival building was designed by H.H. Richardson for the Cheney silk magnates, and opened in 1877. The current restaurant retains a lot of the period woodwork, decorative trim, hardware, and stained glass. It can seat hundreds in its warren of rooms and landings atop various staircases. Filmmaker Justin Morales, director of the Hartford Flickfest film festival, calls the cafe the “Disneyland of Hartford” because the complex has a little of everything — from casual dining to the ambitious brewing program to billiard tables and a weekend comedy club called Brew HA HA.
Hartford’s surprisingly strong blues and jazz scene focuses on the club restaurant known as Black-eyed Sally’s, a downtown fixture since 1995. The menu at Sally’s is a pastiche of regional Southern styles of barbecue. The Memphis-style dry-rub ribs are the most popular dish, but the big plates of New Orleans-style jambalaya run a close second. The colorful club is covered with mural portraits of blues greats, creating something of the air of a Southern juke joint.
Sally’s also features jazz on Monday nights in conjunction with the Charter Oak Cultural Center and the Hartford Jazz Society. A jam session always follows the first set. Blues and rock musicians play at least four other nights per week. Sally’s provides an incentive for Hartford’s hard workers to stay downtown after work and return on the weekends. “We give people what they can’t get in the suburbs,” says co-owner Dara Varano of the lively entertainment schedule.
That’s great — as long as they don’t use it as an excuse to sneak back into the office to tie up a few loose ends.