Friday Happy Hour Review: Elizabeth’s Bar & Restaurant

PLUS … OR MINUS?!
Should You Add Elizabeth’s in East Windsor To Your Happy Hour List
Or Subtract It?

April 3, 2019

For a long list of reasons, I felt like staying close to home for my Happy Hour Review this past Friday, so I decided to check out Elizabeth’s Bar & Restaurant at 4 Prospect Hill Road (Route 5) in East Windsor, CT. A relative newcomer to the area, it opened last year and is the second in a chain of 3 restaurants (the others are in Rocky Hill and Bloomfield). Suggested as a good place to check out by some friends, it proved to be a surprising experience.

THE VIBE:
Decorated With Smiles, It Grows On You

Elizabeth’s Bar & Restaurant
4 Prospect Hill Road, East Windsor, CT

Behind a generic, but attractive exterior, Elizabeth’s still looks and feels fairly new inside. With clean lines, neutral hues and lots of windows, the decor was bright and reasonably cheerful, if stylistically uninspired. The bar itself was a large square with terminals and liquors in the center and plenty of seating. It even had a raised section on one end, which added a new dimension of interest. And, while the décor may have a lacked a definitive identity, there was definitely a warm personality reflected in the smiles of the staff and some of guests who came in while I was there. Over the course of my 90-minute visit, it came to feel quite comfortable and welcoming! And that kind of vibe is hard to beat.

* The only real negative I could find here was the lack of purse hooks underneath the bar, which cost them a point.

A near perfect score on atmosphere is always a good start.

SCORING: THE VIBE 
(ATMOSPHERE –
Maximum of 20 Pts.)
• Style _5_(1-5)
• Layout _4_(1-5) 
• Cleanliness _5_ (1-5)
• Mood _5_ (1-5)
TOTAL VIBE SCORE _19_

THE HEARTBEAT:
Aside From One Skipped Beat,
The Pulse Was Strong

Nicole & Rich
My Bartenders @ Elizabeth’s

As I say every time, I consider the service as the heart and soul of any Happy Hour. Here was a case where it started okay, hit a bump, and then rebounded to finish super strong. I was served by 2 bartenders, Rich and Nicole, who were both very friendly and made me feel very welcome. My first Margarita was delivered promptly by Rich, but as I finished my drink there was an apparent shift change involving closing out a cash drawer and more bartenders coming on duty to deal with a growing number of people at the bar and to make drinks for the service bar. During this transition period my glass was empty, and I waited an unacceptable amount  of time for anyone to notice and ask if I needed a refill. At that point, I was ready to lower their service score considerably, but then Nicole brought these amazing rolls to go along with the to-die-for calamari, which I will write about in glorious detail under THE BITES, and I started mellowing from The Wicked Witch of The West to Mary Poppins. Other than the one blip, the service truly was attentive. Plus, I don’t think I saw anyone not smiling.

In the end, the service finished strong for a nearly perfect score.

SCORING:
THE HEARTBEAT (SERVICE – 
Maximum of 20 Pts.)
• Attitude _5_(1-5)
• Attentive/Responsive _4_(1-5)
• Helpfulness _5_(1-5)
• Efficiency _5_(1-5)
TOTAL HEARTBEAT SCORE _19_

THE DRINKS:
One Cocktail Choice
Does Not Make A Happy Hour

Elizabeth’s Happy Hour Drink Menu

I’ll be blunt … they’re missing the boat at Elizabeth’s by just having a Margarita as the only cocktail on their Happy Hour menu! And, it’s the easiest thing to fix. They need to give the bartenders a chance to showcase their innovative mixology skills in creating several new martinis, mules or other cocktails that will tempt existing customers and attract new ones. Or maybe just add some unique flavors to their Margarita selection like a Razzy ‘Rita or a Mango Tango ‘Rita … anything that’s fun and different. Four different cocktails would be enough to make Elizabeth’s a lot more competitive with Manchester/South Windsor and even West Hartford.

The Margaritas I had were excellent despite being made with a mix. Most sour mixes usually taste awful and give me heartburn, but not this time. So, kudos on the tasty Margaritas and the flexible straws (a nice touch). Now, if you’re into beer, not many places have Peroni (an Italian beer) on draft. I actually used to like Peroni back in the days when I could drink beer. 

Unfortunately, lack of unique or even additional mundane cocktail choices hurt Elizabeth’s scoring in this category.

SCORING: THE SIPS 
(DRINKS – 
Maximum of 20 Pts.)
• Selection _2_(1-5) 
• Unique Options _1_(1-5)
• Pricing _5_(1-5)
• Quality/Taste _5_(1-5)
TOTAL SIPS SCORE _13_

THE BITES:
My Taste Buds Were In Heaven

Elizabeth’s Happy Hour Food Menu

Forgive me if I gush over the food part of Elizabeth’s Happy Hour menu, but the selection set an impressively high standard that’s easily on par with many of the more metropolitan Happy Hours, like those in Manchester/South Windsor and West Hartford. The items on this menu were intriguing (Mussels Fra Diavolo) and substantial (judging by my calamari). Speaking of the calamari, Elizabeth’s was as good as it gets with a very generous portion of lightly coated and lightly-fried-to-perfection rings and tentacles. Tender with a high proportion of rings to tentacles and accompanied by an excellent marinara sauce, it equaled any I have had (and I am a calamari connoisseur)! I have high expectations for the calamari in any place that stresses Italian cuisine and Elizabeth’s did not disappoint.

Elizabeth;s Calamari
A generous portion that was perfectly prepared!

I also have to rave about the rolls that Nicole brought me. It was a basket of three freshly baked rolls with a tray of 3 accompaniments/toppings/dipping oil that transcended the ordinary. Oh, how I love good bread/rolls (even if my scale doesn’t the next day) and Elizabeth’s had my taste buds smiling with joy.

Elizabeth’s Delicious Freshly-Baked Rolls

There is no question that Elizabeth’s Happy Hour food menu deserves a perfect score!

SCORING: THE BITES 
(FOOD – 

Maximum of 20 Pts.)
• Selection _5_(1-5)
• Unique Options _5_(1-5)
• Pricing _5_(1-5)
• Quality/Taste _5_(1-5)
TOTAL BITES SCORE _20_

OVERALL IMPRESSION:
Elizabeth’s Happy Hour Is A Definite Plus 
And Should Be Added To Your
List Of Places To Check Out

This review presented me with a bit of a conundrum in that I really wanted to give them a Top Shelf rating even though the numeric rating came in a point shy of that, which is one of the reasons I went to this system. It sets the criteria that I need to follow in order to assure that every Happy Hour is held to the same standard. With that said, Elizabeth’s rates as a Good Choice that is Well Recommended, which is the second highest rating. However, because I was so impressed with the staff and the food, I’m going to interject here that it’s a “VERY” Good Choice, assuming that you like Margaritas, and you should definitely check out Elizabeth’s in East Windsor for yourself!

TOTAL SCORE _71_ 
RESULT

TOP SHELF (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) ___ (72-80) 
GOOD CHOICE (WELL RECOMMENDED) _X__ (64-71) 
• DECENT (STANDARD) ___ (52-63) 
AVERAGE (LAST RESORT) ___ (48-51)
AVOID (THE BOTTOM) ___ (<48) 

If you’d like to check out Elizabeth’s Bar & Restaurant in East Windsor and judge for yourself, you can visit their website for hours and more information!

As always, I welcome your comments about this review or any of my blog posts, especially your own experiences at Happy Hours I have reviewed and suggestions about which Happy Hours I should check out next.

Friday Happy Hour Review: McLadden’s Irish Publick House (Restaurant & Pub)

Hot … Or Not?! 
Can McLadden’s Hold Its Own Against The Heat of Tough
Competition In West Hartford?

March 20, 2019

Last Friday, it seemed fitting that I should do a Friday Happy Hour Review of an Irish pub (short for publick house) for the St. Patrick’s Day weekend, so I opted to check out McLadden’s in West Hartford (one of three McLadden’s with Simsbury and Northampton, MA being the other two). Having seen their Happy Hour menu online, I admit going in with somewhat low expectations. However, the fact they also bill themselves as a whiskey bar gave me some hope. In the end, my experience was about as mixed as my emotions going in.

THE VIBE:

Welcome To The Dark Side

Exterior of McLadden’s Irish Publick House
37 LaSalle Road, West Hartford, CT


McLadden’s announces its presence with stylized lettering on a dark wood background, several large windows along the sidewalk and a bright red door. With all the windows, I expected it to a bit lighter inside, but I found the opposite. Inside, it was almost oppressively dark at first glance. That was partially due to all the dark wood everywhere, including the bar, shelves, tables, etc. The long bar occupied the wall to my right with bar tables to the left. There was a surprising amount of room between the tables and the far. I suppose it makes a bit easier to maneuver when the place is crowded, but it seemed a little too open with the small number of folks there when I arrived a little before 4 pm.

Now, while dark wood is a staple of the pub image, this lacked that warm, cozy feeling of a place where one goes to relax and share some cheer, like my favorite pub (Penny Lane) back in Virginia where a low-beamed ceiling, light paint to offset the darkness of the wood, and lots of pictures and memorabilia on the walls created a warm, inviting coziness. At McLadden’s, it felt dark … and a bit cold. It’s all subjective, of course, but that was the vibe I got.

Additionally, there were no purse hooks under the bar, which I find inexcusable.

Needless to say, I was not particularly enthralled with their Happy Hour vibe.

SCORING:
THE VIBE
(ATMOSPHERE –
Maximum of 20 Pts.)
Style _4_(1-5)
Layout _4_(1-5) 
• Cleanliness _5_ (1-5)
Mood _3_ (1-5)
TOTAL VIBE SCORE _16_

THE HEARTBEAT:

Service Has A Strong Pulse

Rachel
My bartender at McLadden’s


Good service is essential to the life of a bar. It can overcome a host of other shortcomings, as in this case. When I arrived, it was moderately busy with groups at opposite ends of the bar and several people popping in to pick up food for to-go orders. The lone bartender, Rachel, was quite busy. She still greeted me fairly quickly, got me my drink and was attentive when I wanted to ask a question or order something. Even as it got busier, she handled it in stride with a very pleasant disposition. This was the one true bright spot of my visit.

Thanks to Rachel, the Heartbeat was strong enough to rate a perfect score.

SCORING:
THE HEARTBEAT (SERVICE –

Maximum of 20 Pts.)
Attitude _5_(1-5)
Attentive/Responsive _5_(1-5)
Helpfulness _5_(1-5)
Efficiency _5_(1-5)
TOTAL HEARTBEAT SCORE _20_

THE SIPS:

At Least The Prices Are Competitive

McLadden’s Happy Hour Cocktail Menu

I guess this could fall under the heading of “damning with faith praise.” This is not to say that the four $5 mixed drinks on McLadden’s Happy Hour menu are bad. Rather, it is more about the lack of inventiveness and variety which leaves them behind in competing with the other Happy Hours in West Hartford. At least the Emerald Manhattan, which I tried, uses Irish Whiskey instead of rye. But the Moscow Mule, for instance, could have been so much more, especially for Saint Patrick’s Day weekend. They could have renamed it the Dublin or Galway Mule and used Black Bush or Jameson Black Barrel in place of vodka for a little variety.

In any event, my Emerald Manhattan was good. However, since the other drinks did not offer anything to get excited about, I decided to see how McLadden’s fared as a whiskey bar. Now, I had reviewed the extensive list of their whiskey offerings online, so I was prepared to check them out. Since I was in the midst of extensive Irish Whiskey tastings for my social media outlets and my You Tube channel, I thought this would be a good opportunity to sample an Irish Whiskey I hadn’t tried before, like Knappogue 12-Year. Unfortunately, they were out of it, so I tried the Jameson Black Barrel instead, which convinced me not to buy a bottle of it.

So, while trying the Jameson Black Barrel ended up saving me money in the future, the overall impression was not good. How does an Irish Publick House “whiskey bar” run out of an Irish Whiskey it’s supposed to carry, especially on the Friday before Saint Patrick’s Day? Sure, anybody can run out of anything for a variety of reasons beyond their control. But, seriously, running out of an Irish Whiskey before the celebrations begin is not a good start.

As a final note, I overheard the staff discussing all the kegs they had stocked, especially Guinness, for the weekend. Judging by the number of taps, each marked for a different beer, McLadden’s is first and foremost an imported and craft beer bar. So, if beer is your thing, you should probably check them out.

All in all, it wouldn’t be my first (or second or third) choice for Happy Hour cocktails in West Hartford.

SCORING:
THE SIPS

(DRINKS –
Maximum of 20 Pts.)
Selection _3_(1-5) 
Unique Options _1_(1-5)
• Pricing _5_(1-5)
Quality/Taste _5_(1-5)
TOTAL SIPS SCORE _15_

THE BITES:

Is That All There Is?

McLadden’s Happy Hour Food Menu

Like the song made popular by Peggy Lee, my first look at the Happy Hour food menu online left me asking, “Is that all there is?” Sure, there were a number of choices, like warm chips, fried pickles, pretzel bites and a few other items, but nothing really comparable to the other Happy Hours in West Hartford, which offer calamari, tacos, oysters and lots more on their menus. McLadden’s could at least put chicken wings on the menu. I did try the warm chips, which were nice and crunchy, but hardly exciting, especially if you’re billing yourself as a gastropub

As with the Sips, it wouldn’t be my first (or second or third) choice for a Happy Hour Bites in West Hartford.

SCORING:
THE BITES
(FOOD –

Maximum of 20 Pts.)
Selection _2_(1-5)
Unique Options _1_(1-5)
Pricing _5_(1-5)
Quality/Taste _5_(1-5)
TOTAL BITES SCORE _13_

OVERALL IMPRESSION:

McLadden’s Takes A Lukewarm Approach 
To Being Competitive Among
West Hartford Happy Hours

Frankly, this is not the kind of review I enjoy doing. I much prefer it when a Happy Hour earns a top review like each of the other bars I’ve visited so far in West Hartford have done. In fact, they have continually raised the bar for what it means to be a Top Shelf place for Happy Hour. At the same time, I find that my standards for evaluating each Happy Hour have also become stricter. 

For my money (and I do spend my own money to do these reviews), if you’re looking for a Happy Hour with interesting cocktails and an impressive appetizer selection, McLadden’s would not be in my top 10 of recommended places to go. On the other hand, if you’re primarily a beer aficionado and just want some munchy type snacks, it would probably suit you just fine.

TOTAL SCORE _63_ 
RESULT

TOP SHELF (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) ___ (72-80) 
GOOD CHOICE (WELL RECOMMENDED) ___ (64-71) 
• DECENT (STANDARD) _X_ (52-63) 
AVERAGE (LAST RESORT) ___ (48-51)
AVOID (THE BOTTOM) ___ (<48) 

If you’d like to check out McLadden’s in West Hartford and judge for yourself, you can visit their website for hours and more information!

As always, I welcome your comments about this review or any of my blog posts, especially your own experiences at Happy Hours I have reviewed and suggestions about which Happy Hours I should check out next.

Friday Happy Hour Review: Rizzuto’s Restaurant & Bar In West Hartford

Sizzle … Or Fizzle?! 
Can Rizzuto’s Bring The Heat In This Hotly Competitive Happy Hour Scene?

February 26, 2019

Last Friday (2/25), I set my sights on Rizzuto’s Restaurant & Bar in West Hartford as the next victim … er … subject of my Friday Happy Hour Review. Based on my previous reviews of West Hartford Happy Hours, it’s a hot market with top shelf competition. And if you can’t bring the heat with your Happy Hour, you’ll get left in the cold.

One of Rizzuto’s 3 CT locations (the others are in Bethel and Westport), the one in West Hartford is at 111 Memorial Road in Blue Back Square, where it has some very tough competitors within the Square itself as well as several blocks away on South Main, Farmington and LaSalle. I was about to find out if it was up to the challenge.

THE VIBE:

Sleekly Cool Style Meets
Warm Hospitality


Exterior of Rizzuto’s Restaurant & Bar
111 Memorial Road, West Hartford, CT

With an exterior facade of polished gray stone and glass featuring its name in raised black letters above the doors, Rizzuto’s boldly announces its presence in a distinctive fashion that could be best be described as Classic Contemporary. Inside, the theme continued with lots of black (including staff attire), stainless steel, and milky white marble-like surfaces for an effect that was sleekly cool without being cold.

At the same time, I got a welcoming sense of hospitality from the smiles of the hostesses and the friendly demeanor of the bartender. Later, as the Happy Hour crowd grew in size, there was an increase in the comforting background buzz of laughter and conversation signaling people enjoying themselves, which I find makes any placer feel warmly inviting.

The L-shaped bar offered plenty of room for patrons to sit without feeling overly crowded. The bar stools had backs and were comfortable. However, there were no purse hooks underneath the bar overhang, which I consider an inexcusable omission (and thus cost Rizzuto’s a point in the scoring for this category). Yes, I was able to hang my purse on the back of my bar stool, but the back sloped on both sides making for a precarious perch and constant double-checking to make sure my purse didn’t slide off onto the floor. Additionally, the hooks make it easier to keep large totes (for those coming straight from work) from impeding access to the bar.

Aside from my issue with the lack of purse hooks, the bar area was comfortable with enough space to move freely to the complimentary appetizer station and back to my seat without bumping into anyone or spilling the contents of my plate.

All in all, Rizzuto’s had a nearly perfect Happy Hour Vibe!

SCORING:
THE VIBE
(ATMOSPHERE – Maximum of 20 Pts.)
Style_5_(1-5)
Layout_4_(1-5) 
Cleanliness_5_(1-5)
Mood_5_(1-5)
TOTAL VIBE SCORE _19_

THE HEARTBEAT:

Service Is Alive And Well

Matt
My bartender at Rizzuto’s

As regular readers of my reviews can attest, I believe the service at Happy Hour to be critical to success. Assuming at least decent prices and quality for your offerings, excellent service helps make guests happy and brings them back. It also garners recommendations from customers and reviewers like me. Conversely, poor service can kill a Happy Hour faster than running out of alcohol. In either case, the focus is squarely on the bartender.

Fortunately, I’ve yet to run into any in the Happy Hour “killer” category, which again means that my bartender at Rizzuto’s would be measured against some very high standards. Matt, my bartender, proved more than equal to the task. Friendly and attentive from the moment I sat down until I left, he was constantly checking to make sure I always had whatever I needed and that I never waited more than the absolute bare minimum of time for my drinks or my food. I also heard him conversing with other guests at the bar with the same comfortable attitude that made us all feel welcome. 

As far as order efficiency was concerned, the drinks were well-mixed, and my food came out exactly as ordered.

It’s safe to say that the Heartbeat of Happy Hour service at Rizzuto’s was definitely alive and well!

SCORING:
THE HEARTBEAT
(SERVICE
Maximum of 20 Pts.)
Attitude_5_(1-5)
Attentive / Responsive_5_(1-5) 
Helpfulness_5_(1-5)
Efficiency_5_(1-5)
TOTAL HEARTBEAT SCORE _20_

THE SIPS:

Dangerously Delicious Options Abound

Rizzuto’s Specialty Cocktail Happy Hour Menu

Naturally, as a mixologist, the Happy Hour cocktail menu is dear to my heart (and my budget)! Rizzuto’s brought a smile to face as soon as I read their cocktail menu online with House Brand Drinks, i.e. well drinks, for $5 and five specialty cocktails for $6. This classifies as one of the better Happy Hour mixed drink menus because of all the options.

Apart from the number of options, I judge the drink menu based on the variety and inventiveness of the specialty cocktails. Rizzuto’s earned a top score on the strength of one drink alone – The Hot & Cool Margarita! The recipe description (house-infused jalapeno and cucumber tequila, fresh lemon and lime juices, a dash of agave, served on the rocks) intrigued and delighted me with what it had — the mix of jalapeno heat and cucumber cool – and what it didn’t have — no sour mix (which I despise). Hoping for an exciting flavor treat, I made that my first drink order. 

Rizzuto’s Hot & Cool Margarita! (It’s much brighter in person.)
Definitely A Treat! Cheers!

A bright, festive shade of green (the picture above doesn’t do it justice), the drink Matt brought me did not disappoint. As soon as the tingle of fire from the jalapeno started heating up my taste buds, the chill of the cucumber cooled them down to create a wholly pleasant interplay, which also included a nice balancing act of tart and sweet sensations. A perfectly executed drink concept, from the color to final sip, it’s also dangerous because it would be tempting to drink far more of them than would be wise. (I should note here that Friday was National Margarita Day, and while they didn’t have any specials to mark the occasion, I considered Rizzuto’s Hot & Cool Margarita to be an excellent choice to celebrate it!)

After the Hot & Cool Margarita, anything else was going to have trouble measuring up, so I opted to check out a drink that is offered in different variations across Connecticut – a white Cosmo. At Rizzuto’s, it’s called the Winter White Cosmo (featuring white cranberry juice instead of red, along with citrus vodka, triple sec and fresh lime juice). Refreshing and not too sweet, it delivered on expectations as an enjoyable follow up.

For those of you who prefer wine and beer, Rizzuto’s also offers glasses of 8 different wine varieties for $5 each, select draft beers for $5 each and bottled beers for $4 each during their Happy Hour.

It should not come as a surprise that Rizzuto’s Happy Hour Sips poured it on to earn a perfect score!

SCORING:
THE SIPS
(DRINKS
Maximum of 20 Pts.)
Selection_5_(1-5)
Unique Options_5_(1-5) 
Pricing_5_(1-5)
Quality / Taste_5_(1-5)
TOTAL SIP SCORE _20_

THE BITES:

Tempting Selections For
Every Taste And Budget

Rizzuto’s Appetizer Specials Happy Hour Menu

The Happy Hour menu is an excellent way to get a taste for a restaurant’s quality and decide if it’s worth trying for a full meal. The selection (or lack thereof) also tells you how serious the establishment is about drawing guests to their Happy Hour and trying to assure they stay or come back for dinner. Apparently, Rizzuto’s understands how important it is to make a good impression in the hotly competitive West Hartford restaurant and bar scene, where there is a plethora of options. So, their selection and prices cover the broadest range that I can remember since I started doing these reviews last summer!

There are complimentary Happy Hour appetizers (if you make at least a $5 beverage purchase per person in the bar area), usually consisting of pizza, a hot dish and a salad. They also offer individual specialty pizzas for $5 each in addition to the portion of the appetizer menu you see here. Again, it covers a broad spectrum with a lot of tempting choices. However, I was still somewhat full after having a big lunch with my daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law at earlier, so I was only up for one appetizer on Friday. After careful consideration, I decided the Rhode Island Calamari Fritti would give me the best insight into their meal quality.

Rizzuto’s Rhode Island Calamari Fritti
Two Thumbs Up!

While it was the most expensive selection on their Happy Hour appetizer menu at $8 (and the most expensive Happy Hour calamari offering I’ve encountered to date), it was worth the price. As something of a calamari connoisseur, I can tell you that far more places miss the mark than hit it in cooking calamari right. It’s easy to wind up with overdone, rubbery rings buried in batter that’s way too dry and crunchy. However, in this case, Rizzuto’s nailed it. My order arrived in a large bowl filled with a very generous portion of lightly battered and fried-to-perfection rings, tentacles and peppers accompanied by marinara and garlic aioli sauces. I ate until I was literally stuffed, but I couldn’t finish it all!

Needless to say, Rizzuto’s cooked up a top score for its Happy Hour Bites!

SCORING:
THE BITES
(FOOD
Maximum of 20 Pts.)
Selection_5_(1-5)
Unique Options_5_(1-5) 
Pricing_5_(1-5)
Quality / Taste_5_(1-5)
TOTAL BITES SCORE _20_

OVERALL IMPRESSION:

Rizzuto’s Sizzles As A Hot
Happy Hour Choice In West Hartford

If the lack of purse hooks under the bar is the only negative thing I could find to say about a Happy Hour, you know they’re doing things right. There was an expression of pride in the restaurant and its staff on the part of Lynn, only the second female restaurant general manager I’ve encountered while doing my reviews, when I spoke with her before I left. That pride obviously filters down to the staff in the high level of service and food quality they deliver. 

Obviously, this will not come as a surprise, but I highly recommend checking out Rizzuto’s Restaurant and Bar in West Hartford for your next Friday Happy Hour outing!

TOTAL SCORE _79_ 
RESULT
• TOP SHELF (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) __X_ (72-80) (Equates to Uniquely Recommended)

• GOOD CHOICE (WELL RECOMMENDED) ___ (64-71) (Equates to Recommended W/O Reservations)
• DECENT (STANDARD) ___ (52-63) (Equates to Recommended W/Caveats)
• AVERAGE (LAST RESORT) ___ (48-51) (NEW RATING)
• AVOID (THE BOTTOM) ___ (<48) (Equates to Not Recommended)

Visit their web site for more information, including hours and menus, then check out Rizzuto’s in West Hartford for yourself!

As always, I welcome your comments about this review or any of my blog posts, especially your own experiences at Happy Hours I have reviewed and suggestions about which Happy Hours I should check out next.

Bartender Competition: These Bartenders Elevated Their Craft to Impressive Heights at Waypoint Spirits Bloody Mary Garnishing Competition!

February 13, 2019

I was invited by John Taylor, the driving force behind craft distiller Waypoint Spirits (@waypointspirits, @Drinkwaypoint), to be one of three judges for a bartender competition Waypoint Spirits was hosting at its distillery in Bloomfield (CT) this past Sunday.

It turned out to be quite an afternoon as four area bartenders -– Dustin from The Cook and the Bear (@thecookandthebear) in West Hartford, Khalid from Max Amore (@maxamore, @MaxAmoreCT) in Glastonbury, Stephanie from Zohara Mediterranean Kitchen (@zoharamediterraneankitchen, @zoharakitchen) in West Hartford, and Tony from Arch Street Tavern (@archst, @ArchStTavern) in Hartford – dazzled us with their creativity and skill in both parts of the competition!

The Four Competing Bartenders … from L to R
Dustin … Khalid … Stephanie … Tony

The Presentation:

The sky was the limit … seriously!

As with most occupations, there are different levels of artistry and skill in bartending. At the basic level, a good bartender can make the both typical and house specialty drinks efficiently and engage guests to make them feel welcome. The truly excellent bartenders are also mixologists and artists who truly appreciate that they are competing in the entertainment arena. It is a world where style meets substance. And it’s where the best creations appeal to as many of the senses as possible, starting with the visual presentation.

Each Bartender’s Garnishing Entry … Clockwise from top left …
Khalid … Dustin … Stephanie … Tony

Since our first impression of a drink is what we see in front us, the artistry of the color, glass style and, particularly the garnishes, plays a huge role in our expectations. In this case, these bartenders were challenged with taking a Bloody Mary* to new heights of attraction with their imaginative garnishes. As you can see from the photos, they got very creative using the Waypoint supplied garnishes, but Stephanie thought outside the box, so to speak, and brought in a host of intriguing additions for her garnishes, including pita pockets, pomegranate stuffed olives and even duck legs! While all the garnish treatments were impressive, Stephanie’s outrageous works of art towered over the others. The other judges (@cheyney_b and Emily from @yelphartford) and I unanimously declared her the winner of the garnishing competition.

The Winner
The Judges & The Winner … from L to R …
Miss Bri, The Dark Diva (Judge) … Stephanie (Winner) … @cheyney_b (Judge) … Emily from @yelpHartford (Judge)

* (The Bloody Marys were all made with Waypoint Spirits Spicy XIII Vodka, which is made for with 13 herbs and spices – everything you’d put in a Bloody Mary but the juice, which in this case was V-8.)

The Mixology:

What they whipped up
went down sooo good!

Inventiveness in progress as the bartenders work their magic in the Mixology Competition with Jeff taking over for Tony (lower right)

Next, the bartenders went up against each other to create drinks using Waypoint Spirits craft-distilled liquors and a variety of liqueurs and essential mixing ingredients, but with a devious twist. After the bartenders selected their ingredients, some of the choices were exchanged randomly with those of their competitors to truly challenge their ingenuity under fire. And the results were amazing. There wasn’t a single one I didn’t enjoy, which showed in how close they were in the judging with Khalid just edging out Stephanie for first place. In the end, with her close second place in this competition and her victory margin in the garnishing round, Stephanie won the overall competition.

The finished results from (Clockwise from top left) …
Stephanie … Jeff … Dustin … Khalid

We also had a couple of guest bartenders, Jeff (who works for a distributor) and Amelia (an actress and bartender from New York who recently moved to CT), mixed up some tasty drinks for us as well. Needless to say, the rest of my Sunday was kind of a wasted day, but so relaxing.

Amelia (left) made this drink she calls “Lady Lavender’s Last Word”

The Verdict:

I do love my job!

Arriving early for the competition, I was greeted by Khalid who fixed me a drink he hadn’t’t named yet, which I dubbed “Sweet Firewater Sunshine”

As I like to tell people, I drink professionally because it’s my job as a mixologist and a reviewer! So, I truly appreciate and respect the incredible talent and commitment of those involved in crafting the highest quality spirits and those who create and serve the appealing drinks that make life just that more enjoyable.

That said, I have to compliment and congratulate all of the bartenders as well as John and his Waypoint Spirits staff, including Erin, who coordinates events plus Khalid, and Tony, who also work with Waypoint in addition to their regular bartending gigs. It was a fabulous afternoon of sampling drinks while getting to chat with the bartenders and those who came to observe the competition. It would be well worth going to visit Stephanie, Khalid, Dustin and Tony at their bars to enjoy their skills first hand for yourself. (In Stephanie’s case, I had previously seen her on the job when I reviewed the Friday Happy Hour at Zohara back in October. They both got a top rating.) Just tell them The Dark Diva sent you!

Clockwise from Top Left … Khalid & Erin making the Bloody Marys … John Taylor graciously posing with The Dark Diva … Tony … and Khalid making the awards presentation

I was also quite impressed with Waypoint’s Spicy XIII Vodka, which I had sampled before, but never to the extent that I did on Sunday. If you like a spicy Bloody Mary or Bloody Caesar that’s simple to make, I highly recommend trying the Spicy XIII, because, with its 13 ingredients, it and the juice V-8/ tomato or Clamato) are all you need. Additionally, Waypoint also offers a Coffee Liqueur that is both smoother and lighter than many I’ve tried, which makes it an ideal choice for any bar.

Waypoint Spirits Spicy XIII Vodka

Thanks for checking out my blog! As always, I welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. 

And now I think I’ll go have what’s left of Bloody Mary batch that … er … followed me home Sunday! Haha

Friday Happy Hour Review: Roberto’s Real American Tavern

Roberto’s Real American Tavern is located on U.S. Route 5 in East Windsor, CT

Worth a Stop … or Not
on the Happy Hour Circuit?

Situated on Route 5 in East Windsor, Roberto’s Real American Tavern has limited competition as a local destination for those who work or live in the general area. At the same time, if you’re heading south, it’s only about 15 minutes more time to reach Evergreen Walk in South Windsor and The Shops at Buckland Hills in Manchester, where there is some serious Happy Hour competition. Or, if you’re willing to drive an additional 30 minutes to West Hartford, the Happy Hour competition reaches its zenith. So, the question to ask is whether Roberto’s is worth a stop to check it out or should you keep on going to Manchester/South Windsor or West Hartford? As you’ll see, it depends.

“Essence of Real American”

According its web site, Roberto’s Real American Tavern’s “approach to food and drink is inspired by our country’s oldest tradition—the Early American Melting Pot Society.”  In keeping with that approach, the site states that they are “proud to bring together a whole new world of cultural influences, tastes and textures.” It’s an interesting concept, but the proof as I say is in the Happy Hour!

THE VIBE:

Questionable Style, But Still Comfortable


While I do not claim to be the definitive expert on style, my first reaction on seeing the attempted fusion of urban industrial galvanized steel with the existing colonial interior from the place’s days as Pasco’s was to ask why? I found it kind of funky (and not in an appealing way). I can understand the rationale, perhaps, but the execution leaves me unimpressed. It detracts from the atmosphere and keeps the bar from feeling as welcoming as it could, while raising concerns about how well the melting pot concept is executed in the food and drink options. 

Otherwise, the seating at the bar was comfortable and the mood was relaxed.

SCORING: THE VIBE (ATMOSPHERE – Maximum of 20 Pts.)
Style _2.5_ (1-5)
Layout _5_ (1-5) 
Cleanliness _5_ (1-5)
Mood _5_ (1-5)
TOTAL VIBE SCORE _17.5_

THE HEARTBEAT:

Generally Strong and Positive
with Only One Skip

Victoria, my bartender, was all smiles

As my regular followers know, I believe service is the heartbeat of any Happy Hour. Great drinks and food don’t matter if you can’t what you want when you want it. Fortunately, other than a long lag between bringing me my first drink order and checking back to see if I wanted to order food, Victoria, the bartender on duty, was friendly, attentive and very efficient. (Truthfully, I could easily have gotten her attention to order food, but I like to see how long it takes to be asked and I wasn’t in a hurry to be somewhere else.)

SCORING: THE HEARTBEAT(SERVICE – Maximum of 20 Pts.)
• Attitude _5_(1-5)
• Attentive/Responsive _3_(1-5)
• Helpfulness _5_(1-5)
• Efficiency _5_(1-5)
TOTAL HEARTBEAT SCORE _18_

THE SIPS:

The Good, The Bad and The Limited

Roberto’s Happy Hour Drink Menu

As the “focus” of Happy Hour, the importance of the drink menu cannot be overstated! And while priced is certainly a major factor, what you get for that price is even more critical. In evaluating the mixed drinks on Roberto’s Happy Hour Menu, I found the selection to be limited with only four Happy Hour cocktails offered and a two of them featuring coconut. 

Roberto’s Mediterranean Mule

Being an aficionado of mules, I opted to start with the Mediterranean Mule which was excellent. The European fig vodka added a refreshingly different twist to make this drink easily drinkable and quite enjoyable.

Roberto’s Coconut Gimlet

My second drink was the Coconut Gimlet and it did not go down well. In fact, it was so bad I could only drink about half of it. The New Amsterdam Coconut Vodka was harsh and not the least bit tempered by the lime juice. (In online research, this vodka supposed got excellent reviews. I don’t see how.)

At the same time, if you prefer wine, you’ll find a good selection of types to choose from.

SCORING: THE SIPS (DRINKS – Maximum of 20 Pts.)
• Selection _3.5_ (1-5)
• Unique Options _4_ (1-5)
• Pricing _5_ (1-5)
• Quality/Taste _2.5_ (1-5)
TOTAL SIPS SCORE _15_

THE BITES:

Variety is the Spice of Life, But …

Roberto’s Happy Hour Food Menu

True to its American melting pot concept, the food portion of Roberto’s Happy Hour Menu offered a diverse selection of foods from various cultures as well as some traditional Happy Hour staples like wings at very affordable prices.

Roberto’s Blackened Dry Rubbed Boneless Wings

For a number of reasons, I started (and ended) with the Blackened Dry Rubbed Boneless Wings. I received four generous-sized wings covered with a thick, crunchy coating that differed from my expectations for blackened dry rubbed. However, once I managed to get to the actual chicken underneath, it was moist and seasoned with plenty of heat (just the way I like). 

SCORING: THE BITES (FOOD – Maximum of 20 Pts.)
• Selection _5_ (1-5)
• Unique Options _5_ (1-5)
• Pricing _5_ (1-5)
• Quality/Taste _4_ (1-5)
TOTAL SIPS SCORE _19_

OVERALL IMPRESSION:

Not Quite Top Shelf,
But Worth a Stop

While it came up just a bit short of the competitive Happy Hour standards in West Hartford or, in most cases, Manchester/South Windsor, Roberto’s Real American Tavern still rates high when judged on its own merits and justifies a stop to check out the Happy Hour if you’re in the area.

TOTAL SCORE _70_ 
RESULT

• TOP SHELF (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) ___ (72-80) (Equates to Uniquely Recommended)
• GOOD CHOICE (WELL RECOMMENDED) _X__ (64-71) (Equates to Recommended W/O Reservations)
• DECENT (STANDARD) ___ (52-63) (Equates to Recommended W/Caveats)
• AVERAGE (LAST RESORT) ___ (48-51) (NEW RATING)
• AVOID (THE BOTTOM) ___ (<48) (Equates to Not Recommended)

Visit their website for more info, then check them out for yourself

Tell them The Dark Diva sent you!

Friday Happy Hour Review: Division West Bistro & Bar

Raising the Bar or Falling Flat
in a Competitive Market?

Division West Bistro & Bar

Having reviewed a number of Friday Happy Hours in West Hartford, I can tell you that the bar has already been set pretty high. With each new review, the challenge becomes tougher to make a unique impression that makes a place standout. This past Friday, Division West Bistro & Bar ended up under The Dark Diva’s microscope. Plus, Division West has the distinction of being the first to have their Friday Happy Hour judged with my new scoring system. Read on to see how they fared.

“A Community Gathering Place …”

Taking its name from the original 1670’s designation for what is now West

Your Review Crew: (L to R) my son’s girlfriend, my son and me

Hartford … “West Division of Hartford,” Division West was created by owners Jimi Brahimi (Executive Chef) and Ermal Caushi (General Manager) as “a community gathering place” where all could “feel comfortable and cared for …” That’s what we were about to test. I say we, because my son and his girlfriend were visiting from Florida and had picked Division West (from a list of links I had sent them) as the place they wanted to “gather with me” for one of my reviews.

THE VIBE:
Contemporary, Cool & “Mostly” Comfortable

I arrived first and ordered a drink while waiting for my son and his girlfriend to arrive. I got there around 4, so there was still daylight which spilled into the bar thanks to all the glass in front. There was also glass separating the bar from the main dining area. This made it a feel a bit cozy without being confining. The bar stools were comfortable and had backs, which I find essential (although some places inexplicably have stools without backs). The bar itself is quite long with seating on 2 sides of an “L.” Overall, it had a coolly sophisticated contemporary vibe that was also quite welcoming. The welcoming extended to include a fairly large crowd as Happy Hour progressed. The crowd was friendly and genial. In fact, we had a nice conversation with a couple sitting next to us at the bar.

Those were the good points. On the slightly negative side, the bar stools were crammed in a bit tight. As the bar filled up, we were lucky that a group of ladies beside us pulled their stools in a semi-circle, which opened up a little more space for us. Also, there were no purse hooks underneath the bar on our side. They should be mandatory!

SCORING: THE VIBE (ATMOSPHERE – Maximum of 20 Pts.)
• Style _5_ (1-5)
• Layout _4_ (1-5) (Minus 1 point for crowded bar stools and no purse hooks)
• Cleanliness _5_ (1-5)
• Mood _5_ (1-5)
TOTAL VIBE SCORE _19_

THE HEARTBEAT:
Upbeat, Positive & Almost Steady

Division West HH Bartenders: Brianna, Deanna, Jackie, Jose & George (It was noisy, so some of the names or spellings may be off)

For those of you who are familiar with my reviews, you know that service is one area that I focus on heavily. To me, it is the heartbeat of any Happy Hour and the key to making a bar attractive to customers. In general, there was a lot to like with the service at Division West. José was my bartender when I first arrived. He was very quick to greet me, happy to answer my questions about the Spicy Margarita and instantly responsive in offering to leave out the sour mix when he saw my expression. (The sour mix adds nothing, in my opinion, while giving me heartburn!)

After my son and his girlfriend arrived, the bartenders switched around, but drinks were quick and well made. The only problem occurred when our first food order (Steak Tacos) was delivered from the kitchen. At the time they were delivered, two of the bartenders were waiting on tables and one was handling service bar (which was at the opposite end of the bar from where we were sitting). This meant that it took what all three of us considered an unacceptable amount time to attract the attention of the one bartender so that we could get napkins, extra plates (we were sharing) and silverware.
*(This also serves to illustrate one of my pet peeves with having servers bring bar food orders directly from the kitchen to the bar guests. Having the bartenders deliver the food to guests at the bar means they are right there to make sure the order was prepared right, and anything overlooked or needed is immediately addressed right then.)

Aside from this skip in the heartbeat, service picked right back up and was excellent to the end! I would have deducted more for the time lag, but it felt like this was an aberration and that it was a management fault by not allocating staff appropriately at the time – which is problematic because you can’t always anticipate sudden surges in the crowd. If it happens when I’m reviewing the next time, it will cost more points because then it would no longer be an isolated incident.

However, overall it was a friendly, attentive group of bartenders!

SCORING: THE HEARTBEAT (SERVICE – Maximum of 20 Pts.)
• Attitude _5_ (1-5)
• Attentive/Responsive _3_ (1-5) (Minus 2 points for wait time for napkins, plates, etc.)
• Helpfulness _5_ (1-5)
• Efficiency _5_ (1-5)
TOTAL HEARTBEAT SCORE _18_

THE SIPS:
Intoxicating, Intriguing and Impressively Priced

The Happy Hour Drink Menu

The drinks portion of the Division West Happy Hour Menu offered lots of

Cold Snap & Effen Cucumber Vodka Collins

choices for beer, wine and interesting $5 specialty cocktails. My son opted for the Cold Snap Sam Adams seasonal beer, while his girlfriend and I took checked out the mixed drinks. First, she tried the Effen Cucumber Vodka Collins, which she said was good, but not her favorite. For her second, she ordered a Moscow Mule, which definitely got a thumbs up.

Spicy Margarita

As for me, I started with a Spicy Margarita featuring Teano Jalapeno Tequila and lime juice without any sour mix. It was quite good and hot enough to satisfy my taste without overkill. For my next drink, I opted to try their Negroni.

Negroni

It was the first time I had seen this particular drink on anybody’s Happy Hour list because it’s not one that typically comes to mind. Made with Campari (a very bitter Italian liqueur), gin, sweet vermouth rosso, and orange peel, it proved to be a very refreshing cocktail in which the bitterness of the Campari was made pleasantly palatable by the gin, vermouth and orange peel.

Overall, we were “happy” with all aspects of our Happy Hour drinks!

SCORING: THE SIPS (DRINKS – Maximum of 20 Pts.)
• Selection _5_ (1-5)
• Unique Options _5_ (1-5)
• Pricing _5_ (1-5)
• Quality/Taste _5_ (1-5)
TOTAL SIPS SCORE _20_

THE BITES:
Tempting, Tasty and Totally Affordable

The Happy Hour Food Menu

Steak Tacos

The food part of the Division West Happy Hour Menu easily kept pace with the drink portion for a wide variety of distinctive and familiar offerings at very affordable prices to satisfy just about any taste. We started with the $5 Steak Tacos, which came 2 to an order. Consisting of soft and light corn tortillas filled with delicious bits of steak, tomato salsa, onion and lettuce, the tacos disappeared rather quickly.

We followed up with the $5 Calamari,

Calamari, Cold Snap & Moscow Mule

which came with cherry peppers and roasted pepper aioli. As something of a Calamari connoisseur, I truly appreciate Calamari that’s lightly breaded and not overcooked. Division West’s was perfect.

Overall, the food was excellent!

SCORING: THE BITES (FOOD – Maximum of 20 Pts.)
• Selection _5_ (1-5)
• Unique Options _5_ (1-5)
• Pricing _5_ (1-5)
• Quality/Taste _5_ (1-5)
TOTAL SIPS SCORE _20_

OVERALL IMPRESSION:
The Bar For Happy Hour in West Hartford
Has Just Been Raised

While there were a few opportunities for improvement, because no place is absolutely perfect, Division West’s Friday Happy Hour delivered on making us “feel comfortable and cared for.” It’s easy to understand why it’s a popular spot.

TOTAL SCORE _77_
RESULT
• TOP SHELF (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) _X_ (72-80) (Equates to Uniquely Recommended)
• GOOD CHOICE (WELL RECOMMENDED) ___ (64-71) (Equates to Recommended W/O Reservations)
• DECENT (STANDARD) ___ (52-63) (Equates to Recommended W/Caveats)
• AVERAGE (LAST RESORT) ___ (48-51) (NEW RATING)
• AVOID (THE BOTTOM) ___ (<48) (Equates to Not Recommended)

Visit their website for more info, then check them out for yourself

Tell them The Dark Diva sent you!

New Friday Happy Hour Review Scoring System

After all the bar reviews of 2018, I feel like there needs to be some refinement of how I rate each Happy Hour. It has occurred to me that the four existing categories — Uniquely Recommended, Highly Recommended, Recommended W/ Caveats and Not Recommended –need to be reworked based on a scoring system. Of course, it’s a work in progress so I will be phasing in the new system side-by-side with the old system for the next few months, especially for fairness in comparisons, since many of the bars are in areas where their competition has already been reviewed by me under the original system.

The main reasons for this change are: (1) to better identify where a particular bar/happy hour excels or falls short so you can better decide on which ones to try first, and (2) to help bar owners/managers understand what could be improved and what is actually working well (from a consumer perspective).

Even as the categories and numerical measurements may change as I further refine my rating system, there are several points to keep in mind whether you are reading my reviews from a consumer perspective or an owner/manager/bartender perspective:

• Perception is a reality for a consumer, and I do my reviews primarily as a consumer who happens to enjoy mixed drinks.

• Currently, my reviews are based on my experience at a certain time on one Friday night, so your experience may vary more than typical. Once, I start going back to places for a second review, there will be a better baseline for determining consistency of the experience.

• My goal is not to make news with bad reviews. My goal is to honestly review a Friday Happy Hour and let people know if I think it’s worth their time and why. Undeservedly bad or good reviews could destroy my credibility, so my key focus is to give my unbiased opinions based on actual experience.

NEW SCORESHEET

A. THE VIBE (ATMOSPHERE – Maximum of 20 Pts.)

(Is the environment inviting, comfortable, clean, easy to navigate, etc.?)

• Style __ (1-5)
• Layout __ (1-5)
• Cleanliness __ (1-5)
• Mood __ (1-5)

B. THE HEARTBEAT (SERVICE – Maximum of 20 Pts.)

(Is the service prompt, efficient, accommodating and pleasant?)

• Attitude __ (1-5)
• Attentive/Responsive __ (1-5)
• Helpfulness __ (1-5)
• Efficiency __ (1-5)

C. THE SIPS (DRINKS – Maximum of 20 Pts.)

(Are there interesting and tasty choices at a good price?)

• Selection __ (1-5)
• Unique Options __ (1-5)
• Pricing __ (1-5)
• Quality/Taste __ (1-5)

D. THE BITES (FOOD – Maximum of 20 Pts.)

(Are there unique options for a variety of tastes at a reasonable price?)

• Selection __ (1-5)
• Unique Options __ (1-5)
• Pricing __ (1-5)
• Quality/Taste __ (1-5)

E. Overall Impressions

(Summation of points rating along with a plus or minus based on any good or bad things encountered not otherwise rated, Overall Recommendation and Summation)

TOTAL SCORE ___
PLUS/MINUS ___
RESULT
• TOP SHELF (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) ___ (72-80) (OLD Uniquely Recommended)
• GOOD CHOICE (WELL RECOMMENDED) ___ (64-71) (OLD Recommended W/O Reservations)
• DECENT (STANDARD) ___ (52-63) (OLD Recommended W/Caveats)
• AVERAGE (LAST RESORT) ___ (48-51) (NEW RATING)
• AVOID (THE BOTTOM) ___ (<48) (OLD Not Recommended)

Friday Happy Hour Review: When It Comes To Popping The Cork On Happy Hour, Vinted in West Hartford Takes It Seriously

December 4, 2018

Well, after taking the past 4 Fridays off from the Happy Hour circuit to focus on the Holiday Social & Survival Guide for my blog, I got back into my reviewer mode with a visit to Vinted, a wine bar and kitchen, in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square. It came highly recommended from a variety of sources, so I was anxious to see if it would live up to its reputation.

Good Impressions Always Start With A Smile

As regular followers of this blog know, I put a lot of emphasis on the attitude of the bar staff when it comes to my Happy Hour Reviews. And that’s only natural since it’s hard to enjoy a “Happy” Hour when you’re being served by grumpy people. Fortunately, friendly service has been a pleasantly consistent factor in almost all of my Happy Hour visits to this point … and Vinted was no exception.

Victoria, the bartender who took care of me at Vinted, smiled throughout the evening and was a delight!

As I walked in, I was greeted by a smiling hostess who informed me that I could partake of Happy Hour anywhere in the restaurant (a nice touch more places should adopt). Opting for a seat at one of the two bars, I was quickly welcomed by Victoria, the bartender, with menus and a smile. After giving me a few moments to peruse the menu, she returned to take my order.\

When I inquired about special Happy Hour mixed drinks beyond the standard cocktails for $5 (using the specifically listed Happy Hour liquors), she immediately said that she could use these liquors to make a range of more involved drinks, such as a Margarita or Cosmo, for a $2 up charge. Those were the words I wanted to hear! Throughout my time there, Victoria was attentive to my needs and genuinely made me feel like she (and Vinted) appreciated my choosing Vinted for Happy Hour. From the first smile on, Vinted scored perfect marks for service (and attitude)!

Simply Put, It’s All About The Drinks

It kind of goes without saying that the drink menu (and the bartender’s skill at mixing the drinks) can make or break a Happy Hour. Sadly, not every place gets the message as I have discovered. Thankfully, Vinted gets it with quality liquor brands on Happy Hour and the ability to upgrade your drink selection beyond the very basic cocktails. (I should note, of course, that Vinted is primarily a wine bar with an extensive collection. Yet, while I do love good wine, my focus as a mixologist is mixed drinks.)

A Perfect Margarita!

For my first drink, I asked Victoria to make a Margarita ($5 + $2 Upcharge) for me using real lime juice instead of the popular sour mix so many places use. I was thrilled, however, when she informed me that they never use the mix for their Margaritas! That scored points with me right away! What Victoria delivered was an absolute perfect Margarita – refreshing with the tartness of lime and just the ideal touch of sweetness to complement the smooth warmth of the Aztec Azul Silver Tequila (a brand I had not tried before).

An excellent Gin & Tonic!

After savoring every drop of the Margarita, I ordered a Gin & Tonic ($5) to sample the Broker’s Gin. A traditional London Dry Gin done very well, Broker’s embraces the juniper flavor typical of this gin type but with a smoother, more subtle approach that made my Gin & Tonic quite enjoyable,

Apparently, Vinted understands very well that what goes in the glass has a direct correlation to the degree of happiness in Happy Hour.

Not All The Joys of Happy Hour Come From A Glass

Vinted has a fairly extensive Happy Hour Menu with something for everyone!

While it might sound like heresy coming from a mixologist, another major component of Happy Hour enjoyment for many of us is the opportunity to sample a restaurant’s cuisine as well as its attention to the finer details of food preparation. In many instances, I have discovered extraordinary delights, such as the Pork Ribs ($8) on Vinted’s Happy Hour Menu. On the menu, it simply reads Pork Ribs and then underneath … Hot & Sour Sauce/Mango/Lime/Mint.

What actually arrived was nothing short of heaven on a board – four meaty ribs generously coated with the hot & sour sauce, pieces of mango and mint leaves. Victoria advised squirting the lime on the ribs to get the full enjoyment of the sauce, which I did. Fall off the bone tender with just the right amount of surface crunch, these ribs were spicy hot, satisfyingly savory and absolutely fabulous.

Vinted just kept racking up points!

Ambiance Can Make Any Place Feel Inviting … Or Not

The final piece to determining if a Happy Hour stands out as welcoming or as something to be avoided is the overall atmosphere. Admittedly, I have walked into some places and immediately walked right back out because it was obviously not a place I’d feel comfortable. On the other hand, some aspects of ambiance can only be judged while you’re sitting at the bar. Beyond the attitude of the bartender and the quality of the drinks and food, the style of the bar, its cleanliness level and the overall vibes from the other folks around you can make a bar feel very comfortable or ruin your whole experience.

Again, Vinted has created a very inviting space that’s warm with a modern vibe and just cozy enough to allow for conversation without being confining. While there I happened to meet a wine rep, Alli, and we spent most of my visit chatting about the business and occasionally chatting with Victoria.

Check off ambiance as another winner for Vinted.

***UNIQUELY RECOMMENDED***

As you may have guessed, Vinted has earned my highest rating of ***UNIQUELY RECOMMENDED***!!! And while many Happy Hours in West Hartford have also earned this distinction, each one has its own unique personality that makes it worth experiencing. Vinted distinguishes itself on a number of levels which combine to create a Happy Hour that stands on its own for superior service, drinks, food, and ambiance.

Learn more about Vinted on their web site at vinted.com then go see Victoria this coming Friday for Happy Hour and tell her The Dark Diva sent you!

The Dark Diva’s Holiday Social & Survival Guide Part 3: Gifts For Drink Lovers Made Easy, Fun & Unique

November 20, 2018

So now we’ve reached the final part of our Holiday Social & Survival Guide with tips on unique gift ideas, including custom cocktails, for your favorite drink lovers, from those who just appreciate drinks and alcohols with new and intriguing flavors to those with discriminating taste for distilling excellence to serious mixologists.

Share The Joy (literally):
Take Them Out To A Craft Distillery
Or A Top Happy Hour

Kelly, our tour & spirit guide at Hartford Flavor Company in Hartford describing the various liqueurs we are about to sample!

What better gift to give than one you can share like a tasting at a local craft distillery or a top reviewed Happy Hour. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t love this gift. It’s thoughtful, fun and can be fairly reasonable, especially a distillery tasting.

Craft Distillery Tours & Tastings

The Tasting Bar of Wild Moon(R) Liqueurs that’s part of the tour at Hartford Flavor Company.

If you’re in Connecticut, there are a number of craft distillers across the state, although not all offer tours and/or tastings. You can find a list of craft distillers here with links to more information. Create a nice, formal invitation for the recipient(s) to be your guest(s) for a tour & tasting, as your Christmas gift to them, on a specific date over the holidays (or after).

Melissa, our bartender/spirit guide, pours samples for guests at the Tasting Bar of Waypoint Spirits in Bloomfield, CT!

I have visited and reviewed two of these craft distillers in the greater Hartford area, which I can personally recommend: Hartford Flavor Company in Hartford and Waypoint Spirits in Bloomfield. Both offer affordable Saturday and Sunday afternoon tours

Connor was our enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guide at Waypoint Spirits.

and tastings, although hours may vary during the holidays. (Click on their respective names to visit their web sites for details and contact information.) It’s a great way to get acquainted with the distiller’s art and try something new. The guides do a great job of engaging guests and conveying a lot of information in an entertaining manner.

Top Reviewed Happy Hours

Grant’s Flirtini

Check through local reviews online (such as Miss Bri’s Fresh & Twisted Blog) to find fresh, interesting Happy Hours, and treat special friends to a visit during the holidays. You’ll find some recommendations for Happy Hours to visit in the greater Hartford area listed here with links to my reviews. Going out for Happy Hour at some place new can be a really nice treat for everyone.

Click on the name to read my review, which also includes a link to the location’s web site:

Bloomfield

The Republic Gastropub

Manchester

Bistro On Main
Plaza Azteca

South Windsor

Burtons Bar & Grill
Mill On The River
Red Heat Tavern
Ted’s Montana Grill

West Hartford

Blue Elephant Trail
Grant’s Restaurant & Bar
Max’s Oyster Bar
Zohara Mediterranean Kitchen

 

Pour On The Thoughtfulness:
Give Them Craft Distilled Liquors & Liqueurs
As Well As Distinctive Barware

 

Want to wrap up your Christmas shopping with a twist? Then surprise your
favorite drink lover with something different – a bottle of liquid goodness from a local craft distiller. Here are just a few suggestions from craft distillers in the greater Hartford area.

The Wild Moon® Liqueurs Variety Pack

Featuring 100ml bottles of six different Wild Moon® liqueurs (Lime, Cucumber, Lavender, Rose, Birch and Chai Spice), this is a great introduction to these all-natural, gluten-free spirits that are crafted in Hartford by the Hartford Flavor Company. The variety pack and a range of other Hartford Flavor Company/Wild Moon® themed products (barware, shirts and more) are available at the Hartford Flavor Company. Visit their web site here for more details.

Waypoint Spirits

Waypoint Spirits Craft Distilled Honey Habanero Flavored Whiskey

Show your friends that you are a thoughtful and perceptive person with excellent tastes by giving them one of Waypoint Spirits’ locally crafted liquors (distilled in Bloomfield), such as Labrador Noon Vodka (a very smooth, premium-style vodka), Wintonbury Gin (botanically infused, more in the mold of Hendrick’s with less juniper flavor), and Small Batch Honey Habanero Flavored Whiskey (the spice is right for those who like a little firewater). Visit their web site here for details.

Barware

A set of 4 initialed or monogrammed Old-Fashioned or On-The-Rocks glasses makes a beautifully distinctive and highly appreciated gift for any mixologists. A bar mat for mixing, a good quality shaker and durable bar tools also make nice gifts for your favorite mixologist. You can find them online at Amazon and Bar & Vine as well as locally at places as diverse as Williams Sonoma and Target.

Give A Gift That Is Totally Unique:
Their Own Custom-Crafted Cocktail Recipe
From The Dark Diva

Whether you want a truly one-of-a-kind gift for someone very special or a perfectly themed cocktail to take a special holiday event to the next level, nothing compares to the cocktail crafting wizardry and backstory creativity of The Dark Diva.

Here’s what a recent client said of the three custom-crafted cocktails I created for an event she planned:

“I wanted to let you know that last night was a great success especially with the signature cocktails! The ranks were split between the Velvet Voodoo Martini (… my favorite) and the Purple Magic Martini. I think the Autumn Paradise would have done better but for the literal heat wave that hit us yesterday afternoon (!) which made it hard to get in the groove for fall LOL …”

And her guests concurred:

“What a wonderfully fun evening!  How clever to have a signature cocktail tasting.  That Velvet Voodoo Martini was so sweet and smooth – I wanted to slip into a bathtub full of it!”

“Purple Magic Martini – this was simply scrumptious! Fruity without being too sweet, and I like sweet!

“Autumn Paradise Martini – As someone who hates Autumn, I wasn’t even going to try this one between the pumpkin and butterscotch, BUT, the flavors blended well, and it truly was a treat, not a trick!”

Created for a party of stressed out executive assistants, these colorfully named custom-crafted cocktails also included a short story with them. (I don’t share the recipe specifics publicly, however, since they now belong to the client which assures they will remain unique.)

The Velvet Voodoo Martini
(AKA The Karma’s A Bitch Martini)

Sometimes when you’re at the end of your rope, all you want to do is make a noose out of it and hang your boss. For anyone who is overworked and underappreciated by a ridiculously demanding boss, The Velvet Voodoo Martini is made with dark magic (Irish spirits, exotic spices and sneakily irresistible flavors) that will give you sweet velvet dreams of the moment when you just walk out and leave your boss completely helpless. And, just maybe, your boss will have the same dream. If it doesn’t scare him/her to death, it should at least scare them into showing more appreciation for all you do. (Just for fun, look up poisons on Google frequently so your boss can see it. Later, tell him/her you have to meet the exterminator at your house about poisoning some rats and ask if he/she wants you to pick up lunch for them – be very insistent. That should give them pause. Haha!)

The Diva’s Purple Magic Martini
(AKA “Beam Me Up Scotty,
There’s No Intelligent Life down Here!” Martini)

This concoction is made for those days when everyone you have deal with is an ill-tempered, impatient moron who couldn’t find their butt with both hands and directions. No matter how simply and patiently you try to explain to them that what they want is not what they need, not reasonable or just simply impossible, they have all the comprehension of a two-year-old, so they pitch a fit. While you can’t do what you feel like doing to them (unless you have lots of money, access to the dark web to hire a hitman, and an ironclad alibi), you can make them all magically disappear for a while with this deliciously sweet escape that will let you boldly go where no where no boss can find you!

The Autumn Paradise Martini
(AKA “The Leaf Me Alone, I’m Having A Moment” Martini)

Like a walk through the woods on a glorious autumn afternoon, with the fresh crispness of a cool fall breeze as the bright sunshine brings nature’s spectacular palette of scarlet, gold, yellow, green and rust to vivid life, this is a moment to savor in a New England paradise. No demanding bosses. No uncooperative co-workers. No screaming kids. No annoying spouse. Now that moment is yours in a glass with The Autumn Paradise Martini. Just forget everything and chill with every sip, after warning everyone that they might encounter the Grim Reaper if they disturb your moment (or moments) in Autumn Paradise!

Learn more about my custom-crafted cocktails for events and gifts here. You can also email me: MissBri@thedarkdivarules.com.

Act now! Don’t wait, because I expect to get booked out fast!

Hopefully, you’ve found some ideas here that will make your holiday gift-giving experience easy and fun!

Hope you have a wonderfully enjoyable and safe holiday season!

The Dark Diva’s Holiday Social & Survival Guide Part 1: Make The Season More Fun Without The Stress

November 12, 2018

(Note: We’re actually a day ahead of our usual Tuesday posting for a change. Can’t guarantee it will happen again anytime soon. Haha)

Wow! It’s hard to believe that next Thursday is Thanksgiving already! How is it that the holiday season seems to take us by surprise every year? I think there are a couple of dynamics involved starting with the fact that Christmas gets promoted earlier and earlier to the point that we try to ignore it out of contempt until it’s suddenly upon us and we go into panic mode. At the same time, our lives are so busy we can’t seem to find the time to prepare too far in advance for anything beyond getting through tomorrow.

Whatever the case, it doesn’t really matter how we got here, since we are here. The key is how to cope with the holidays and make the most of them. And the first step is to rethink your expectations.

#1) The Holidays Are Perfectly Enjoyable
When You Don’t Strive For Perfection

Still life of large blue Christmas ornaments and strings of red beads.

Say what? Think about it. We spend so much time trying to create perfect holiday moments that we’re too stressed out to enjoy ourselves. In fact, we can end up making the holiday memorable for all the wrong reasons. So, change your mantra to “let’s have fun without obsessing about it” this year. And part of that is recognizing that there are limits on your time, your budget and your mental/emotional stamina. The first two are fairly obvious, but also remember that we all have limits to how much we can plan, prep and socialize before we start to overload. And we all have different limits. The key is to plan fewer things and enjoy each one more or plan more things while making them all simpler.

Watching your budget is pretty important, because it is ridiculously easy to

Christmas wreath on door.

overspend on social events during the holidays. And that can lead to a holiday financial hangover as well as relationship issues. Allow yourself one social event “splurge” without going overboard. This will make staying within budget feel less constraining. Plus, follow my tips for having more affordable holiday fun.

The same idea applies to not overscheduling your time. Allow for one or two major parties/events, while spreading out other events over the whole season and making them smaller and simpler.

#2) Celebrate Holiday Happy Hours
As An Alternative To Parties/Dinners

Bistro on Main in Manchester captures the spirit of French bistro — warmly intimate atmosphere and some very tasty treats.

Meeting friends or co-workers at Happy Hour during the holidays is a good way to socialize and celebrate the season without spending a lot of time or money. If you stick with the Happy Hour food and drink specials, you can get by for an average of $15 – $30 per person (before tip) for 2 drinks and 1 – 2 food items from the Happy Hour Menu.

Compared to dinner out with friends, Happy Hour allows you to explore different venues and try more interesting cocktails and foods for l

The Lamb Cigars ($2 each) at Zohara Mediterranean Kitchen in West Hartford offer a deliciously fresh perspective on Happy hour foods!

ess money without having to worry about making reservations (which can be difficult to get in the first place) around schedule conflicts and having to cancel/re-schedule reservations due to last-minute emergencies. Plus, you have time to shop afterwards or go home and just relax.

Compared to hosting parties, there’s no cleanup (before or after) when you meet friends at a

The “too much thyme” cocktail at The Cook and The Bear in West Hartford is a deliciously surprising blend of tequila, thyme, blackberry and lemon!

Happy Hour. You also don’t have to plan a menu and drink options, worry about spending for a lot of food that will go to waste, or deal with intoxicated guests or guests who won’t leave. You can show up for Happy Hour, share some holiday cheer and leave when you’re ready. (Also, most Happy Hours only last 2 to 3 hours, so that’s always a great excuse to leave.)

For those of you in the greater Hartford area of Connecticut, the following Happy Hour venues have earned my highest rating of ***UNIQUELY RECOMMENDED***!.

Click on the name to read my review, which also includes a link to the location’s web site:

Bloomfield

The Republic Gastropub

Manchester

Bistro On Main
Plaza Azteca

South Windsor

Burtons Bar & Grill
Mill On The River
Red Heat Tavern
Ted’s Montana Grill

West Hartford

Blue Elephant Trail
Grant’s Restaurant & Bar
Max’s Oyster Bar
Zohara Mediterranean Kitchen

Another nice thing about the Holiday Happy Hours is you can get started right now with your get-togethers!

Hope you’ve found Part 1 of our Holiday Social & Survival Guide to be helpful in making it easier to enjoy the season this year. Coming up in Part 2 on Friday, I’ll offer recommendations for stocking your holiday bar as well as some general drink recommendations to make entertaining easier. And in Part 3 next week, we’ll present some gift ideas for those in your life who appreciate spirits with a twist!

Be Safe, Happy and Relaxed This Holiday Season!