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.

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!

Friday Happy Hour Review: Red Heat Tavern Looks to Fire Up The Local Happy Hour Competition In South Windsor/Manchester

November 6, 2018

***Today is Election Day in the U.S., so please go vote!***

This past Friday, I visited Red Heat Tavern at Evergreen Walk in South Windsor. While aware that it was relatively new, I hadn’t realized they had just opened in June of this year until talking with Manager Taylor O’Neill at the end of my visit. If I had known beforehand, I might have elected to postpone my review. However, based on my experience Friday, they didn’t need a break.

Part of the Burtons Bar & Grill chain , which also has a location in Evergreen Walk, Red Heat Tavern has four other locations (all in neighboring Massachusetts) while positioning itself as a place where “… passion for great food is fueled by fire, flavor and friends.” So, how did they do when the Friday Happy Hour heat was on?

Sparked By Smiles,
Service Was Smokin’

Upon arriving around 4 PM on Friday, the seats at the Red Heat Tavern bar were already starting to fill up. Fortunately, I found a few empty seats at the far end next to the service bar area. (The décor was a somewhat similar to that of The Cook and the Bear in West Hartford – what I call urban rustic. It’s an eclectic mix of modern, industrial and classic BBQ joint all rolled into one that actually works well.) Nikki*, my bartender, was bubbly and enthusiastic during my time there. She easily answered all my questions about the drink and food choices (the Happy Hour menu doesn’t elaborate enough on the offerings —  a point I raised with the manager), cheerfully responded to my request to make my Margarita with lime juice instead of the mix, and made an excellent suggestion for my second drink by recommending the Jim Beam Black Mule.
*(Unfortunately, her shift ended, and she left before I could get a picture or the correct spelling of her name.)

Red Hot Deals,
Icy Cool Drinks

The $5 Happy Hour Margarita at Red Heat Tavern. (Made to my order with lime juice instead of mix.)

A $5 price point for mixed drinks is essentially the popular Happy Hour standard. What makes the price hot or not is what you get for that price. Red Heat Tavern offers Sangrias, Margaritas and Mules that have some telling differences. While I ordered my Margarita with lime juice instead of the mix to avoid heartburn, you can get various flavors of the mix. (My Margarita was a bit tart and could have used either a touch more Triple Sec or some agave, but it grew on me.)

The Jim Beam Black Happy Hour Mule for $5 at Red Heat Tavern. (A surprisingly different and tasty mule.)

The Jim Beam Black Mule, on the other hand, was a totally unexpected pleasure. While I’m normally not a big fan of base bourbon brands like Jim Beam* and Jack Daniels, the Jim Beam Black is extra aged compared to regular Jim Beam (8 years vs. 4 years) which results in a smoother taste that works very well with the sweetness of the Mule to create an intriguing and enjoyable libation.
*(I should, in the interest of full disclosure, note that my typical bourbon of choice – Maker’s Mark, is a small-batch bourbon made by Jim Beam.)

If You Love The Heat,
Order From This Kitchen

Whether you call them bar bites, appetizers or small plates, the food offerings at Happy Hour should serve two purposes. First, they soak up some of the alcohol, so it doesn’t make you too buzzed too quick (assuming you are limiting your intake and not pouring drinks down). Secondly, depending on the offerings, it can be a good (and cheaper) way to test a restaurant’s menu to see if you want to eat a regular meal there.

The Happy Hour Dry-Rubbed Boneless Chicken Wings ($1 each) at Red Heat Tavern. (Nice heat and the meat was tender!)

At Red Heat Tavern, the mesquite-marinated wings are the best example of what they mean by fire and flavor. Priced at $1 each, your wing options consist of bone-in or boneless with a choice of Dry Rubseasoned with 11 herbs and spices, Buffalo, and Sweet Thai. I selected 3 of the boneless Dry Rub wings, which came out with a nice coating of seasoning that was flavorful with a slow-building heat. The slow heat lets you savor it and enjoy it longer versus the immediate fire of a Buffalo-style sauce. The chicken wings themselves were tender and moist, from first bite to last.

Happy Hour Fried Pickles at Red Heat Tavern. (A lot fried pickles for $5, so it’s plenty for 2 people.)

For my second choice, I tried the Fried Pickles for $5 served with a sriracha aioli. As soon as they arrived, I realized that this is an option best suited for two or more people because they do not skimp on the quantity. I ate and ate, but it still looked like I hadn’t even made a dent in the number of fried pickle chips in front of me. These house-made, battered bread and butter pickles were nicely fried for a crispy texture and brought the heat both from being freshly fried and from the batter itself.

***UNIQUELY RECOMMENDED***

While I do feel like the Happy Hour menu could use some additions and some better descriptions of the offerings, Manager Taylor O’Neill said they are planning to make some enhancements now that they’re been up and running for a while. However, that discussion really didn’t factor into my evaluation. At this point, based on my experience, I feel the Friday Happy Hour service, drinks and food offerings at Red Heat Tavern worthy of my highest rating of ***UNIQUELY RECOMMENDED***!

Visit the main web site at redheattavern.com for more information, including the full menu, hours, etc. Then drop by this Friday from 3 PM – 6 PM to check out their Happy Hour for yourself and let me know what you think!

Tell them The Dark Diva sent you!

Friday Happy hour Review: Zohara Mediterranean Kitchen in West Hartford Spices Up Happy Hour With Unexpected Pleasures

October 30, 2018

This past Friday, we had the opportunity to explore another fresh adventure on our international Friday Happy Hour tour with a visit to Zohara Mediterranean Kitchen in West Hartford. According to their website, they offer “… an innovative menu drawing influence and inspiration from North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Turkey and Greece…” which was solidly evidenced during our Happy Hour experience. It is also a reminder that enjoying food and drink from other cultures is part of appreciating those cultures and the world we live in. If we can break bread together and toast each other, then we can share friendship and respect.

The Influence of Mediterranean Hospitality
Shines In The Warm Welcome And Friendly Service

With lots of windows opening toward Farmington Avenue and an uncluttered, contemporary interior design. Zohara has a surprisingly bright, open feeling that defies traditional stereotypes of what a Mediterranean restaurant should look like. On the other hand, the service exemplifies the strong emphasis on hospitality across cultures throughout the region.

Zohara hospitality — bartenders Stephanie (L) and Victoria (R) were all smiles and attentiveness.

Stephanie, who was thebartender when I arrived, was all smiles and patience as she answered my questions about the drinks and the food. One of the first questions she asked me was if I had any food allergies or issues before making any recommendations. A simple but important question, especially when the menu featured a lot of unfamiliar terms. (I’m still trying to master my native English and have just enough exposure to some of the romance languages –Spanish, French, Italian — to get myself in trouble, but beyond that I’m totally lost.)

As Happy Hour started to pick up, Stephanie was joined behind the bar by Victoria. Both were attentive, delightfully friendly and constantly smiling as if they really enjoyed what they were doing. It left me with a good feeling about Zohara and a desire to come back again. And that’s how hospitality is done right!

Surprising Cocktail Ingredients Reward The Adventurous
With Unexpected Enjoyment

While I constantly look for Happy Hour cocktails that are unique, the cocktails at Zohara featured some ingredients that gave me pause, such as carrot juice and especially beet juice. I confess that the carrot juice was an easier choice for me to accept than the beet juice. Growing up, I hated it when my mother cooked beets. I simply couldn’t stand them. However, a mixologist and reviewer must make sacrifices for her work, so I bit the proverbial bullet and was totally surprised.

The 24 Carrot was delicious surprise! Gotta love that carrot juice!

My first drink was the 24 Carrot (Vodka, Cardamom, Carrot Juice, Honey & Lemon) for $6. It was refreshingly bright with a lively tartness that was tempered perfectly by the underlying sweetness. It’s the kind of drink that can change your perspective on even a terrible Friday and lighten your mood. It is a apparently very popular with Zohara’s customers and definitely a must try!

The Root Down was quite amazing! Who knew you could make a tasty cocktail with beet juice!?

My second drink was ordered with a bit of trepidation. In fact, I postponed the decision longer than usual, but in the end said, “Let’s do it!” The drink in question was the Root Down (Bourbon, Dry Curacao, Beet Juice, Star Anise, Lemon Juice & Turmeric) also for $6. Befitting the name, there was an initial earthiness to the taste which slowly grew into a pleasing warmth. I was totally amazed at how the combination worked so well together and actually recommend it!

This is a Happy Hour where you can live adventurously and taste new worlds! Go for it!

A Satisfying Journey Into Intriguing Flavors
Awaits Those Who Ditch Wings And Really Fly

The Happy Hour menu at Zohara is quite extraordinary!

Wings have become ubiquitous at American Happy Hours. And while I do enjoy wings sometimes, I crave more interesting fare to go with my drinks. Fortunately, Zohara goes to great lengths to be different with foods that will wake up your taste buds. It’s a fresh approach to spices and textures as well as main ingredients that may be individually familiar but presented in an unexpected fashion.

My second order of Lamb Cigars! Very tasty!

As part of that unexpected fashion, I was fascinated by their Famous Moroccan Lamb Cigars on the menu. I will confess that I love lamb just about any way you can fix it, so I simply had to try a Moroccan Lamb Cigar. Essentially, it’s spiced ground lamb wrapped in phyllo dough that resembles a long cigar. It comes out crispy and is served with a cucumber yogurt dipping sauce. The lamb was simply delicious with a hint of cinnamon and its texture worked nicely with the crunch of the phyllo shell while the cucumber yogurt added a cooling freshness to the mix. The first one was so good, I had to order two more. And at only $2 each, you’ll want to order several yourself.

For my second appetizer, I opted for the Lamb Kofta for $5. Essentially a lamb kabob, it featured two pieces of grilled lamb with tomato, onion and a hot pepper plus a pita pocket to make a sandwich. Again, another wonderful mix of flavor and texture that made eating exciting … and fun. (Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that the picture I took of the Lamb Kofta didn’t turn out until after I had eaten it. Oops.)

When you’re ready to treat your taste buds to something fresh, start here!

***UNIQUELY RECOMMENDED***

I’m sure by now you have no doubt about my rating for Friday Happy Hour at Zohara. From the atmosphere and service to the drinks and food, Zohara delivers its own unique and extremely enjoyable combination of Mediterranean hospitality and flavors that you won’t find anywhere else. As a result, it has earned my highest rating of ***UNIQUELY RECOMMENDED***!

Visit their website at zohara.com for more information and then check them out for yourself this Friday and let us know what you think!

Tell them the Dark Diva sent you!

Friday Happy Hour Review: Plaza Azteca in Manchester Is The Perfect Venue To Make Your Own End Of The Week Fiesta

October 16, 2018

Traditionally, America has been a great melting pot of diverse cultures and their influences. And, from the Kosher deli to the sushi bar to the taco stand, food and drink are at the forefront of this melding to the point of being almost ubiquitous. They add variety to our lives and culture … and that includes Friday Happy Hour. Two weeks ago, I reviewed The Blue Elephant Trail in West Hartford (***UNIQUELY RECOMMENDED***), a Thai place, which offered a fresh Friday Happy Hour experience. This week, I went Mexican, for another refreshing departure, with my review of Plaza Azteca in Manchester.

*Fiesta – (Spanish for “festival” or “party”) … a celebration!

A Smiling Face Is Inviting
In Any Language

very friendly and very efficient!, Luis (my bartender at Plaza Azteca) was always smiling!

At the end of a long week, there’s nothing quite as inviting as a warm smile. It can put you in the right mood to celebrate the beginning of the weekend. Luis, my bartender at Plaza Azteca, was all smiles and made me feel welcome from the moment I sat down at the bar. Never intrusive, but always attentive, he kept a close eye out to see what I needed, was very responsive in answering question,s and made sure I got what I wanted. Luis was everything a really good bartender should be to get your fiesta started –- friendly and efficient.

Rating: Excellent (Excelente)!

Liquid Happiness That’s Easy to Understand
And Hard to Resist

Made with tequila, rum, passion fruit juice, orange juice and grenadine, the $5 Mexican Hurricane is a at least a Category 4 on the flavor scale. Just be careful not to overindulge and get blown away.

Potent and delicious, the $5 Happy Hour cocktails at Plaza Azteca in Manchester let the good times roll, Mexican style. I started with the Mexican Hurricane (tequila, rum, passionfruit juice, orange juice, grenadine), which was just sweet enough to be irresistibly tasty while also strong enough to blow away all the past week’s problems.

The $5 Small Skinny Margarita is my idea of the perfect Margarita – tequila, agave and lime juice and nothing else! (The sour mix that’s often used in Margaritas gives me instant heartburn.)

For my second drink, I went with the Small Skinny Margarita (tequila, agave, lime juice), which was the essence of what a Margarita should be in my opinion (which, since this is my blog, rules). I’ve never been fond of the Margarita or sour mix that most places use because it’s too sweet and gives me heartburn. This Margarita was simply “perfecto!”

One word of caution. Like many of the mixed drinks at most of the Happy Hours I’ve visited, these cocktails are as potent as they are delicious. *Please use caution – getting arrested for DUI or having an accident will ruin your fiesta pronto.

Rating: Excellent (Excelente)!

Feed The Need And Spice Up Your Fiesta Mood
With A Range Of Temptations

With selections at multiple price points (from $3 to $6), the Happy Hour food menu at Plaza Azteca offers a lot of variety, which really is the spice of life (especially in Mexican cuisine). I opted for the Taquitos (with chicken filling and no cheese per my request). Mildly spicy with tender chicken, the Taquitos were very tasty. Normally, I order two appetizers, but this one was satisfying filling. Definitely a good choice for your own personal fiesta!

Rating: Excellent (Excelente)!

 The Ambiance Is Comfortable
And Says “Welcome (Bienvenido)!”

Sure, the interior has the expected faux adobe and wood look that permeates the typical American version of a Mexican restaurant, but it’s done reasonably well here. The bar area is nice with dark wood and tile-look bar top that gives a cozy, inviting feel. It’s as authentic as it needs to be to create the illusion in Manchester that we’re enjoying a bit of Mexico and set the right mood for a little Friday Happy Hour celebration!

Rating: Good (Bueno)!

***UNIQUELY RECOMMENDED***

Plaza Azteca carves out its own niche in a crowded market with its well-done Mexican theme that has excellent consistency from the décor to the drinks to the food to the hospitality. Luis, the bartender, was the epitome of a gracious host with a warm smile and exceptional service. Friday Happy Hour had all the makings of my own little fiesta, so I give it my highest rating of ***UNIQUELY RECOMMENDED***!

Check out them out online for location and other information, then visit them in person and let me know what you think.

Tell them the Dark Diva sent you.

What’s on your mind? We welcome your comments and suggestions. Like the review? Agree? Disagree? Got a Friday Happy Hour you want us to review? Let us know.

Friday Happy Hour Review: Grant’s In West Hartford Reigns Supreme In This Bar Exam

October 9, 2018

The Best Bars Know There’s No Lifetime Appointment,
You Have To Make Your Case Every Day

Bartenders Harris (L) and Jackie (R) set an extremely high standard for service!

Really good bars know that success depends on never resting on your reputation. Instead, it has to be earned every day. Apparently, Billy Grant and his managers at Grant’s Restaurant & Bar in West Hartford understand this, starting with the most important keys to their success – the bartenders. As I often repeated in my reviews, your bartenders can make or break a Happy Hour (and the bar). Fortunately, I have consistently encountered good bartenders since starting my reviews. However, Jackie and Harris (my bartenders at Grant’s) took it to an even higher level. And, to be honest, it was all little things done right, which added up to a big impression.

They both greeted as soon as I walked in and saw that I had my choice of seats (it was the very beginning of Happy Hour). It was all smiles and friendly attitude as Jackie took my initial drink and food orders. When I asked Jackie if they put parmesan cheese on their Truffle Fries, she said they did, and I reacted negatively (cheese and I do not get along), so she immediately offered that make it without the parmesan. So, I ordered them that way. (Admittedly, that’s a small thing, but the fact that she said they could leave the parmesan off before I could ask was an astute, very customer-oriented approach which I truly appreciated.)

Later, when Harris was the bartender taking care of me, I asked whether they fried their Calamari lightly or very crispy. Without hesitation, he answered that they could fix them however I wanted. Again, it was answering my real question before I could ask it. I ordered them lightly fried and that’s how they came out.

As a result, I got exactly what I wanted, and I left with a very high opinion of Grant’s that can only come from experience.

Verdict: I give Grant’s a winning judgement for service based on the bartending evidence!

In The Case of Happy Hour Cocktails:
Liberal Selection Rules

As a mixologist, I expect a good Friday Happy Hour to feature a decent selection of interesting cocktails or at least a really good deal on well drinks. Again, Grant’s appears to understand this well with one of the best Happy Hour cocktail selections I’ve encountered to date. It’s telling that there were a number of them I wanted to come back just to try. Sadly, it will be a while since I have so many bars to review and so little time (as well as only one liver).

Grant’s Flirtini

For my first drink, I chose the Grant’s Flirtini (made with Absolut Raspberry, Lime & Cranberry Juice & Prosecco). Quite intriguing, it was an excellent mix of sweet and tart without being overpowering in either direction.

The Lady Pink was an interesting and very refreshing Happy Hour libation!

Needing to sample as many different drink options as possible (yet still drive home safely), I opted for the Lady Pink as my second and final cocktail.  The strawberry basil combination piqued my interest since I tried (and enjoyed) something remotely similar during my visit to Waypoint Spirits craft distillery back in July. This proved to be a different animal (strawberry infused Beefeaters Pink Gin, muddled basil, fresh lemon juice, club soda) that was still very refreshing and a nice departure from the usual cocktail.

Verdict: The case for superior drink selection and quality is supported by evidence that’s very easy to swallow.

In The Case of Happy Hour Food Selection:
Good Taste Prevails

While I have enjoyed some excellent food options at the various Happy Hours I’ve reviewed, Grant’s took it to a new level with everything I love – Oysters, Truffle Fries and lightly fried Calamari. I normally never order more than two food options at Happy Hour, but there were just too many irresistible options on Grant’s menu

I started with three perfectly large and tasty Oysters to go with a huge serving of to-die-for Truffle Fries (no parmesan). I swear that I could have made those my dinner. However, I also have a weakness for good Calamari (which is lightly fried). And Grant’s conspired to assure extra weight gain by making them all exactly as ordered and totally delicious.

Verdict: I submit my empty Calamari plate as reviewer’s exhibit one in a unanimous judgement in Grant’s favor!

In Judging Atmosphere,
Grant’s Hammers Home Its Case Impressively

From the outside, Grant’s patio creates a welcoming vibe, especially in transitional seasons like fall and spring. Inside, the huge bar with the hammered metal top offers a mix of classic elegance and comfortable casualness which appeals to a wide variety of folks. As I said earlier, it was very empty when I arrived, but filled up nicely before I left. I gathered there were a number of regulars (based on interaction with the bartenders) who dropped in, but never got any impression that they were more important than I was.

Grant’s bills itself as a long-time hot spot in downtown West Hartford and I find it hard to argue against that statement,

Verdict: I rule that this is  a really good atmosphere for Friday Happy Hour!

***UNIQUELY RECOMMENDED***

It is the non-partisan judgement of this  reviewer that Grant’s Restaurant & Bar shall be awarded ***UNIQUELY RECOMMENDED*** status as meeting or exceeding all criteria for being an extraordinary Friday Happy Hour destination!

Check them out online here, then visit them and judge for yourself.

Tell them the Dark Diva sent you!

As always, we welcome your comments and suggestions.