By Steve Alcazari
2:10 PM EST, December 11, 2012
The Tavern at the Armory
70 Main St., Middletown, (860) 854-6300, inatmiddletown.com
Middletown's Main Street remains an ideal walkable trail of treats and surprises for restaurant goers. Start at the North End and you've got O'Rourke's, the justly beloved diner where you can get lamb sausage or fresh cod or inventive omelets, with the menu changing daily. Across the street there's Eli Cannon's Tap Room, with one of the area's best selections of great beer on tap and in bottles, and an inspired sense of visual splash as well. Tacking back and forth across the street — one of New England's widest Main Streets — and you'll find Tibetan food, boutique cupcakes, vegan fare, a variety of Tex-Mex and straight-up authentic Mexican tacos, Vietnamese pho, Italian fine dining, sushi, bold pan-Asian fusion, Jamaican, Thai and more. It's an impressive little strip, just over a half a mile long. But don't lose steam before you complete the walk because at the southern end of the street, across from the South Green, because there's a charming little place to grab cozy tavern fare at that end, at the fittingly named Tavern at the Armory.
The Tavern, tucked inside the Inn at Middletown, establishes the old New England feel admirably, with a big gas-log fireplace blazing at one end of the comfortably small main dining room. There's a hint of old-library chic. The wood paneling and the slightly low ceilings add to the 18th-Century vibe — people were shorter back then!
In fact, the architectural pedigree of the place doesn't extend quite so far back. The Inn is housed in the restored 1810 home of the president of Middletown National Bank, which was turned into the National Guard Armory in 1910. Cementing the walk-down-memory-lane element of the decor, there are old black-and-white pictures of Middletown's Colonial-era houses, old churches and impressive images of mammoth snow banks choking the sidewalks on Main Street.
Thankfully the menu and the cooking are not necessarily anchored to recreating the kind of grub the Founders might have chowed on back in olden times. There's Peroni and several other choice beers on tap, for instance, something our Puritan forebears might have wrinkled their frost-bitten noses at. The menu is quartered up into sensible sections: comfort, nosh, greens and main. We were given bread and a ramekin of sweet and smoky dip made from pureed roasted red peppers and beans, to nibble on while looking over the selection.
The menu features oven-roasted tomato bisque, New England clam chowder, pub-grub favorites like nachos, sliders, chicken wings, calamari, potato skins and onion rings, as well as slightly more fancy offerings like a sampling of skewered chorizo and other sausages (they call them "brochettes," which ups the fanciness). We tried the chilled tuna Napoleon ($12.95), which was a neat tower of white and black sesame-seed encrusted ahi, stacked on alternating layers of tortilla-like circular crisps, all balanced atop a tangle of vibrant seaweed, which retained a pleasing crunch and sweetness.
An heaping order of sauteed PEI mussels ($9.95) was served in slightly spicy marinara sauce that gave off strong aromatic whiffs of basil. Spicy crab and corn fritters ($8.95) had a golden brown exterior that gave way to a pliant center. Those who like their crab fritters to be more crab than fritter will be pleased. Spicy chili remoulade added hot and tangy accents to the sweetness of the corn.
The Tavern at the Armory is the kind of place where you can nibble on starters, like we did, or go deeper for the more substantial main dishes, which include braised short ribs ($22), lobster mac and cheese ($23), a pork rib chop ($21) or a few Italian pasta dishes.
Some restaurants housed inside hotels and inns suffer from seeming only for out-of-town guests, but the Tavern at the Armory has easy access from the street, and the balance of comfort food and more adventurous dishes seems to have helped fill the dining room with locals and visitors alike.
A night that started with dinner at the Tavern and ended with a stroll down Main Street for a beer at Eli Cannon's sounds to me like a fine and festive way to enjoy a 21st-century winter in New England. John Adams would have been jealous.
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