I t’s become a bit of an urban myth that The Winchester, a young gastropub in Woodbridge, was named after the infamous watering hole in Shaun of the Dead—a place presumed safe from zombies, where the antique rifle over the bar might still come in handy. I could certainly see it as a setting for a British comedy/horror flick, but Chef Conley Taylor says it isn’t so. The name was actually adopted when he and cohorts Ralph Ferrucci and Ben Zemke were bombing around town, shopping for real estate. “We crossed over Winchester Avenue and liked the way that sounded,” he recalls, well aware of New Haven’s historic relationship with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Once the three amigos signed the lease on a space near the Amity Shopping Center, they took The Winchester as a working name. “Then we started loving it—it inspired the concept.”
The idea was to take the former Scoreboard sports bar, strip it nearly to the walls, and create a lively scene with events, music both live and spun, and what Conley calls “progressive comfort food.” That, plus wild kitchen creations like The Hank Williams Special, featuring jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo and Connecticut moonshine, served on a prison-style tray with a spork. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
The trio behind The Winchester first came together at New Haven’s dearly departed Blue Pearl. That hipster hideaway, known for fondue and creative cocktails, boasted Conley as head chef, Ben as G.M., and perennial mayoral candidate Ralph Ferrucci as “maintenance engineer” (translation via Conley: “Whenever anything broke, we called Ralph.”).
After the Blue Pearl closed in early 2010 due to lease problems, Conley became a private chef for such luminaries as TV newsman Brian Williams, while Ben got busy in New York City and, after intensive study, became a sommelier. “We knew we had a pretty good team and bounced ideas for several months,” recalls Conley. “We did a lot of bar research and looked downtown and in the outskirts (of New Haven) for about a year until we found the right place.”
Scoreboard closed on New Year’s Eve 2011, and within days the new owners started demolition and build-out. (They were helped by a former Scoreboard bartender who showed up for his shift, not knowing the joint was kaput. He now works at The Winchester.)
The Winchester made its debut in early March, when revelers welcomed a three-part space, beginning with a long bar flanked by a dozen-plus televisions, two projection screens running black and white movies, a riot of neon beer signs and, above the bar, a pair of reproduction Winchester rifles (not useful against zombies). Beyond that, a small, semi-private room, and finally, a proper dining room, a bit under-decorated and still smelling faintly of polyurethane, but warmed by landscape photography, and especially by the personalities of its proprietors.
The menu is simple at first glance: There are five appetizers, three salads, three sandwiches and five entrees listed, and among these are familiar pub faves like wings, quesadillas, burgers and mac and cheese. But look closer and you’ll see Chef Conley’s penchant for the down-home cookery of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, his boyhood home. “Fried green tomatoes were common in our household,” he says, and indeed, they appear with an appetizer of Wine Poached Shrimp. A stand-out salad called “Praerie Fire” features spiced pecans. There’s a Chicken Po’ Boy and a Pulled Pork sandwich, plus a fascinating dish of braised pork belly with chevre grits and a bourbon peach reduction. Not every dish we tried was totally successful—Meatloaf Cupcakes, for instance, featuring mashed potato “frosting,” were adorable but got cold so quickly that they became unappetizing after a few bites. Happily, the Statler cut chicken with herb-roasted tomatoes and the pan-seared salmon with saffron rice are two of the many dishes I’d order again.
Chef Conley’s true talents, as well as the general audacity of the management, are most vivid when it comes to kitchen specials, which are high-concept almost to the point of being performance art. To coincide with a recent Swanky Panky Wednesday, for instance, in which d.j. Eric Bruce spins a mix of oldies, soul, R & B and oddities while projecting cult films, Conley and friends are whipping up banana, peanut butter and bacon sliders, an homage to Elvis’ favorite sandwich. Last week’s Hank Williams Special was not only hilarious, with an impressive commitment to detail—Onyx moonshine! In a fruit jar! With fruit!—but also delicious, with such touches as vodka in the crawfish crust to make it crispy. Cocktails, it should be said, are equally audacious: a printed list of house specials includes the Poisoned Apple, featuring a whiskey-infused apple dropped in a high ball of Original Sin Cider.
The Winchester has a lively Facebook presence, and its website updates frequently, with much glee. Click on highlighted words and you’ll go on an eclectic and completely unpredictable cyber-trip: I recently visited links to Beaver Beer, Reservoir Socks (which I hope is a band) and a little clip of Bobby Darin mixing a cocktail. Here you’ll also learn about upcoming shows, drink specials, the extended Happy Hour (“with 33.3% more Happy!”) and soirees at the neighboring New England Brewery, which in turn heartily endorses and supports The Winchester. (They’re expecting another neighbor soon: a gun shop, just doors away. Honest.)
You don’t need special events however to have a good time, or a good meal, at the Winchester. The kitchen is open daily from noon until midnight, the bar til 1 am, everything is made fresh—right down to the mustard—and the house music, hand-picked by the management, is a treat for the ears; in fact it is the soundtrack, according to its curators, of the written-as-it-goes Winchester story.
The Winchester Restaurant and Bar
12 Selden Street, Woodbridge (map)
Mon-Sun noon-1am. Kitchen closes at midnight. Happy hour 4-7pm.
203-387-2673 | contact form
Written by Todd Lyon.