O rdinary isn’t just any old bar. It isn’t just any new bar, either.
Originally part of a mansion erected circa 1646—less than a decade after New Haven’s founding—at the corner of Chapel and College Streets downtown, the space was once home to the town’s “ordinary,” or tavern. More recently, it was a stomping ground for intellectuals, socialites and celebrities as part of the glorious Taft Hotel, which opened in 1911. In 1983, after the hotel’s closing, it reopened as Richter’s, which remained a beloved watering hole for nearly 30 years.
Even though Ordinary is new, its masterminds are well-seasoned. Jason Sobocinski (pictured at left above), the restaurateur behind popular New Haven bistro Caseus, and Mike Farber (pictured at right above), owner of the craft beer bar and eatery MiKro in Hamden, are the owners. Tom Sobocinski (Jason’s younger brother, pictured third from left) and Tim Cabral (pictured second), both Caseus alums, are the managers.
Then there’s the moose head hanging in the back room. As far as free-standing design elements go, it’s “one of three things we kept” from Richter’s: “the moose, the half-yards and the painting,” Farber says, pointing last to a framed depiction of a dapper gentleman hanging in the high-ceilinged front room. That’s where, behind the bar, you’ll find the “half-yards”—32-ounce beer-swigging vessels reserved for use during happy hours (5 to 7 p.m. daily, with a 4 p.m. start on Fridays) that look more like they belong in a laboratory than in a drinking establishment.
The past is present in this handsome space, where a menu boasting cheese, charcuterie, savory pies, desserts, craft beer and cocktails is served on the original bar top and tables, carefully restored by a master woodworker, and where classic cocktail glasses sparkle in a gentle light. Former regulars still pining for their old haunt Richter’s can take special comfort in the familiar dark wood-paneled walls.
“There’s not much that’s new in here,” says Sobocinski, noting the original furniture and fixtures. Farber adds that the foursome thinks of themselves as “stewards of the place,” like environmentalists preserving a treasured ecosystem.
It’s a role they take seriously. The Ordinary website’s deepest section is a scrupulously detailed timeline featuring photographs, illustrations and a written history compiled by local historian and author Colin Caplan. Apparently the two most towering figureheads in all of American history, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, were tavern guests on this spot, though, of course, not contemporaneously.
Now you know a little something about the history behind the place. What about the drinks? The food? Those versed in New Haven restaurant culture know that Sobocinski and Farber take this part of the business quite seriously.
“We like high quality done with low pretension,” Sobocinski says of their fare. Diners opting for smaller plates might choose cheese—all selected by the mongers at Caseus—or charcuterie plates, which are $5 for one selection, $8 for two, $12 for three and $14 for four. Those looking for a heartier option might consider the $9 meat pies baked fresh each day by Southington’s Sixpence Pie Company, which feature local ingredients. Sweets from La Palette bakery in Watertown include a blueberry tartlet and bacon peanut butter cookies.
Farber points out that he also opts for brews from Connecticut or nearby states when filling the always-rotating taps. On my visit, one featured beer was the cleverly named Weiss Trash Culture, a German-style wheat beer from Woodbridge’s New England Brewing Company.
Of course, liquor gets the special treatment too. Be sure to check out the signature cocktail list, which, appropriately, gets top billing on the menu. It shows off a healthy variety of original recipes at prices ($9-12) that feel especially fair once you’ve gotten to the bottom of your first glass. A perfectly mannered barkeep will easily recommend something; just bear in mind that the flavors tend to be bold and untempered. Ordinary’s Manhattan sure tastes like a Manhattan.
In fact, Ordinary’s devotion to crafting spirits is literally on display. The chalk-marked wooden barrels stashed around the bar (including in the photo above) hold spirits being barrel-aged in-house, so one can expect really original concoctions on a future menu.
The decidedly diverse, all-ages clientele at Ordinary seems united by a dual appreciation for useful traditions and a good, stiff drink. It’s a legacy that’s well and alive near that storied corner of Chapel and College.
990 Chapel Street, New Haven (map)
Sun-Tues 5pm-12am, Wed-Thurs 5pm-1am, Fri 4pm-2am, Sat 5pm-2am
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.