F rom bread to beef to beer, Wheelers Restaurant & Taproom in Woodbridge, located just a few feet past the New Haven border at 180 Amity Road, emphasizes local, organic and sustainable. Run by experienced yet fresh-faced brothers Mike and Rob LaTronica (pictured left and right, respectively), the establishment got going in September 2012 as a casual sandwich shop. With a UPS Store on one side, a dry cleaner on the other and an (albeit well-hidden) Allstate Insurance office above, that was an understandable way to begin.
Since then, the space has evolved by leaps and bounds, into a sophisticated and dynamic atmosphere that’s a welcome and welcoming surprise. Past an informal outdoor patio—currently slated for renovation to increase the size, add more umbrella-ed tables and create a garden-like ambiance—the front door opens into an area that’s more living room than restaurant lounge. Plush black sofas beckon visitors to sink in with a midday cup of coffee and a good book or an after-dinner glass of wine and dessert. Contiguous booth-style seating, dark blue and cushion-clad, is built into stretches of the walls. A large fireplace to one side is a special attraction in winter.
Through a quadruple-wide open doorway is an ample dining room—the restaurant proper. Modern lamps below an industrial-chic ceiling illuminate generously spaced-out tables, offering a feeling of privacy despite the room’s openness and size. Weekend brunchers here feast on such offerings as a decadent Apple Pie Stuffed French Toast ($9), crusted with crunchy cornflakes and brown sugar and pulling vanilla custard into the mix. Another choice is Smoked Salmon Benedict ($13), a hearty portion of poached eggs and house-smoked salmon filet perched on Yorkshire pudding, with a dazzling drizzle of Hollandaise sauce. The Chicken and Waffles ($13.50), featuring a toasty cheddar cheese waffle and boneless buttermilk fried chicken topped with house-made sausage gravy, is a clear upgrade over the usual version.
Branching off from the right side of the dining room, through a curved archway, is an intimate bar room polished to a shine. Against the wall, behind a glossy wooden bar, an outsized mix of glittering spirits rests on two columns of sturdy wooden shelves separated by exposed brick. A distinguished silvery stamped-tin ceiling completes the picture. Straight past the bar, at the very back of the space, is a casual takeout counter, offering sandwiches and wraps (gluten-free bread available), build-your-own salads and convenient sweets like cookies, brownies and ice cream.
Since April of this year, the brothers have built self-hosted events into their business. While the lunch trade had always been good, they were eager to diversify and bring in business at other times. Hence the weekend brunch, a Sunday night barbecue and live music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, which gets going in the main dining room towards the end of typical dinner hours. Tonight at about 8:45, All Good performs funk-jazz fusion; tomorrow night, The Dini Band showcases acoustic, rock, folk and blues. On Thursdays, the Andy Schoenfeld Trio jams in a sort of jazzy open mic night format.
Among their various duties, Rob controls the menu and Mike is in charge of the entertainment. So far there is no cover charge to hear the bands that play here, which is a boon to local musicians looking to reach as many new potential fans as possible.
The food approach at Wheelers also supports the local community, utilizing the produce of nearby and regional growers (which also helps guarantee freshness). The brothers are currently in talks with Darling Farm, located less than two miles away on Litchfield Turnpike—you can’t get much fresher than that—for greens, herbs and assorted salad fixings. They already have working relationships with Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge, Clover Nook Farm in Bethany and Urban Oaks Farm in New Britain.
These and other farms supply a spate of offerings that doesn’t stop at the brunch items mentioned earlier. Farha, the brothers’ great cook hailing from Africa, prepares the Falafel Wrap ($8.25), filled with bread and butter pickles (made in-house), lettuce, tomato and cucumber and dressed with tahini. There’s a Crawfish Mac & Cheese ($9.50) sporting wild crawfish tails and a pasta dish called simply “The Pasta” ($16.75). Of that dish, garganelli is the star, with a supporting cast of nettles, tomatoes, “young onion” and seasonal vegetables, prepared in a sauce of white wine and garlic.
Veterans of the hospitality industry, Rob and Mike strive to “let the season pick the food, to dictate how and what we cook.” That doesn’t mean they don’t listen to their customers. For example, last winter, they say, they took tomatoes off the menu because, to them, the orbs they could get their hands on weren’t fine enough. (It’s hard to get good heirloom tomatoes in January.) Patrons “rioted” in response, so the brothers redoubled their efforts and found an acceptable option, ushering in the return of that particular fruit of the vine.
Wisely, they know that food isn’t everything. Between the post-dinner possibilities at the bar and lounge and in the main room when live entertainment is going, “You get this feeling like you’re in the home of a friend, where the end of the meal isn’t necessarily the end of your night,” Mike says.
In a restaurant with a patio, living room, dining room, bar room, walk-up kitchen counter and two brothers running around, “home” seems a strong metaphor indeed.
Wheelers Restaurant & Taproom
180 Amity Road, Woodbridge (map)
Mon-Thurs 10:30am-10pm, Fri-Sat 10:30am-midnight, Sun 10:30am-9pm
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photo #1 by Dan Mims. Photos #2-4 by Marc Keslow.