Cage Match

Cage Match

Every recreational drinker I know in New Haven seems to have a history with Firehouse 12. One friend spent their faster, younger days behind the bar, another too many evenings in front of it. It’s been a place to light a match and make one too, its social footprint palpable even three-plus years after it closed for the pandemic.

It only reopened recently, now offering regular service Thursday through Saturday. I thought about investigating the reasons for the extended closure, but, like anyone who’s happy to darken its door again, I’m not too concerned about the whys and wherefores. Some good things go away never to be heard from again, like Blockbuster and Rick Moranis. Others, like Nicolas Cage, make triumphant returns.

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Invoking Saint Nic may seem an odd choice, but I see Firehouse 12 as the bar equivalent of the ’90s icon. Stay with me for this. No actor’s output better defined the aesthetic flamboyance and fun of that decade. Between the remarkable bookends of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart in 1990 and Martin Scorsese’s Bringing out the Dead in ’99, he managed to win Best Actor and become one of Hollywood’s most bankable action stars. Hollywood was all bravado and excess, and movie stars were still being made. Cage’s work in particular helped define that overexposed, spotlit decade. He was doing everything at once, and somehow it worked.

Firehouse 12 feels like that to me. Its lighting and color temperatures are like stumbling onto a movie set in Miami in 1993. Its textures are all over the place. A wall of smooth and uniform acoustic fabric sits across from one dappled with unfinished plaster and exposed stone. Brutalist concrete surrounds a plushly upholstered booth, and a wavy, wooden ceiling that suggests the recording studio upstairs gleams like the flat, waxy composite bar below it. One corner of the intimate lounge features a bold damask wall bathed in purple light, because, why not? The interior design of Firehouse 12 lacks a conventional cohesion and, like the oeuvre of Mr. Cage, that’s why it comes together. Its irrational juxtapositions are almost gleeful. There’s no atmosphere like it in New Haven.

Distracted at first trying to process it all, I ordered a subdued—thus very un-Cage-like—rosé. My much wiser drinking companions ordered a Rob Roy and the best negroni I’ve had in a long time. I promptly switched to the latter and never looked back. Hungry, we turned to their vegan menu (with many ingredients sourced locally from Common Ground’s Urban Farm) and snacked on orders of Castelvetrano Olives ($5), Pickled Shiitakes ($5) and Yuba Shawarma ($10). Thanks to that last dish, I now know there’s a name for ‘tofu skin’ and that it can be charred to a caramelized chew and marinated in griddled walnut. All three dishes were delivered graciously by impeccable service staff and accompanied our cocktails nicely, but I was especially surprised to leave the bar mulling my mushroom order. Perhaps, embracing eccentricity a la Cage and Firehouse, I’ll start pickling more of my vegetables in sherry and putting crispy garlic on them.

Firehouse 12
45 Crown St, New Haven (map)
Thurs-Sat 6pm-midnight
(203) 785-0468

Written by Chris Renton. Images 1-3 photographed by Chris Renton. Image 4, featuring the Yuba Shawarma, photographed by Dan Mims.

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