Soft Times in Hardware City

Soft Times in Hardware City

The lettering on the bright yellow jerseys of New Britain’s baseball team, the New Britain Bees, doesn’t say “New Britain” or even “Bees.” It reads “Hardware City,” the nickname of this inland industrial town that’s been the home of the Stanley Works hardware manufacturing firm, now Stanley Black & Decker, since 1843. In fact, the city has been home to several large manufacturers over the last century-plus. Today it retains its industrial vibe even as it beckons daytrippers with good food, world-class art and family fun.

My family started our day in New Britain with lunch at Riley’s, housed in an old print shop that owner Deb Dalena says became a showroom for Hudson cars. Funky wall frames made from segments of the former showroom’s garage door complement the industrial bling of punched tin ceiling panels and hanging metal lanterns. The food at Riley’s, which began as a street cart and opened on location four years ago, is hearty and bold, with an emphasis on hot dogs ($3.60-$6.95) and 1/3-pound beef burgers ($5-$8.95), doused in Riley’s meat sauce or a variety of other condiments. One of the specialties is Mac & Cheese ($4), which you can order as a side. But Riley’s also offers it as a dog or burger topping. Our lunch was totally satisfying, though the crispy Cajun Fries ($3.75) were the biggest hit.

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Riley’s serves Avery’s soda, which we learned is another local business. At Dalena’s suggestion, we revised our plans and headed over to Avery’s Beverages, where we found a small crew operating out of a little roadside barn-turned-factory. Equipment clattered and bottles clinked as we watched the conveyor belt run fresh bottles through syrup and carbonated water stations to a capping machine. At Riley’s, we’d tried Avery’s black raspberry, lemon lime and cream varieties, but here we picked up a six-pack ($5) of Totally Gross Soda—tasty mashups of the traditional flavors given delightfully disgusting names like Fungal Fruit, Kitty Piddle and Worm Ooze. If harder stuff is more to your liking, you can check out the brand new Five Churches Brewing, also recommended by Dalena, which was closed during our visit but garners good reviews on Yelp.

The owner of Avery’s also had a suggestion for our next stop: the New Britain Industrial Museum. It, too, was closed when we arrived, but its website promises the visitor a look at “items representing more than 200 years of New Britain innovation and invention… from 19th-century hooks & eyes to 21st-century ERA Cobra Cars.”

Instead, we headed up the street to another museum: the New Britain Museum of American Art. Its collection of more than 8,000 works boasts “particular strengths in colonial portraiture, the Hudson River School, American Impressionism and the Ashcan School.” The first painting you’ll see as you enter the Hudson River gallery is Frederic Edwin Church’s West Rock, New Haven (1849). And don’t miss the Thomas Hart Benton 1932 mural series The Arts of Life in America, a stylized, colorful, nearly life-sized take on life in 1930s America. The Museum of American Art is worth a day trip all by itself, so if you want to have time to wander and ponder, keep the rest of your itinerary simple.

At the museum’s front desk, an employee suggested we walk across the street to Walnut Hill Park. In fact, everyone we talked to suggested the park, which is obviously a point of pride for New Britainers—especially that day, when Walnut’s hilltop rose garden was in full and glorious bloom. Hurry and you might catch it. Designed in 1870 by Olmsted, Vaux & Co.—as in Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame—Walnut Hill is dominated by a 90-foot Art Deco tower raised in honor of those who served and died in World War I.

If you’re looking instead for the kind of park where the kids can toss a ball, climb the monkey bars or land ollies and kickflips, head north to Stanley Quarter Park, just across the street from Central Connecticut State University. Stargazers will want to plan their trip for a first or third Saturday, when the university offers free planetarium shows and telescopes pointed at the night sky.

While industry has played a big role in New Britain’s history, so has immigration. Businesses around town advertise food and goods from Latin America, Austria, Italy, Russia and more. But perhaps the most influential group of immigrants arrived from Poland in the late 19th century. Pass railroad tracks and highway to enter the Little Poland neighborhood and its Roly Poly Bakery, which offers shelf after shelf of layered cakes and pastries—as well as everything from greeting cards to laundry detergent, all labeled in Polish.

Less than a mile up the road, we sat down for an evening snack (we were still pretty full from Riley’s) at Staropolska—“Old Poland”—Restaurant. Here, we shared two plates: one of Mushroom/Sauerkraut Pierogi ($10.95), crispy on the outside (though you can order yours boiled), stuffed full inside and topped with sautéed onions; and one of crispy Cheese Blintzes ($10.95) with delicious sweet cheese filling, powdered sugar on top and sides of applesauce and sour cream. Boasting a wide array of specialties, Staropolska is just one of several Polish restaurants in New Britain, including Yelp recommendation Cracovia.

Bellies fuller, we headed south to New Britain Stadium, where the Bees were taking on the Maryland Blue Crabs. This may not be the best baseball you’ll ever see—the teams are part of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, not affiliated with Major League Baseball—but you can’t beat $11 seats right next to the field. The Tuesday evening crowd was relaxed, the opposing team tossed several balls up to kids in the stands and we caught a sky of bright popcorn clouds that turned flamingo pink as the sun set.

It was a fitting end to a winning day, and not just because the Bees trounced the Crabs 10-1.

New Britain, Connecticut
past Berlin, before Farmington (map)

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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