Northern West

Northern West

At the intersection of two interstates, with its skyscrapers and gold-domed capitol, Hartford gets most of the day-to-day attention. But veer off I-91 onto Route 9, then head north on 84 for a bit, and you’ll find yourself in the Town of West Hartford, a suburb with half the population, three times the median income and a reputation for being one of Connecticut’s best places to live.

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West Hartford gained its independence from Hartford back in 1854, when delegates from what was then Hartford’s West Division delivered a petition to the Connecticut General Assembly—their third such effort since 1792. This time, the assembly happened to be meeting in New Haven, at the time a co-capital of the state with Hartford. “Most likely taking advantage of the distance from Hartford,” the delegates made their case, according to the West Hartford Historical Society, and won their 62-year fight for autonomy.

Today, West Hartford has an identity all its own. A vibrant town of about 61,000, it boasts a walkable town center of shops and restaurants, a library, a Congregational church, a small park with a war memorial and a mixed-use shopping area and luxury apartment complex known as Blue Back Square. Wide avenues lined with stately old homes underscore the town’s exclusive reputation, but my friend Vivian and I found it plenty welcoming.

We began our day trip in the center of things at Sally and Bob’s Eatery, a homey diner serving rib-sticking breakfasts and lunches. Owners Helen Brower and Cesar Contreras bought the restaurant three years ago from the real Sally and Bob’s daughter and son-in-law, keeping alive a business that has flourished in West Hartford since the early 1970s. We started our morning meal with generous mugs of coffee ($1.95 with free refills), then ordered Challah French Toast ($5.75) and an Omelette with cheddar cheese, vegetables and bacon that came with rye toast and a side of home fries ($10.20). The French toast was soft and rich, with a touch of cinnamon and nutmeg, and the omelette was packed with veggies. Our server brought us two small sides of homemade salsa, and Vivian was especially taken with the spicy-sweet green variety, which she poured over her portion of the omelette. The atmosphere at Sally and Bob’s is hometown-relaxed, and we could have happily lingered at our little table in the front window. But we had a day full of plans ahead.

Our next stop was the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center just up Farmington Avenue (and, in fact, over the Hartford line). The home of the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin—reportedly the best-selling novel of the 19th century, which helped spur the nation to confront the issue of slavery—stands right around the corner from the grander mansion of Mark Twain. Like Hartford in relation to its western sister, Twain tends to draw more attention his way. But I hadn’t visited Stowe’s house in about a dozen years, and I was interested in the Stowe Center’s tour, which was redesigned in 2018. The website’s promise of an interactive experience that would “connect the past to the present” was borne out by our walk through the house with guide Colleen Thomas. Her impressive presentation focused more on the novel—what compelled Stowe to write it, the research she used, the book’s original serial publication, its errors and omissions, its checkered legacy—than on the minutiae of Stowe’s life and possessions, as is often the case in historic house tours. “We hope we cast a light on ourselves and that it engenders reflection about how we are responding to social crises in our own time,” says Briann Greenfield, the Stowe Center’s executive director.

The house itself has received a $2 million-plus update that includes fresh reproductions of original carpeting and wallpaper, structural repairs, modernized gallery spaces and a classroom for visiting school groups. (Starting this year, the center will begin work to improve accessibility for guests with disabilities.) But the house’s furniture and appurtenances are still authentic; about 85% of them belonged to Stowe. If you want to focus on history, you could visit not only the Twain and Stowe houses (each offers discounts to the other) but also the childhood home of American dictionary writer Noah Webster, which doubles as the home of the historical society. However, it was turning into a beautiful, sunny day, and we were ready to walk off our big breakfast.

We took a quick swing through Elizabeth Park, where the bowers of its big rose garden were wrapped with evergreens to protect the vines through the winter and lavender was still thriving in an outdoor herb garden. Then we headed out to the West Hartford Reservoirs. Here, two sets of trail systems offer up more than 30 miles of trails for hikers, runners and cyclists. The main entrance road takes you past the town’s water treatment facility to an ample parking area. A map and clear trail signage make it easy to find your way. We opted for a walk on the two-mile Yellow Loop, a crushed gravel trail that climbed up to a ridge offering a view of two of the area’s reservoirs, skimmed with ice. In the gentle light of a winter afternoon, the trail was peaceful and easy. When we reached the lower, paved road, we found we were in the company of many other walkers, runners and cyclists who were out to enjoy the afternoon, too.

The sun was tipping toward the horizon, and we knew we should get out of town before sunset and rush hour. But we had one more important stop to make: A.C. Petersen Farms. Contrary to its name, A.C. Petersen is actually a restaurant and dairy bar, the offshoot of a dairy farm and milk delivery business that began in 1914. The last of 13 locations that existed in the business’s heyday, this A.C. Petersen was built in 1934. Our server told us the old-timers come in and say it’s changed, but the early era still peeks through in the Art Deco details, booths and swivel stools. We sat at the counter and indulged in our personal vices: a black raspberry ice cream and hot fudge Mini Dipper sundae ($5.99, with whipped cream and a cherry, of course) for Vivian and a Coffee Milkshake ($6.99, “Voted ‘Best in State of Connecticut’”) for me. Our guilty pleasures were rich and flavorful, and I couldn’t believe how much extra milkshake was left for me in the frosty metal tumbler that came with my full glass.

Traffic on 91 South was heavy but moving as we drove through a gold sunset toward home. Our bellies and our brains were full, but we already had some ideas about where we might go the next time we take a detour to Hartford’s sister to the west.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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