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It was getting late, and some of us were getting a little dejected. We had stared up at countless odds flashing on TV screens, picking numbers and cheering on random horses racing in places like Turfway Park, wherever that was. We clutched our betting slips, only to tear them into pieces minutes later, in a satisfying display of frustration.
The restaurant and off-track betting facility Winners at Copperwood Grill was not living up to its name.
And then, finally, in a race at Delta Downs, a $2 bet paid off: a friend who had picked two horses to come in first and second - Magic Tyler and My Twister - won $82. And, with a round of drinks, it was a win for all of us.
New London's Copperwood Grill, which was opened by Bill Cornish in November, gained some attention for becoming one of just 15 OTB facilities in the state, requiring city council and legislative approval. But despite some initial controversy, the restaurant - now known for its mural of racing seahorses along Eugene O'Neill Drive - has quietly become part of the downtown landscape.
What makes it unique, though, is that while the excitement of watching the races can be part of the atmosphere, for non-gamblers, it doesn't have to be.
Yes, there are almost too many TVs simulcasting races to count, along with a window off to the side where customers can place bets, but there's also a huge copper-topped bar that can seat 40 in the center of the room with an extensive selection, in addition to tables for dining. The place seems a bit too big for the size of the crowd, but the copper and woodwork give it an upscale feel that's a far cry from what you might have imagined in OTB parlors of old.
On a recent Friday night, we were the only ones sitting in the main dining area, but our waitress still managed to be attentive even from her post behind the bar. The menu is mostly bar-style food, which is what the restaurant does best. We had better luck with appetizers and lunch, which can be ordered any time of day, than the entrees.
Fried macaroni and cheese ($6.95) seems like some over-the-top state fair food, but Copperwood Grill's creation was more like a mozzarella stick, breaded and fried, but with a delightfully cheesier inside. It comes with marinara sauce, but the fried triangles are better enjoyed without it, as the sauce overpowers the cheese flavor.
The seafood cakes ($9.95) are a nice alternative to crab cakes, with shrimp and clams along with the crab, to make a denser patty that's not too overloaded with breadcrumbs. It's pan-seared and served with red pepper roumelade and greens.
The slider sampler ($7.95) was a mix of small burgers and chicken. The burgers were nicely cooked so they were still pink inside but were a tad bland, and the chicken ones were dry.
Cuban sandwiches are always a favorite of mine since it's the only time I eat pickles on a sandwich, and Copperwood's ($10.70) was a highlight of the meal. The layers of pork and ham were nicely held together with melted cheese, mustard, mayo and the pickles inside a grilled roll. The sweet potato fries were also well done.
The fish part of the fish and chips ($10.95) was gigantic, and breaded thickly, served with tartar sauce and cole slaw and nicely crispy French fries, while the Southern fried chicken dinner ($9.95), which we ordered with a buttery twice-baked potato and collard greens, featured somewhat dry chicken.
Whether you're looking for a place to place bets or you just enjoy a brand-new bar, it's nice to know you can sit down and have some good meal options in downtown New London. And maybe the excitement of the races will suck you in for some added fun, whether you win or lose.
24 Eugene O'Neill Drive, New London
Cuisine: Traditional sandwiches and wraps, burgers, salads, chicken and seafood dinners
Atmosphere: Upscale sports bar
Prices: Appetizers around $6.95, dinners $10.95
Hours: Open seven days a week, 11:30 a.m.-midnight
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Preferred for large group
Handicapped access: Yes