Dutch Tavern offers small but wonderfully executed lunches
One of the fortuitous things coinciding with our move to New London 20 years ago was that townies Peter Detmold and Martha Conn bought the Dutch Tavern — the small, Green Street pub known for a familial vibe that lured a loyal coterie of broadly-demographic'd citizenry as well as occasional customers like Eugene O'Neill.
If anything, under the Detmold/Conn stewardship, the Dutch has become more ingrained as a cherished landmark. My wife Eileen and I were introduced to the Tavern literally within days of moving here; colleagues here at the newspaper were daily loyalists and we fell comfortably under the spell of the place — with it's tiny, train-car dimensions; the carved wooden bar; the pressed-tin ceiling; the small, sports- or "Jeopardy"-attenuated television hanging in one corner; eight beer taps tight-roping between solid craft brews and mainstream lagers the latter guaranteeing, as Detmold firmly believes, that a working-person should always be able to get a glass of brew in a neighborhood bar for a helpful buck-twenty-five.
Here's something that I thought about recently, though: in my time here at The Day, no one has ever reviewed The Dutch in its also-popular context as a restaurant. I think this occurred to me in light of the sad demise of Monica's State Street Diner. Though not connected in any way, Monica's and the Dutch was sort of sibling operations insofar as they represented All Things Good about small town commerce in a service industry context. It sort of echoed the past and places like the Hygienic Restaurant and Ernie's Bar — depending on your own habits, circle of friends and comfort zone, the downtown New London habitué could always rely on cheap, comfortable places to eat and/or drink.
The Dutch can't replace Monica's, of course. Though there were some conceptual overlaps in the respective menus, the Dutch and Monica's weren't in significant competition and I know there was room for comfortable back and forth in terms of diners.
The Dutch menu is as small as the tavern's physical dimensions. There are 11 basic sandwiches from burgers and hot dogs to chicken salad, grilled cheese and, yes, liverwurst. The daily soup is highlighted by amazing chili on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays along with split pea an ham (Tuesday), beef barley bean (Wednesday) and clam chowder or spicy bean (Friday). For sides, you can enjoy the house-crafted potato salad or bags of chips, jerky, pickled eggs, and Beer Nuts.
The food is incredibly cheap and, though the portions are small, to hit the Dutch for lunch — no breakfast or dinner available, thanks, either in terms of menu options or the hours the grill is open — is a perfect break from the grind of routine.
Detmold behind the grill or Conn making the soups and potato aren't exercises in culinary institute chefery. But a good sandwich or bowl of chili is not to be underestimated. These are simple pleasures wrought with love and practiced expertise. Eileen and I have tried everything on the menu except the liverwurst — that's not going to happen — and I'm never disappointed. To start, the burgers and hot dogs are extraordinary. Beyond that, a few faves:
• Grilled cheese ($2.50) isn't one of those hipster, artisanal grilled efforts with chèvre or truffled camembert. This is what your Mom or Dad would have made ... when you were deserving of a reward, not when they were in a hurry. Eileen enjoys on wheat with and without tomato slices, but our friend Laura asks Detmold to slather it with grilled onions. A revelation! The pillowy mixture of warm bread and warmer cheese was cut oh so delicately with the acidic tartness of the grilled onion. Also, our friend Pete Huoppi recommends dipping the grilled cheese into a cup of Dutch chili (see below).
• While not homemade, the veggie burger ($4) is an excellent for-restaurants patty, tended lovingly on the grill. The sesame buns are thick but soft, holding in all the extras you might want to pile on.
• Grilled chicken ($4.50) is a pounded-thin breast cutlet, juicy and coated in a thin, brittle coating, and served on a fresh sesame seed bun. Ask for a little mayo and Swiss cheese on rye and you'll be very happy.
• Ditto for the cheese steak ($5). Unlike the Philly-style perhaps implied, the Dutch version relies on thinly piled, lean, cutlets. You can obviously add toppings, but Swiss or American on a soft burger bun is a basic but "Maybe I'll eat two" type of sandwich.
• On Thursdays, The Day runs our weekly "Night & Day" entertainment guide which includes weekly tips on books, music, film, food and other lifestyle choices. The first tip I ever wrote for the guide was on the excellent Dutch tuna melt ($4). Again, it's basic but it's perfect: Not too goopy, not too salty with fish — just a delightfully calculated mixture with melted cheese and grilled bread.
• The potato salad is homemade, featuring toothy chunks held together with minimal sauce and spiked with crispy bits of celery and onion, over which paprika is sprinkled before serving. There just enough mayo to hold it all together, toothsome chunks of 'tater, and a nice tart touch that lingers on the tongue.
• Chili ($5 bowl, $3.50 cup) — Maybe the best I've ever had not from my beloved Texas. Yes, there are beans, but they work in this ultra-meaty recipe with a bit of spice, a touch of cumin and maybe even a little cinnamon. Comes with oyster crackers and/or cheese and/or onions. Bravo.
It's worth noting that Detmold carefully constructs and plates all of this as ordered. He's not heating anything in a microwave, and each plate contains a crisp, tart spear of pickle. Waitress Ellie Corey knows everyone and is efficient and prescient.
The Dutch Tavern is one of the great bars in my voluminous experience with drinking establishments. But it's always worth remembering that the Dutch is also a favorite spot amongst drinkers and teetotallers when it comes to a cheap and memorable lunch.
23 Green St., New London
(860) 442-3453, dutch-tavern.com
Cuisine: diner-style sandwiches and soups
Atmosphere: classic neighborhood bar write large in New London lore
Hours: roughly 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-2 p.m. Sat.
Service: The "Cheers" people might well have got the "where everybody knows your name" concept of friendliness and attention from the Dutch
Prices: almost unbelievably cheap; $2.50-$5
Credit cards: no
Handicap access: it's a narrow room with small aisles between tables, but the front door is street level
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