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    Monday, July 22, 2024

    Dutch treat: Longtime owners pass the torch at New London’s cherished bar

    Dutch Tavern owner Peter Detmold, left, talks to customers Jim Spottswood, right, of New London, and his wife, Edie, soon after he reopened Wednesday, May 19, 2021, in New London after being closed since early in the pandemic. (Dana Jensen/The Day file photo)
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    Martha Conn and Peter Detmold behind the bar of their Dutch Tavern on Wednesday, June 15, 2024. (Rick Koster/The Day)
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    Incoming Dutch Tavern owners Victoria and Timothy Mueller at their New London home Thursday, June 16, 2024. (Rick Koster/The Day)
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    Peter Detmold, a lifelong San Francisco Giants buff with a fan’s acuity for quickly tabulating batting averages, encountered a different kind of calculation Wednesday afternoon. He was seated at the bar in the Dutch Tavern, the iconic New London spot he owns with his wife, Martha Conn.

    Detmold was whimsically asked: In his duties as proprietor/bartender/cook at the Dutch, could he guesstimate how many of his renowned hamburgers he’s grilled over the 26 years they’ve had the bar?

    The arithmetic wasn’t particularly complex. But, trying to arrive at an accurate per-diem burger average, multiplied against a varying and seasonal six-day/seven-day work week differential, was confusing — particularly when a customer came in, mid-conversation, and ordered MORE burgers.

    But while these computations could have been part of any typical conversation at the Dutch, there was a wistful tone.

    That’s because Conn and Detmold have decided to sell the Dutch, and Saturday will be the last day under their stewardship. The building ― the bar and the upstairs apartment ― are being bought by another New London couple, Timothy and Victoria Mueller.

    “I’ve been working here 26 years,” said Detmold, who turns 70 in November. He smiled. “I’m kinda tired. Martha and I work all the time, and we’re ready to take it easy. It’s been a lot of fun ― absolutely it was. I loved this place. I love our customers and the regulars. There’s something special about the Dutch. It was here before we had it, and I like to think we’ve maintained that. We DID maintain it. And now it’s time to let it go.”

    “You know when it’s time. You just know,” said Conn, who turned 70 earlier this year. “We’ve known for a while, but it’s a process that you have to work through on a lot of levels. And while it’s a hard job and a lot of work, it’s just fun. We were thrilled to be able to take it over in 1998, and it was an honor and privilege and a sacred trust, and I think we were able to do it.”

    Conn and Detmold bought the Dutch in 1998 from Peter Burgess (read about it here and here), who’d purchased the bar in 1976 from Edward R. Rothen and Louis “Wicky” Grabner. The original owner, Mauritz “Dutch” Nauta, opened his eponymous tavern in 1933 and ran it until it was taken over by Rother and Grabner.

    Detmold has tended bar and cooked his simple but masterful menu throughout. Conn, who retired from Pfizer four years ago, handled the books behind the scenes but was a regular presence behind the bar, as well. Both agree it was an equal division of labor that played to their individual strengths.

    And now the Muellers will take the reins.

    New kids in town

    Victoria Mueller is lawyer and partner at Mueller Greene in New London, and Timothy Mueller is a longtime chef who’s been working the last seven years in the kitchen at Tao at Mohegan Sun. Both are 41, and they have two sons, 10-year-old Fritz and 7-year-old Haydn.

    “I had my first legal beer in the Dutch with my father the day I turned 21,” Timothy Mueller said, “It was a place he’d gone to with his friends, and he was excited to take me there. And I understood immediately why. You feel at home and you know that as soon as you walk in the door.”

    “We started dating in high school,” Victoria Mueller said, “and Tim was the person that introduced me to the Dutch. My first reaction was visceral. We had my law school graduation party in the Dutch, and Martha and Peter were so nice. They closed the bar and took care of everything.

    “For years, we’d joke around with Peter and Martha about wanting to buy the Dutch when they were ready.” She grinned. “But I wasn’t joking.”

    Detmold said, “I think Victoria in particular has had the Dutch in mind for a long time. For maybe 15 years, she’d say, ‘If you’re ever going to sell this place, let me know first,’” Detmold said. “I think Tim and Victoria are a good fit. I have great hopes for their success and hope they’ll maintain what makes it special.”

    Details of the sale have not been released.

    The Muellers said they hope to have a soft opening in a few weeks and gradually work up to full-throttle. They’ve already had meetings with some of the employees, and more are planned for next week.

    Tim Mueller said, “Our goal is to keep everyone that wants to be here. It’s a good group. Our mission is to maintain the history, integrity and feel of the bar because it’s an institution. There will be some small changes — we’ll feature a lot of local breweries on the draft line, but we’ll still have Miller on tap and Schaefer cans. And the menu will be mostly the same, simple, great food with fresh ingredients.” He smiled. “You might be able to get bacon or a fried egg on your burger if you want. We’ll see.”

    That Dutchy vibe

    The Green Street bar, with its affordable beer and wine and a simple menu of sandwiches and soups, is home turf for a wide range of New Londoners and regional folks. They include teachers and professors, blue collar workers, politicians, city employees, service industry folks and denizens from the city’s bubbling arts scene — possibly drawn by Detmold’s status as founding guitarist/vocalist in the city’s defunct but legendary rock band The Reducers.

    There is a tangible magic to the place, which has been visited over the years by everyone from Nobel literature laureate (and hometowner) Eugene O’Neill to visiting rock and country artists to actors like Joaquin Phoenix — who quietly drank beers one summer afternoon while waiting on a train.

    The narrow room has a red, pressed tin ceiling, stained wooden walls, a long bar down the left side as you enter, and twin rows of four-top tables on the right. The walls are decorated with an intriguing combination of period New London photography, vintage tin beer trays and Giants and baseball memorabilia.

    And, suspended from one corner of the pressed tin ceiling, is a TV ― small by the standards of our big-screen world but powerfully magnetic in its ability to draw viewers to the Dutch for broadcasts of the Super Bowl, soccer matches, Major League Baseball playoffs and “Jeopardy.”

    It’s also not an exaggeration to suggest that Detmold’s status as a Reducer ― particularly when the band was active ― was a huge draw. For a long time, the dream job of many young New London men would be to either own the Dutch or play for the Reducers.

    “Yeah, I’ve done both,” Detmold laughed. “When I was in the Reducers, I found comfort in coming here. I’m a bar person. It was relaxing and peaceful and I spent a lot of time here because of this bar’s qualities. When we were traveling, I’d explore bars in different cities, trying to find one that was close to the Dutch. There aren’t many.”

    Memories, reflections, dreams

    As rumors ― and then the official word ― spread that Detmold and Conn were selling the bar, regulars expressed shock, well-wishes and concern as to the future of the bar. They were also eager to share anecdotes and stories.

    Dan Pearson, a former Day reporter who wrote a pair of lengthy histories of the bar (read them here, here and here) for the newspaper, said, “Peter and Martha understood the quiet dignity of the Dutch. Also, I was in the Dutch the night the Red Sox won the (2004) World Series. I cannot think of a better venue for one of the greatest nights of my life.”

    Michael Dibble, a retired Bridgeport firefighter who lives in North Stonington and frequently makes the trek to the tavern, spoke of the bar’s distinctive vibe. He said, “The fire service has a saying characterizing itself as ‘150 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.’ While maybe that wasn’t exactly Peter and Martha’s business model, it might describe the spirit of the Dutch.”

    Dibble then ticked off a litany of events and occasions that necessitated his presence ― along with many other regulars ― at the Dutch: the bar’s extremely liquid annual bus trips to Yankees or Mets games; watching Super Bowls and horse racing; “libations” before and after Reducers gigs; waiting for tourists to clear out of New London after the Sailfest fireworks show; and “the anticipation of watching someone who didn’t know the (Dutch) ‘rules’ attempt to engage Peter in an unwanted conversation or, better still, suggest how to do things differently.”

    New London’s Bill Hanrahan, a senior editor at Lawrence + Memorial hospital, is also a longtime regular who was introduced to the bar while he was a young reporter at The Day in the 1980s. He said, “I figure the universe must revolve around the place because, while everything else changes, the Dutch has stayed the same decade after decade. We owe Peter and Martha for giving us such a comforting and welcoming environment ― a place where so many friends and acquaintances have shared laughs, beers, classic moments in sports … and of course the best burgers on the planet.”

    Some “regulars” maintain that status from far away. Lisa Shabel, a philosophy professor at Ohio State, lived in New London and was introduced to the Tavern in 1987. Even though she’s been out of the city for 30 years, she visits annually.

    “The Dutch has given me a family of friends whom I will have the rest of my life,” Shabel said. “Every time I’m back I feel welcomed by the unique community of people who work and hang out there.”

    Dawn and Tom Trombley are New London residents with special ties to the bar. Tom Trombley was the drummer in the Reducers, and customers are still pleased they see him and Detmold share a table over a few beers.

    “There really hasn’t been anywhere else we’d rather go after all these years,” Dawn Trombley said. (The familiarity of the room, the staff and the clientele made it our go-to. My favorite memories are when the Reducers walked into the bar after their annual Labor Day weekend gigs at Ocean Beach.“

    “There have been no better stewards for the Dutch than Peter and Martha,” Tom Trombley said. “Now comes their well-deserved retirement. For us, though, it’s like when your favorite pair of shoes is worn out and you’re forced to replace them.”

    In front and behind the bar

    Many Dutch regulars have also served as proud employees of the bar. Brian Gore, a current night bartender and popular local musician who’s worked at the Dutch for seven years, said he first experienced the place by accident.

    “I got into town and the Dutch was the first place I went,” Gore said. “I thought it was amazing. I had a Schaefer and a burger for five bucks, and just hung out awhile and observed. It was a regulars’ bar, but everyone talked to me and made me feel at home.”

    In 2017, after Gore had moved here and started hanging out at the Tavern, Detmold asked him if he’d like a job. “I was thrilled and surprised to be part of it. It meant a lot to me to be asked. It’s more than just a job, and that’s how I think about it.”

    Ellie Corey, Hanrahan’s wife, has been a waitress at the Dutch for 22 years. “I remember my first day like it was yesterday,” she said, “ because, when I walked in, I went BEHIND the bar instead of in front of it. What a thrill! And we were off! I love serving lunch to the good people of New London; I know what everyone eats and drinks, and the Tavern attracts such a cross section of our city. This has been the birthplace of so many of my closest friendships.”

    Pondering the not-too-distant future, Detmold said, “I’m going to sleep a lot. Martha and I will maybe travel more. She has a sister in New Zealand and I have a brother in Chicago. We’d love to go visit them. That’s the kind of thing we could never consider before this. And we’re already booked to go to London in September.”

    Conn said, “Right now, I’ve just got a lot of emotion. Excitement, sadness ... And gratitude and joy for how lucky we’ve been to work in a bar full of lifelong friends.”

    r.koster@theday.com

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