My wife’s reaction wasn’t unpredictable. Compared with other midsize destinations, Hartford lacks an identifying trait or quirk. It can’t match the recreational expanse of Colorado Springs, Colo., or the techno-bustle of Raleigh, N.C. Its natural riverside beauties pale beside the vistas of Chattanooga, Tenn., and the lilacs of Spokane, Wash. Hartford earns points for its cleanliness and for the general decency of its citizenry — but then, so do dozens of other burgs.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Hartford doesn’t have any reputation at all. As witnessed by recent, actual catchphrases like “Hartford: New England’s Rising Star” and “Hartford: Happening as We Speak,” the region’s sloganeers seem at a loss when it comes to branding the city. Chuck in the expected Leno-ish insurance jabs — yes, many global insurance conglomerates call Hartford home — and you’ve got a metropolis that may be suffering from an identity crisis. This is not a new circumstance. Hartford was once so starved for celebration, it lavished a parade on its beloved (and since-departed) Whalers for reaching the second round of the NHL playoffs. All together now: We’re No. 5! Or No. 6, 7 or 8, depending on how you look at it!
I don’t buy into the blandness. I’ve visited Hartford numerous times, and I have found the slate of food, accommodations and activities satisfying, if not singularly inviting. Thus I planned my Hartford trek with two missions in mind: to inhale my weight in home fries at Mo’s Midtown Restaurant and forge for myself — nay, for America! — some kind of distinguishing image for the city.
I even brainstormed some marketing slogans: “Clean, Decent and Polite, Just the Way You Like It!” or “Gas Stations Near the Side of the Interstate — and So Much More!”
Having enjoyed many fine meals in and around the city — I might well name my first child after the grilled lobster-and-cheese sandwich at West Hartford’s Restaurant Bricco — my first impulse is to brand Hartford as a foodie mecca. This has promise, gastrointestinally and otherwise. After soliciting recommendations, I reserve a Saturday-night table at Metro Bis, the area’s most esteemed restaurant-y bistro. The hostess makes a point of describing the environment as “dressy.”
Duly forewarned, I avail myself of a shirt with buttons and a jacket. Upon entry, however, I am greeted by khaki and denim in all their nefarious permutations. Verdict: Hartford’s restaurants are neither hoity nor toity. Having deemed the city unworthy of grade A epicurean status, I venture back in time, sort of. For a reputation-free region, Hartford boasts a wealth of under-the-radar history and landmarked buildings — like its 18th-century Old State House, which cable network Syfy’s Ghost Hunters recently monitored for paranormal activity. They heard “sounds.” No, really, they did.
At least the Mark Twain House & Museum makes up in smartly staged displays (the author’s correspondence and pickax) and topically/temporally extraneous dining (the Murasaki Café, an on-site restaurant serving American/Asian classic cuisine) what it lacks in benign ghouls.
So no dice on the experience-living-history-in-Hartford branding. For my final visit to the region — that’s right, we came back for more, without threat of subpoena — I was left with but one option: to attempt to establish Hartford’s quasi–New England bona fides. So I pass a weekend in one of the region’s myriad bed-and-breakfasts.
Antique armchairs! Multipostered, canopied beds! Complimentary Wi-Fi! Truly, our B&B has it all. Unfortunately, the innkeeper and her staff intimidate us with their aggressively accommodating ’tude. We dare not venture into the fireplace-warmed den for breakfast, lest we spend the meal fighting off home-brewed coffee refills. Sometimes, niceness can be a curse.
Ultimately, Hartford defies easy categorization; it’s neither chic urban oasis nor charming hamlet. Or perhaps I happened upon an easier, lower-key reality. The food was great. The people welcoming. At no point did a salesperson accost me and ask whether my insurance needs were being met.
So how’s this: “Hartford: A Pretty Darn OK Place to Pass a Few Days.” It may not be the most readily blurbable of commendations, and it’s nothing that the town’s cheerleaders would think to plaster on a T-shirt or bumper sticker. But it’ll do.