by RONA MANN

In medieval times, it was a place to come for home-brewed ale and beer and perhaps to bed down on the floor of the adjacent barn. It was called an “alehouse.”

Originally purpose-built to accommodate weary travelers needing a bit of respite from their journey, next came the “inn,” followed quickly thereafter by the “tavern,” which offered wine. Since wine came at a higher price than beer or ale, taverns catered more to a wealthier demographic.

Whether alehouse, inn, or tavern, when they hung out their shingle, people flocked to these places not just for rest and sustenance, but for the sense of community they provided. Here tradesmen could congregate with farmers, the hardworking laborer bending his elbow in the company of wealthier patrons.

In mid-18th century the term “public house” surfaced; and although the moniker is more widely found in the pubs that dot most corners of the United Kingdom, it is still synonymous with a place where townspeople congregate to enjoy a pint, a glass of wine, spirits, and something warm and satisfying to accompany it. Even more, it encourages and fosters the sense of community – of sharing drink, food, and conversation with others. It represents a kind of safe house where both the blue collar worker and the white collar executive can belly up to the bar, share conversation, and cheer or jeer the televised game, all while sharing a plate with friends and neighbors.

Left to right: Mgr., Matt Baker; Executive Chef, Justin Garcia; Managing Partner, Kaitlin Baker; Sous Chef, Evan Kennedy

That’s the spirit and essence of a true public house and exactly what Kaitlin Baker-Hewes and her father-in-law, experienced restaurateur, John Hewes set out to do when they opened The Public House in Old Lyme two years ago. Already enjoying their other wildly successful collaboration, The Mystic Boathouse – a popular community meeting place – the partners had been looking around for another property. When they came upon vacant space in the Old Lyme Marketplace that previously housed a small restaurant and bookstore, they felt it was the perfect size; and they knew precisely what they would do with it.

After ten long months of careful renovation, The Public House opened its doors, and folks have been congregating ever since. “The community just welcomed us with open arms,” Kaitlin offered, “and they continue to come. It’s such a happy place.”

The Hewes managing partners have a small dining room that comfortably seats 30, with another small room, ideal for 12 people. In keeping with the décor, it has a large wooden picnic-style table, some benches, a few chairs, and a wide variety of board games for those who like to play. The walls are festooned with old black and white photos illustrating the beer making process. What a perfect spot to reserve for girls night out, an intimate birthday celebration, or just a bunch of guys hanging out.

The centerpiece of any public house is the bar area, and Old Lyme’s Public House has done it and done it right. The bar, commandeered by Matt Baker, General Manager and head bartender, is a series of custom crafted wood built-ins which showcases an enormous variety of spirits, bitters, and beers. “We have about 60 beers by the bottle and another 12 or so on tap at any one time,” Kaitlin says. “And our beers are always changing. This St. Patrick’s Day in addition to our large selection of Irish whiskeys, we’ll have a number of Irish beers on tap, but not the typical. Of course we’ll have Guinness…we always have that.”

A big part of any good public house is satisfying food, and here The Public House shines. “Our chef, Justin Garcia, is a Johnson and Wales graduate and serves as Executive Chef at both The Public House and The Mystic Boathouse. Along with sous chef, Evan Kennedy, they bring creative and unique touches to all their dishes.” Just a glance at the menu confirms Kaitlin’s comments. Yes, they have nibbles, but offerings like housemade cool ranch chips, spicy chickpeas, and bacon cheddar biscuits are not the usual pub fare. A variety of small plates which Baker-Hewes suggests should be ordered by those in a group and shared, include calamari with lentil dredge, pepitas and pesto, gorgonzola fries with truffle oil, and a beer cheese dip accompanied by pickled jalapenos and tomatillos. “You’ll see people eating off each other’s plates, sampling everything we have.”

There are salads, soups, burgers, sandwiches, tacos with inventive twists, and always daily specials. When you see offerings such as bay scallop fritters and fried shrimp with corn tortilla dredge and Thai chili sauce, you’ll know why they deserve the title of “Specials.”

For the heartier appetite, The Public House pleases with everything from Grandma’s Chicken, to Apple BBQ Pork Tenderloin, to Bouillabaisse, and more. “We change our menu every two to four months,” Baker-Hewes says, “but certain popular items never change because our customers love them.” Chief among them is the very popular Steak Board…a sliced 10 oz. hanger steak with housecut fries, sides of beer cheese, chimichurri, and a variety of housemade sauces.

Like most public houses, there is something going on every day. Kaitlin highlights the daily Happy Hour, every Monday through Friday where every appetizer is 50% off and there are always drink specials. “Monday we have trivia, Tuesdays it’s half off all bottles and glasses of wine, Wednesday is Teacher Night with Happy Hour all night long, and Thursdays are Music and Martinis Days with live music and $5. martinis from 6-9PM.”

The Public House in Old Lyme is authentic. The dining room boasts all reclaimed wood that came from a barn in Maine. The Baker-Hewes family created their own design to capture the feel of that old-fashioned meetinghouse. Whiskey glass candles adorn the tables…and no matter what kind of a day you’ve had, The Public House will welcome you in. It’s the heartbeat of this town where friends and neighbors and strangers all come together for good food, good spirits, and a good time.

Alehouse, inn, tavern…no matter what they called it back then, now the place that provides a warm welcome for all is called The Public House.

The Public House is tucked away in the Old Lyme Marketplace at 90 Halls Road. www.thepublichousect.com (860) 390-6181

 

 

 

 

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