by RONA MANN

Michael and Merrily Connery are runners. Serious runners.

Taut bodies boast rock hard abs and seemingly endless energy and vitality, testament to their dedication of pounding the pavement regularly and in all kinds of weather. The  couple has been running for decades; and between the two of them have logged five New York Marathons, so we’re not talking occasional jogging.

It was during a run a couple of years ago that they encountered their newest venture in the form of a run down shell of a building. “It had been a gas station for some 60 years,” Merrily began. “At one time it was Gulf, then BP, Exxon, finally Citgo. The pumps were finally removed in the Fall of 2012,” and the shabby looking building was shuttered permanently. Then one day Michael and Merrily, running their regular route through downtown Mystic, stopped for a moment; and instead of seeing an empty old building, they saw in their mind’s eye people kicking back on a Sunday morning, chatting over coffee, enjoying homemade pastries, catching up on the Sunday papers. And they also envisioned a wine bar accompanied by small plates of creative appetizers, sandwiches, charcuterie, and inventive farm to table concoctions. It was during that run that the Connerys woke up and smelled the coffee, planting the seed that nearly two years later flowered into M/Bar, now the very pulse of Mystic.

The Connerys are no strangers to what Michael terms, “adaptive reuse,” the process of reusing an old site for a purpose other than that for which it was originally intended. They had already done so successfully in 2001 when they purchased a 108 acre parcel of land in Stonington surrounded by coastal marshes with a WWII airplane hangar on property. Although they knew absolutely nothing about vineyards except enjoying the end-product, the Connerys threw themselves into furious research and ultimately did open Saltwater Farm Vineyard, now a destination attracting both tourists and locals with their unique and high quality wines, ongoing events, and weekly entertainment. And then there’s that WWII hangar. Even the adaptive reuse of that space was born of serendipity when friends of the Connerys asked if they could be married there. It wasn’t long before other couples were asking the same, and now Merrily books weddings at Saltwater Farm Vineyard year ‘round, currently taking bookings into 2019.

M/Bar is a happy mixture of the Connerys’ experiences at coffee bars and wine bars both on the West Coast and in Manhattan, where they also maintain a residence. Merrily has been a prominent and successful real estate broker for years; Michael now devotes all his time to both vineyard and M/Bar, still Merrily refers to him as a “recovering attorney” – a nod to his past career.

When the Connerys first acquired the old service station, they decided early on that they would maintain the integrity of the building, giving a subtle nod to the industrial shabby chic of the place, but they wouldn’t get “cute” with a gas station themed cafe or menu. “We wanted the building to speak for itself,” Michael said. “We didn’t want hokey or phony, but a more sophisticated atmosphere.”

And they’ve done it…beautifully. Giving tremendous credit to local contractors and designers, Bryan Wills and Kierstan Field, along with architect, Chris Vernott, M/Bar is two spacious and well lit rooms, seating about 68 people. Although very much a wine bar with a veritable wall of wine – not just the grapes of Saltwater Farm, but many other domestic and imported selections – there is also a well stocked bar offering both spirits and craft beer. “Creative cocktails are a specialty,” Merrily adds, also noting that Happy Hour is a daily occurrence from 4-6PM and Wednesdays all bottles of wine are sold at half price.

Breakfast is an event at M/Bar, celebrated seven days a week. Whether it’s homemade bagels, scones, or quiche created right on the premises by Carla Gennuso, a West Coast import who apprenticed under a French pastry chef, or perhaps a small, but delicious plate of egg sliders accompanied by a Bloody Mary or espresso, it begs the diner to unplug for a bit and unwind. Indeed that’s the vibe of the entire place. The demographic is families, young couples, millenials, groups, the over 50 crowd – all of them allowing M/Bar to feed their souls as well as their bodies.

Merrily points out how lucky they were to acquire Scott Mickelson as their chef, well known in Connecticut for his insistence on procuring only local meats, produce, and dairy, using these farm to table ingredients to create the usual with an unusual twist.

Lamb sliders, “the best” macaroni and cheese, roasted tomato and leek bisque with grilled cheese (not like Mom used to make!), all are popular on the M/Bar menu. Scott often has specials,” Merrily adds, “like salmon chowder or cauliflower soup.”And more and more items are being added to please the growing number of vegetarian customers.

When the warm weather comes, Michael will hit the switch and open the hydraulic bays for patio dining, while Merrily is planning private parties. They’ve already had rehearsal dinners and christening celebrations and look forward to booking more private gatherings at M/Bar.

To the Connerys, being good hosts also means being good neighbors. “We’re big believers in the future of Mystic,” Michael says. “But we also believe it’s a collective enterprise. We’re really not in competition with each other as each restaurant here has its own character. We’re just grateful for the acceptance we’ve received and want to work together to make Mystic a true destination.”

M/Bar is perfectly situated right in the very heart of Mystic, so whether you’re coming from the Seaport, Mystic Village, or downtown shopping, just look for people of all ages sipping wine, laughing and talking over coffee and espresso, and enjoying small plates. You’ll easily find it whether you drive, walk over from church or shopping; or, like the Connerys, merely find it along your run.

M/Bar is at 30 Broadway Avenue in downtown Mystic. (860)245-4499 www.mbarct.com

Breakfast served seven days; Lunch & Dinner, Wednesday-Sunday

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