Starting this month and running all summer long, Ordinary in New Haven will operate as a pop-up version of The Greatest Show On Earth. The 100-plus year old taproom, now a cocktail bar named one of the greatest bars in the world by Conde Nast Traveler in 2015, will showcase an additional menu featuring their version of big top food, and themed cocktails. A portion of the dollars spent on every themed item will go to the reconstruction of P.T. Barnum Museum in Bridgeport. This is a story about old souls regaining new lives.
Built on land donated by former Bridgeport mayor P.T. Barnum himself, the Barnum Institute of Science and History has been a city landmark since 1893. Created as a place for education as well as entertainment, the Barnum Museum continued that work while showcasing thousands of Barnum oddities and artifacts until being hit with a trio of natural disasters. In 2010 a tornado made a direct hit on the building - crushing a wall, blowing out windows, damaging exhibits, terra cotta friezes, and knocking the building’s iconic dome askew - followed by strikes from two hurricanes in each of the two following years. This one-two-three climactic punch put the museum down and out from 2011 until restoration was completed enough for it to reopen in 2018. The recovery was as difficult as it was culturally important.
With their six year anniversary coming up, and the success of their Christmas themed Miracle pop up, Ordinary’s ownership saw an opportunity to help. Ordinary co-founder Tim Cabral, along with brothers Tom and Jason Sobocinski (Caseus Fromagerie, Black Hog Brewing Company, The Stack) not only added décor such as historical posters and photographs, wall projections and chalk art, but changed the guest experience to provide individualized service, with managers providing customers with dedicated spaces and serving staff.
As any trip to Ordinary needs to begin with a drink, I started making my way through the list of Big Top Cocktails with a Snake Oil Peddler. Served on the rocks as a poison and antidote, the cocktail is Kirk&Sweeney rum, Suze, Salers, and black walnut bitters, stirred and on the rocks, with a brilliant red tube of “antidote” made with Meletti 1870 amaro, Wild Turkey rye, and a sweet elixir with a powerful cinnamon flavor. I was told the idea was to try the cocktail and add the antidote as needed, but the rich, tannic bitters stirred into the rum base was charming enough on its own that I kept the red elixir out the drink almost entirely and tried a taste as a small shot after drinking the poison side while suffering only the expected, if pleasant, effects.
The Now You See Me is made with Peloton mezcal, Acho Reyes, tamarind/chipotle syrup, and citrus, and served neat in its own quarto, paired with a small blue pillow of freshly spun, alcohol infused cotton candy in a coupe glass. Pouring the cocktail over the cotton candy while stirring makes it disappear into the completed cocktail, the second step hinting at the implied second verse: now you don’t.
Classic circus food, like original Cracker Jacks ($3), are available, along with house candied apples, house made hot pockets, and the occasional pork shoulder taco. Ordinary’s “Dirty Water Dogs” are Hummel Bros. dogs cooked with Black Hog SWAG
wheat ale, and can be served with different mustards, pickled cabbage, spicy relish made on site, and yes: ketchup, if you have somehow convinced the doorman you are old enough to enter the bar and are not, in fact, a five year old.
What are cocktails, though, if not another version of grown up toys, and sometimes grownups do things like create the Tunnel Of Love cocktail. Served in a coupe filled with Hacienda Reposado tequila, green chartreuse, Cocchi Americano, beet shrub, and Liberation Un Holy Mole bitters, the drink arrives inside a brass and glass hurricane lamp filled with lavender smoke which spills out of the lamp and clings to the salt encrusted rim, adding itself to the aroma and flavor of the bittersweet drink. This pop up is a show, after all.
One of the evening’s favorites, and considerably less ostentatious, is the Sweet Corn Colada, made with bourbon, amaro, banana liqueur, and cold brew coffee, served over frozen banana cubes, and topped with a thick sweet corn foam. This one handily overcame my notoriously un-sweet tooth, and hit the right notes of sweet coffee, hot alcohol, and natural flavors of corn and bananas. It was delicious, and will be topped with candied corn brittle in the future.
Ordinary itself was once the tap room of the Taft Hotel (now the Taft Apartments), which dates back to 1912, and was built up from the New Haven House hotel (1851), and a succession of “ordinary” taverns and pubs which date on the site all the way back into the 1600s. Prohibition nearly killed the bar in 1920, but a speakeasy was built in the hotel’s basement to save the flow. The hotel itself fell casualty to the changing flow of humans with the highway systems of the 1950s, and by 1973 it was stone dead before being revived as apartments in 1981. The beautiful old bar – complete with molded plaster ceiling, dark and ornately carved wood both on the bar and behind it, and huge fireplace - became the popular local watering hole Richter’s in the 1980s, named for the Yale crew coach who owned it, and survived until going dark once again in 2011 before being sympathetically restored into its current face as Ordinary in 2013.
It’s fitting then, that this venerable location, important for both its architecture and place in the community, should be the wellspring that supports the ongoing mission and physical restoration of the Barnum Museum. You have your chance to check it out, now through September.
Ordinary, open at 4p.m. Mon-Sat; 990 Chapel St., New Haven; ordinarynewhaven.com
Barnum Museum, 820 Main St., Bridgeport; barnum-museum.org