For years the restaurant pickings in downtown Middletown have been pretty slim. The main choices were a Mexican spot that attracted a lot of attention because it was one of only a handful in the state, and a basement bistro serving soup and sandwiches.
Now there is Caulkins -- right in the middle of town, in a building that housed the Caulkins family car dealership for more than 70 years. But the mood of this restaurant is strictly the 1980s, with decor incorporating lots of glass and hanging plants.
The menu is pretty up-to-date, too, with its emphasis on such low-calorie offerings as veal, seafood and poultry. And although its performance is still a little uneven, Caulkins serves some delightful dishes and has the potential to attract customers from a much wider area than Middletown itself.
Seafood entries have been particularly good. Poached salmon with tomato-basil-sauce ($11.50) was a perfect September dish, offering all the intensity and sweetness of ripe tomatoes. The sauce was full of big, dark-red chunks and it retained the texture of the original ingredients. The sauce was so strongly flavored that it might not have been the right thing to put on a delicate fish such as salmon, but the dish was quite good, and Caulkins gets a big A for it.
Seafood fettuccine ($5.95 small, $9.95 large) was a Goliath-size offering, even in its smaller version. The pasta was swathed in a suave concoction based on cream of eggs. There was no overdose of strong, salty parmesan cheese -- a common problem in other restaurants -- to overwhelm its delicacy. Scallops and tiny shrimp were nestled throughout, but I didn't see any of the salmon or caviar described on the menu, nor were we offered the choice of spinach or egg pasta that was mentioned.
Service is ingratiatingly friendly and willing. With ingredients such as these to start with, Caulkins has the ability to be a real star. It's most of the way there already.
Caulkins was reviewed again in November of 1984, this time by Jane and Michael Stern. Their review was brutal. Here are the first three, and last two paragraphs:
Middletown has one of the Northeast's great Main Streets: modern stores mixed among timeworn shops, old New England with a dash of college accent. It is a wide slice of Americana, unique and yet in some wonderful way -- as the town name implies -- average. As on every Main Street in every average American town, there was once a thriving automobile dealership here, opened in 1905.Ouch.
And as has happened on so many Main Street, the dealership went kaput. In its place arose Caulkins, which calls itself "An American Bar and Restaurant." Indeed, it is the generic American bar and restaurant, like you find on Main Streets across the land: a packaged, prefab fern bar, a soulless clone designed to mimic the type of gathering place where chic people eat.
But you have seen it all too many times before, long-ago devolved from modishness to what is now a familiar designer look: raw brick, etched glass, exposed heating ducts and overhead beams. The carpet is mauve and gray, reminiscent of an expensive Chevrolet. Potted flora are everywhere.
If this were a no-account burg in the western badlands, you'd expect a Caulkins. What the hell, there are no good restaurants out there because there are no major eating-out traditions to draw from. For rubes who don't know better, such execrable food might be enough of a facsimile of gourmet chow to pass.
But in this food-savvy part of the country, we aren't so gullible. There are many worthy places to eat, plain and fancy, bargains and splurges. Middletown may not be the culinary capital of America, or even of Connecticut, but neither is it Wyoming.
The Caulkins building now houses Luce Restaurant. The building was built in 1905, as a car dealership, hosting Town and Country Lincoln-Mercury until they moved to Newfield Street (just before the Caulkins restaurant opened). The building was purchased in about 1983, and with $44,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds the owners renovated four one-bedroom apartments, according to the May 22, 1984 Courant, "The year-long renovation of the former Caulkins Building at 98 Washington St., a centerpiece in the redevelopment of the city's North End, ended Monday with a celebration."
In an interesting side note, the parking lot between the building and Washington Street was the subject of a 1954 lawsuit by the Caulkins Co. against the City. The lawsuit successfully blocked the City's Parking Authority from taking this land to develop Middletown's first off-street parking area (the city's first parking lot ended up being built in December of 1954 at the corner of Broad and Washington).