Published January 23. 2014 4:00AM
This past summer, we were looking for a place to eat dinner in New London where we could enjoy the gorgeous weather by sitting outdoors. As we walked along Bank Street, I eyed one restaurant deck after another - all pretty much empty. Not Hot Rods, where we were lucky to get a table.
Fast forward to last week, when I was meeting some colleagues for happy hour after work. Lots of small crowds in Bank Street bars until Hot Rods - where every seat was taken and they were taking names for tables.
I needed to figure out why Hot Rods seems the place to be.
Rod Cornish entered the restaurant business a few years back with a wings place farther down Bank Street. Online he touts his restaurant's wings, beer and atmosphere, so let's check them out.
There are more than 20 sauces to choose from in three categories: spicy, medium spicy and not so spicy.
When we were able to get a place to sit last week, we ordered up some wings from all three groups. The hands-down winner was Mango Habanero, a nice mix of hot and sweet. Garlic Parmesan was the least favorite.
Other options include Extra Hot Buffalo, Cajun dry rub, Thai Chili and Honey Mustard.
The wings themselves were meaty and tender - outstanding.
The wings are $5.50 for six; $10.95 for 12 and so on, although during happy hour, from 4 to 6 p.m., they're half price. Blue cheese and celery are extra, which seems a little stingy.
Having mastered the world of wings, Cornish seems to have turned his attention to improving his selection of brews. Recently he added eight draught lines, bringing his total to 24, and smartly he focused on local and regional offerings. From Connecticut, you can enjoy Two Roads Road 2 Ruin Double IPA from Stratford and Naughty Nurse and Blonde on Blonde from City Steam in Hartford. You can make your way around New England, stopping in Vermont (Long Trail Double Bag and Limbo IPA, and Magic Hat #9), Maine (Shipyard Monkey Fist and Pumpkinhead), and Massachusetts (Samuel Adams Cold Snap and Harpoon IPA).
Cornish often asks for suggestions on Facebook of what beers folks want, which sends the message that the guy who owns the place is trying hard to keep you happy. Hot Rods also has a Mug Club.
The beer list can be found on chalk boards in both the bar and dining room, and it's always a tough choice between an old standby, like Anchor Steam or Sierra Nevada, or something newish, like Abita Purple Haze or Sam Adams Cold Snap.
Others that caught my eye were Lagunitas IPA, Blue Point Toasted Lager and Founders All Day IPA. Overall, a very solid list of brews that will quench the thirst of any beer lover.
From the deck, the view of the river usually provides something interesting to look at and talk about. One afternoon we saw a submarine underway, which is always cool no matter how many times you've witnessed it. Electric Boat, across the river, all lit up is a nice nighttime visual, too.
This time of year, though, you'll be inside, where you'll find lots of regulars. Cornish is often there welcoming people, chatting with them, as if you're a guest in his home. That sets the tone in which the doorman, bartenders and wait staff are among the friendliest around.
You can grab a seat in the lively bar area or in the L-shaped dining room. In warmer weather, they throw open the front windows so you can watch the world go by on Bank Street. As with many pubs these days, there are large-screen TVs every which way you look, usually tuned to sports.
Hot Rods has excellent burgers - the Hot Rod Burger ($12.90) and Gorgonzola burger ($14.90), for example - and wraps. The crispy chicken wrap ($12.90), where you can choose from any of the wings sauces, is excellent.
On one recent visit, we were determined to move past the wings, burgers and wraps and try a few other things. So we started with warm pretzels with a cheese sauce ($3 each), which went great with a couple of pints of cold beer.
For dinner, I ordered a prime rib sandwich from the specials and my son, Colby, ordered a gyro ($10.95). What was delivered, though, was a gyro and a Reuben. Turns out, we were given an old specials menu and the waitress thought, when I said prime rib sandwich, that I was ordering a Reuben. Mistakes happen, and you can tell a lot about a place on how they handle them. No surprise, we got a lot of apologies and a free round of drinks. I quickly ordered a roast beef sandwich ($10.95), a pile of tasty meat on a nothing-special roll, that had me pining for the Reuben, which looked awesome. Colby very much enjoyed the gyro of thinly sliced beef, fresh lettuce and tomatoes and tzatziki sauce, all on a grilled pita. Since French fries come with mostly everything, Hot Rods should think of upgrading them.
So I had my answer on why a crowd is often found at Hot Rods: they know who they are (cold beer, awesome wings, burgers and wraps served with a smile) and don't try to be anything else. And that's good enough for me.