The Place 2 Be is located at 50 Memorial Rd. in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square.
By Ronni Newton
It may sound trendy, or the attempt to be cliché with a word way too contemporary to fall into that category, but “bougie” really is the best description of West Hartford’s newest restaurant – The Place 2 Be – which serves breakfast, brunch, and lunch foods that are delicious and lavishly presented yet approachably affordable, complemented by over-the-top cocktails with a “bottomless” theme and names that skirt the edge of appropriateness.
One could say that being “luxurious in lifestyle yet humble in character,” which is the slang definition of “bougie” (also spelled “boujee”) is oxymoronic, but nearly everything about The Place 2 Be itself is a successful melding of contrasts.
At all three locations of The Place 2 Be, you can have two eggs with a choice of home fries or fruit and toast for just $5. You can also “go bottomless” (the restaurant’s tagline) with unlimited mimosas ($20), or indulge in one of the larger-than-life signature cocktails with names like “Big Ass Mimosa,” the “Booty Call,” or “Drink My Bathwater.”
The playful, Instagrammable atmosphere belies the seriousness of the business and the acumen of owner Gina Luari, who before turning 30 has launched her third restaurant with the West Hartford location, has another Place 2 Be planned for New Haven, and is already looking toward some other concepts in the pipeline.
Luari has vision, drive, smarts – and creativity. She’s also grown up in the restaurant industry.
“My parents owned a restaurant,” she said, the Town Line Diner in Rocky Hill. She learned the business from the ground up, waiting tables as soon as she was old enough. She loved that it was a “gathering spot” for the community.
After graduating from Central Connecticut State University with a degree in business and economics, Luari was living in downtown Hartford and working as executive director of the Rocky Hill Chamber of Commerce. The South End of Hartford was in need of a breakfast place like her parents’ diner. “Hartford didn’t have that,” she said.
“I would take Franklin Avenue, and I saw a place that was closed,” Luari said. After some digging, she found the owner, and in 2016 opened the first The Place 2 Be at 615 Franklin Ave.
The intent was to create a breakfast- and lunch-focused space to attract young professionals and Millennials to the South End of Hartford. “It’s just kind of grown from there.”
In the middle of the pandemic, she opened the second location at 5 Constitution Plaza in Hartford.
The name, the bottom, and the bathtub
Luari learned that the closed restaurant in the space she took over on Franklin Avenue had been called “The Place To Be.”
“It was really destiny at that point in time,” she said.
Luari said she originally didn’t have a name in mind, but what they were trying to create was “the place to be” in Hartford, so they ended up just changing the “to” to a “2,” and “The Place 2 Be” was born.
“Single or want to go bottomless?” That’s what servers would ask when mimosas were ordered at the Franklin Avenue restaurant.
“We put it on shirts. It became a joke – and that’s how the butts came into play,” Luari said. The butt theme is extended to some of the drink vessels, and to the designs painted on the restroom walls.
The whimsical “Drink My Bathwater” cocktail includes rosé, white sangria, and champagne, topped with strawberries and blueberries and decorated with cotton candy and gummy bears. It’s available in multiple flavors, is meant for sharing, and is served in a bathtub – which led to the bathtub as The Place 2 Be’s logo. “It was just one of my crazy ideas,” Luari said.
The bathtub works with the theme, she said. “You go bottomless in a tub.”
Bottomless mimosas are available seven days a week, whenever the restaurants are open, which in West Hartford will be 7 a.m.-8 p.m. In addition to mimosas, The Place 2 Be also offers bottomless sangria and Bellinis.
“Breakfast for dinner is more popular than people think,” said Luari. She thinks it’s perfect for any time of the day.
The Place 2 Be also offers plenty of lunch items in West Hartford, where the menu is more extensive than at the other locations.
“Every space we add something different,” said Luari. “Brunch is more an experience than the meal. The experience along with the food, it goes hand-in-hand.”
While Franklin Avenue is very low-key and “basic,” and the Constitution Plaza location, which replaced the former Spectra Wired Cafe, is more of a “booze garden,” the “bougie” West Hartford location is intended to be a place where you can take your mother-in-law to brunch, as well as hang out with friends and take lots of photos while seated in the cool lucite swing chairs looking out on Memorial or Raymond Road, or while catching a breeze at one of the 80 outdoor seats.
Chicken and waffles – called “The Morning Rooster” – is the best seller. Perched atop a giant Belgian waffle he chicken is honey-battered, Southern-fried, and Luari said some grandmas have been known to say it’s better than theirs.
There are a wide variety of egg dishes, pancakes, waffles, French toast, and ample sides to choose from for a la carte custom creation of your desired meal.
More adventurous breakfast or brunch diners can try Avocado Toast (available topped with crabmeat), and steak and eggs with pesto.
Later in the morning, through closing, there are also salads, sandwiches (including wraps and paninis), and burgers.
A chicken sandwich on a black (really) charcoal brioche bun that she found at Fire Bakery in Rhode Island, is called “The Birds.”
While Luari doesn’t do the cooking, she does come up with the ideas.
“I’m more of the concept person, but I source. I do the plating, the presentation,” Luari said. “I don’t know how to flip the pancake but I know how to build it.”
Few dishes are more than $13, and most sides – other than the Rib Eye steak ($10.95) – are in the $3.99-$4.99 range.
The atmosphere and the drinks
The atmosphere is a party, and we want to make everything fun,” said bartender Christopher Daugherty, who was hired for the West Hartford location but worked in Hartford until it opened.
There are oversized drinks that come with multiple straws for sharing – and with names that may make grandma blush.
The “Big Ass Mimosa” includes two whole bottles of champagne, plus lemonade or juice, and is garnished with fruit.
See above for the description of “Drink My Bathwater.”
The ubiquitous rubber duck (which takes the bathtub theme to another level) bobs happily in most of the drinks.
“The ‘Booty Call,’ that’s our cheekiest drink,” Daugherty said. It includes six full ounces of tequila, lemonade, strawberry puree, blue raspberry syrup, fresh strawberries and blueberries, and club soda. The vessel it’s served in looks like … let’s call it a scantily-clad bum.
“We like people to laugh when we set the drinks in front of them because it’s comical,” Daugherty said.
The mini rubber duckies are ubiquitous, but there are mojitos, rosé, bubbly, and sangria on tap, regular size mimosas and Belllinis (with sparkling rosé as a base) available in a variety of flavors (as well as non-alcoholic beverages) as well, served in standard sized glasses.
Many of the drinks are sweet, but Daugherty has created one of his own that’s a more serious cocktail. The “Deluxe Paloma” includes tequila, fresh grapefruit juice, lemonade, fresh lime, and hibiscus syrup.
Want a shot? “‘Nip it in the Butt,’ that’s how we serve shots here,” Daugherty said, presenting a small bottle ensconced in a bathtub.
The color scheme features golden-yellow, which matches the bottles of Veuve Cliquot that line the walls – a storage method that adds to the décor. Accents are black and white, and the swinging egg-shaped lucite seats that offer a view of the sidewalk will likely be coveted spots.
“Drink My Bathwater” appears in neon above a bathtub in the front corner – a space made for Instagram pics.
And even with a slight reduction in the amount of interior greenery (see “opening” section below), the eye is immediately drawn to a large tree in the center of the restaurant. There’s plenty of additional lushness, and succulents grace every table.
General Manager Taki Tanaka said there will be a champagne cart to wheel around among the outdoor seats, and a bubble machine is coming, too.
Luari wants to do more than just feed people.
She’s looking to promote the areas where she’s located her restaurants, and she’s looking to provide a positive environment for her employees.
The Franklin Avenue location brings people to the South End of Hartford who may not have been there before, and Constitution Plaza has also attracted people from all over the region.
“They’re giving an opportunity for people who wouldn’t ordinarily travel to see what’s there. It’s amazing to see people come from all over,” she said. And Blue Back Square will only build on that because West Hartford is already a dining destination.
The Place 2 Be doesn’t take reservations, and wait times can be very long (as in several hours) – although you can call to put your name on a wait list that day and receive a text when your table is ready. While waiting for a table in West Hartford, there’s plenty to do and see.
The prices are “very accessible,” Luari said. They haven’t changed since the first location opened, and prices are the same at all three spaces.
“We’re still open in the South End. Nothing is over the $20 range. We try to stay true to why we opened in south Hartford,” she said.
There will be about 25 employees in West Hartford, and hiring has been a bit difficult.
Tanaka said he’s “hiring rapidly,” but hopes to further increase the size of the team.
Luari knows what it’s like to be a server, and she knows the dynamic between front-of-house and back-of-house employees can lead to animosity. The Place 2 Be does things differently.
“We pay minimum wage plus tip pool,” she said, which for wait staff is roughly double what other restaurants pay.
Servers don’t take the orders either; that’s done by the diners directly from the online menu at their table, and the tip is paid when the food is ordered, and 100% of that tip goes to the team which includes the dishwashers and food runners. “Everybody gets tipped out,” she said.
“We just really want to take our industry back,” Luari said. “We’re focused on great service. That really changes the dynamic. It’s really a different culture.”
This is a really old industry, and she’s hoping to do things differently, and thinks the industry is ready to pivot to a team mentality. “We really train people on the hospitality, not taking orders. Then they have time to pay attention.”
While West Hartford is “bougie,” Luari said, it’s the same base, just a different feel.
“There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t realize. When we train, it’s everything we talk about,” Luari said.
The official opening date is Monday, June 14, and it’s been a process getting to that point.
When it was getting close to the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions she decided to wait rather than adding plexiglass barriers or spreading out tables only to change things shortly thereafter.
Then, some of the original décor like the moss had to be changed out when West Hartford’s fire marshal determined – and confirmed through testing – that unbeknownst to Luari it was highly flammable.
“Flammable interior finishes and decorations have been a significant causative factor in almost every multiple death fire that has occurred in public assemblies such as the Ghost Ship Fire in 2016, the Station Night Club in 2003, and the Beverly Hills Supper Club in 1977, to name the most recent,” said West Hartford Fire Marshal Mike Sinsigalli. “The codes require that these finishes and decorations be tested to national standards and that flammable properties of the materials be documented on test reports that are provided to the code official for their approval.”
He confirmed that The Place 2 Be was granted a Certificate of Occupancy after removing the “decorative vegetation elements” on two walls.
Luari said she ordered 50 cases of champagne to fill the empty space on one of the walls, and decorations that meet fire codes are order.
Despite the delay, Luari said the “Town of West Hartford was incredible,” and she’s very appreciative of the expanded outdoor dining space which in total can seat 80.
The Place 2 Be is located at 50 Memorial Rd. in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square, and is open daily from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. as of July 14, 2021. For more information visit the website, call 860-216-9175, or follow on Facebook or Instagram (@place2bect).
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