Despite its location literally steps from the University of Connecticut, the owners of new Storrs restaurant Dog Lane Café say they're not necessarily trying to attract students. The rest of the town has that covered.
"[We] did a study…and at the time, Mansfield had 25 restaurants. Twenty-three of them catered to college students," said managing partner Steve Smith. "If you live in Mansfield, you either eat at a sub place, pizza place or Chinese restaurant. There really isn't any other place to eat."
In 2005, restaurateur Barry Jessurun – who, with his brother, Brian, is a business partner in Pomfret's Vanilla Bean Café and Putnam's 85 Main – heard about the fledgling Storrs Center development project. Seeing the potential for the mixed-use space at the edge of campus, Barry joined the Mansfield Downtown Partnership and paid close attention to the plans.
It paid off. In 2008, Jessurun was one of the first to sign a letter of intent to become part of Storrs Center, negotiating for the anchor location at One Dog Lane.
"When I put the business plan together, I found that no [local restaurant] was catering to the adult population," Jessurun said.
The organization "wanted a Vanilla Bean downtown," he said. So, the brothers borrowed from the Pomfret restaurant's casual yet beloved menu of breakfast items, sandwiches, salads, burgers and soups; added some unique offerings like artisan grilled cheese and smoothies; and presented Dog Lane Café to the public on Dec. 28. The airy, sunlit space attracted area residents immediately.
'They saw a need and tried to fill it," Smith says of the Jessuruns. "People come in and they're overwhelmingly thanking us for being here."
"We're after parents, people going to Jorgensen [Center for the Performing Arts,] going to plays, sporting events," Barry said. "We're after faculty, and all the people who live and work in the area, all those who didn't really have a choice [before.]"
Dog Lane, described as a "European/American café," is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The morning hours start with omelets, egg sandwiches, pancakes and breakfast burritos. Lunch, the busiest service, features a vast selection of sandwiches, paninis, wraps and grilled burgers and hot dogs.
The café offers nine housemade soups ($4 to $6.50) daily, including three chilis, a variety of gumbo, New England clam chowder and chicken with rice. Dog Lane inherited the Vanilla Bean's "award-winning" chili recipe, made with beef, beans and a little Andouille sausage. (The recipe is included in a cookbook, "Killer Chili: Savory Recipes from North America's Favorite Chili Restaurants.")
Among the sandwich favorites and best-sellers ($10 to $12.50) are the Italian panino (ham, salami, provolone, roasted red peppers, lettuce, tomato and garlic olive oil on ciabatta); the smoked salmon BLT with applewood-smoked bacon and herbed cream cheese on toasted wheat; organic turkey with sundried-tomato mustard and the pan-seared crab cake on a bulkie roll with house remoulade and lemon.
The creative "vegetable Reuben" is one of Smith's favorites, he said, with assorted veggies, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on rye. For traditionalists, there's a more classic Reuben, with lean pastrami.
Artisan grilled cheeses – with fillings like apple, caramelized onions, bleu cheese, andouille sausage, pepper jack and chipotle fried cheddar with chopped pickles – are meant to complement Dog Lane's large array of soups, Smith said. They're priced at $7.50 and $8.
Grilled sandwiches and quarter-pound hot dogs ($8 to $12.50) are popular, with marinated chicken breast, an organic turkey burger, a housemade black bean burger and a grass-fed local beef burger, with meat from Devon Point Farm in Woodstock.
"I always tell people to take the first bite without any condiments," Smith says of the local burger. "No ketchup, no mustard, just taste the meat. Then you'll know what a real burger tastes like."
Executive chef Paige Breton and the kitchen staff have also begun to cook up nightly dinner specials, with recent dishes like Cabernet-braised short ribs, steak au poivre, sesame garlic glazed salmon and gourmet macaroni and cheese. Desserts vary daily, with frequent gluten-free options. The restaurant also features beer (bottled) and wine.
Dog Lane joins other restaurant tenants in Storrs Center, such as MOOYAH Burger, Moe's Southwest Grill, Insomnia Cookies and FroyoWorld. Around the corner, Geno Auriemma's Geno's Grille is set to open later this winter.
It was the sight of the budding town center that swayed Smith's decision to join the partnership, he said. He'd worked as a manager for restaurateur Jon Kodama at Mystic's Steak Loft and Old Saybrook's Dock & Dine for several years, and planned to turn down the Jessuruns' offer. But he saw the potential of the development, after seeing a similar plan succeed in Tallahassee, near his alma mater Florida State University.
"I was going to say no, but then I came up and looked around," Smith said. "And I said, 'This is great. How can you say no to this?'
"College towns, they grow and grow out, [and] to be part of it, it's huge. It's very unique. No matter what competition comes around here, we're in a great position."