Downtown Bridgeport features new sports bar and other post-COVID attractions

Nearly two years into the global coronavirus pandemic, not only is Brick and Barrell still around, but White is taking another shot downtown. He launched Bank Sports Bar opposite McLevy Green in the space once occupied by a victim of the health crisis, Four Corner Billiards.

“There’s no real sports bar downtown,” White said of why he chose that theme as his central theme.

His establishment has 22 televisions and a menu centered on “some of the most amazing grilled cheeses (sandwiches)”. He also wants it to be a family atmosphere.

“It’s a unique space. It is a bank, which has a lot of history behind it. A ceiling of 40 feet. Glass roof,” White said. “It’s not like a ‘dive’ sports bar.

When COVID-19 arrived in Connecticut in March 2020, downtown Bridgeport was in an economically fragile state – a neighborhood that had yet to find the perfect formula, making it an ever-thriving destination for residents. and foreigners who wanted to spend an afternoon or evening. and some money.

And while many office workers who kept things busy during the day are still doing a lot of work from home, the pandemic hasn’t had as devastating an impact as some feared, with restaurants in particular being able to get take-out and delivery, outdoor dining and, when they became available, federal assistance.

White’s plans are proof that there are still plenty of opportunities in the neighborhood. And he’s not the only one to be optimistic.

Recover and thrive

Kelvin Ayala in the fall of 2020 sold his Moe’s Burger Joint on East Main St., which is no longer open under new management. But the activist and economic consultant is still very active in town. He became a partner of Blvd Karaoke, which Benny Rivera launched in early 2019, then closed for more than a year due to the coronavirus.

“Myself and another partner bought the business and partnered with Benny and reopened in late July 2021,” Ayala said. “Business has been healthy. We were able to find many old fans. Lots of new people discovered the place.

Ayala believes that, despite surges in coronavirus cases that have complicated the hoped-for return to normal that vaccines offered at this time last year, he believes there is actually more nighttime activity at the center- town than before the pandemic—thanks in part to many minorities—had small businesses like his and White’s.

“We kind of have an ecosystem where Bridgeport has nightlife for those who choose to participate,” Ayala said. “You see minority business owners who understand the downtown market, and that’s why they thrive.”

And, he added, “cabin fever” helped.

“With all the offices closed, it destroyed any real downtown business during the day,” Ayala said. “That was reflected (at) Moe’s. … But what happened, it blew up the downtown market for after-hours dining and entertainment. … Everyone works from home. You’re stuck all day. At some point, if you wanted social interaction or were tired of eating at home, you would want to go out.

He said a karaoke bar is actually good business right now because customers who rent the rooms where the singing happens get together with people they know – family and friends – so the fear of ‘being in close contact with strangers is not a solution.

White noted that customers should also feel safe in his sports bar, as it’s a spacious space with tables “fairly spaced out.”

Capturing daytime crowds

Things didn’t totally die downtown during the day, at least according to Leneil Jones. Jones and his cousin, Erica McQueen, launched Queen’s Delight Cafe on John Street last March. Ayala helped with their business plan.

The restaurant offers Southern cuisine “with a twist” — specialties include red velvet waffles, chicken and shrimp French toast, and lobster grits — for breakfast, lunch, and brunch.

“By the grace of God, it’s been great,” Jones said of business.

He credited McQueen’s local reputation.

“She has a sequel. She started cooking at home a few years ago for about three years. I helped her deliver the food,” Jones recalled. “So when we opened, everyone was waiting for it.”

He said there were a lot of customers from Bridgeport, with others from New Haven, Norwalk and Stamford. And although it’s open until 7 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Jones said breakfast and brunch hours are the busiest.

“We wanted to stick with that,” he said. “Everything happens at night in the city center. There is nothing in the morning. (And) a lot of people love breakfast.

Meanwhile, on State Street, Vinnie Brand and his wife, Vicki, will be celebrating the fourth anniversary of their Stress Factory comedy club, which opened in mid-2018, in a few months. And while that operation has weathered the pandemic, the restaurant they planned to open next door in early 2020 never really took off and is being prepared for a relaunch.

The Brands, a few months before the global health crisis, took over the closed Haus brasserie to reopen it as Gather, an American place of comfort food.

“In February (2020), we went in and ordered all the new furniture, started redoing the menus,” Brand recalled this week. “Our furniture was delivered on March 18.”

This was around the time when stay-at-home orders were issued to the public to try to stop the spread of COVID-19 and when people in general were fearful of the unknowns surrounding the virus and its transmission.

“When the driver pulled over, he cracked his window a bit and said, ‘If you want him, get him out of the truck. I’m not dating,” Brand said.

Gather eventually started serving dinner — mostly pub-style food — on show nights at the Stress Factory, which has a similar menu.

“But we never really opened it up,” Brand said.

The couple have since built a party room out back there for events. When it relaunch in a few weeks, Brand said, the restaurant will serve the dinner crowd the originally envisioned American comfort food, as well as Caribbean dishes, and can now also host large events. He’s considering live music, open mic nights, karaoke and tarot card readers.

“We have the capacity to put 300 in the comedy club, 180 in front of Gather, 120 in the back,” Brand said, adding that with Gather, “We’re either going to swing or hit a home run. .”

Of downtown nightlife, Brand said, “I think the parties still need more people, but it’s definitely busier than it was.”

Holiday Inn Sale

Another big recent change downtown is the closure and sale of the nearly 40-year-old Holiday Inn. Local developer John Guedes, who is already building accommodations in the area, plans to turn the hotel into mostly apartments with a few extended-stay suites.

The deal officially closed last week and Guedes paid $6.5 million, according to his lawyer.

In interviews last month, hospitality industry experts said they weren’t surprised by the repurposing of the Holiday Inn, citing the continued impact of COVID on travel and major events, coupled to the strong demand for housing. And some local officials hailed Guedes’ plans, saying bringing more residents downtown would help businesses there.

Ayala, however, is not so optimistic and worries about what the loss of hotel guests will mean for businesses like Blvd Karaoke. He said visitors are going out, while apartment tenants will stay.

“Losing the Holiday Inn is detrimental,” Ayala said. “I can’t tell you how much business would come (from there).”

White and Jones, however, feel pretty good about the future.

“I feel like we’re going up,” Jones said.

“The city is a big city,” White said.

David H. Henry