Even the over-the-top names don’t do justice to the beauty of the blossoms at Hartford’s Elizabeth Park Rose Garden. Tuscan Sun and Arctic Ice, Tumbling Waters and Orchid Romance, or Cherry Parfait and Golden Unicorn – the extravagance titles are too subdued to convey the colorful glory of the flowers.
Luckily, there’s also a delightful restaurant in the park, The Pond House, where you can have an excellent lunch and contemplate the marvels of the roses.
Established in 1904, Elizabeth Park has the oldest municipal rose garden in the United States. It is included on the National Register of Historic Places. The restaurant, revived 20 years ago, is a notable place in its own right with carefully tended gardens, whimsical art, and delightful food. Either one is worth your while, but together they should move to the top of your day trip list.
Louis Lista, like so many successful restaurant operators, started bussing tables in high school, worked his way up through waiter and bartender, did a stint in kitchens during college, and then went into the “real world” of insurance and political consulting. He eventually returned to restaurants and was asked to bid on the revival of the Pond House.
And revive it he did.
The restaurant now employs “two and a half” gardeners to maintain the kitchen garden, herb garden, and beautiful annual and perennial beds that surround the restaurant.
A community of artists helps Lista keep the stylish and sleek interior filled with mosaics, paintings, sculpture and, most notably, murals. Be sure to look for the hidden faces in the two-story hand-painted vines on the walls of the entrance. (For a hint, click here). Painter Diana Cote created the memorable ceiling murals in the restrooms and the painted fences in the gardens along with the mosaic medallions on the dining room walls.
You can’t help but smile at the fanciful sculptures found throughout the restaurant and gardens. Even the salt and peppers have an artistic sway.
It’s easy to assume that the restaurant is named after the tranquil pond seen beyond the gardens from the windows and patio, but it’s actually named for Charles M. Pond who gifted the park to Hartford in memory of his wife Elizabeth.
The lunch menu is a tempting cultural mashup of over two dozen popular choices like a pepper and onion quesadilla, crab and cress salad, pear and goat cheese crostada, Indian rice, and mom’s meatloaf. Entrees range from $10.48 to $17.92.
The menu reflects the interests of his long-serving kitchen staff including: A Cuban chef, Vietnamese pastry chef, southern sous chef, and Joe from Portugal who keeps the kitchen ready for the busy lunch service.
The runaway best seller for lunch, Lista told me, is Mrs. Astor’s Chicken Salad. A riff on Waldorf salad from the famous 5th avenue hotel, the poached chicken is tossed with apple, cranberry, almonds, and tarragon mayonnaise then sandwiched between slices of raisin-walnut bread. “It’s on the menu all summer,” Lista said with a twinkle in his eye, “until Mrs. Astor goes down to Florida in the Fall.”
Lista still keeps his hand in the kitchen. The day we met, our conversation ended up in front of the oven when it was time for a batch of focaccia he was baking to come out.
In the side courtyard there’s also the Dog House, a walk-up window for hot dogs, snacks, ice cream and drinks. Just open on weekends for now, it serves every day in summer.
It’s a short stroll from the Pond House to the Elizabeth Park Rose Garden. The display is organized around a gazebo at the center of eight avenues of rose-covered arches. The climbing rose display peaks in late June through early
July. In the 2.5 acres of rose garden, some of the more than 800 varieties on 15,000 bushes are always in bloom. Some types flower all summer long.
On a stroll through the well-kept beds, you see roses of all sizes, shapes, and colors – pink, red, white, yellow and everything in between – some surrounded by a cloud of fragrance, some glorious on long stems, and others massed into a wall of color.
In addition to the rose garden, there’s also a perennial garden, annual garden, and a shade garden with plenty of benches along the way to stop and rest.
Rose weekend is June 16 and 17 when the garden is predicted to be at peak bloom and a program of special events is planned. But if you want to avoid the celebration crowds, shoot for any time between
early June and mid July. Be sure to call ahead for a reservation at the Pond House.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.