Fuel is needed to propel a steam locomotive. Coal, wood, or oil is burned in the firebox to boil the water. The Firebox Restaurant is what powers Billings Forge Community Works; it has been marketed to those who have disposable income, causing some mixed feelings, and at times, resentment, from those in the neighborhood who can only love the concept of locally-sourced food in theory.
In May 2010, BFCW quietly opened a second restaurant on its grounds. It’s not exactly the poor box, but prices are more affordable to residents.
The Kitchen Café is separated from Broad Street by a parking lot, but is not far from the raised garden beds and a large lawn, which doubles as space for the Thursday farmers’ market. Patio furniture is set up near the main entrance. Outdoor dining possibilities abound.
Upon entering, you’ll likely see children at the two computers which remained after the space was converted from a computer lab to restaurant. A large bulletin board against an exposed brick wall advertises events and services at Billings Forge and in the greater Hartford region. The Kitchen Café is relaxed and family-friendly; you can show up in wrinkled shorts and a t-shirt and not feel out of place. Sitting in front of your computer for hours while sipping a chai is no problem here.The café seats approximately twenty, and, with no advertising to speak of, does well for itself.
The Kitchen is essentially a culinary training program, and its employees are guided by an Executive Chef, Pastry Chef, and Catering Manager. All of the staff present on days when I have visited have been pleasant; while lacking the speed and efficiency of, say, a Starbucks, they make up for it in quality of food and small details, like offering a fork for my cupcake.
A “farm-to-table” lunch can be ordered for under ten bucks. Tomato tartine — herbed goat cheese, tomato & garden basil salad on open-face grilled whole wheat — is one of the to-go menu selections. A four dollar bowl of black bean soup is hearty, a bit spicy, and possibly too generous to finish in one sitting. Their dinners-to-go menu includes rosemary roasted potatoes and risotto cakes. Lavender lemonade is currently on their beverage menu; they also have lavender sugar cookies. With potato salad and Greek orzo salad, this is definitely not the place to find low-carb, dainty foods that leave you hungry.
Most tempting, though, are the baked goods covering the counter. Sweet and savory are frequent combinations; rosemary shows up often. Lemon curd tartlets with raspberries are in the same display case as the spicy sesame soba noodles, forcing some to make tough, grownup decisions. The cupcakes exacerbate the healthy food vs. dessert dilemma. The cupcakes are not the phony ones you might see in some places…you know, the muffins that impersonate cupcakes by adding some frosting to the blocks of bran. No, these are on par with Icing cupcakes. A community organizer who happened to walk by me during a cupcake moment gave good advice: “just pretend it’s your birthday.” Done.
Bread (multigrain with sunflower seeds, this week), soup mixes, and granola are also available for purchase, if you need something more nutritious to take home after indulging in pastries.
If you’d rather not have someone else’s hands all over your food, then you might want to check out one of their cooking classes; the next one is called “Summer Pies & Tarts.”
The Kitchen Café is open on Mondays through Fridays, from 9-7. You can park right out front, or walk in using the sneaky entrance off Lawrence Street.
A note about the name: between the website, menu, business cards, and in conversations with BFCW employees and volunteers, this restaurant is referred to by a number of different names. I’ve seen/heard the following: The Kitchen, The Kitchen at Billings Forge, The Kitchen Café, and The Bakery Café. While the post no longer appears to exist, a local blogger had once written about the confusing marketing of BFCW with its multitude of long and varying names.