Coventry restaurant owners fight to get it right

Fracas 2.0 

Coventry restaurant owners fight to get it right

Three short months after its opening, the owners of Fracas, a new gastropub inside the former Centrum Theatre in Coventry, have ditched their original concept and decided to try again.

We can't say that we blame them. From the moment we first set foot in Fracas, things seemed a little off. For starters, the host stand is located in an old ticket-taker's booth inside the main lobby. From there, guests are directed around the corner and down a long, dark tunnel leading to the dining room.

Once you get there, that dining area — set inside the main theater auditorium — is undeniably impressive. The boundless ceilings, intricate plaster work, period paint colors, and retro movie-theater lighting can stop a diner in his tracks. But in a room this cavernous, anything less than a full house feels like a wake.

Early reviews of the space were not kind. One Urbanspoon poster had this to say: "My lady and I dined at Fracas last night. We had a reservation but I am not sure we needed it. When we sat, we immediately felt like we were sitting in an airplane hangar or dining at the I-X Center. It's too big for its own good."

As for the food — a mix of upscale comfort and bar foods — the verdict was mixed. We enjoyed some things, disliked others, and had we not been duty-bound to return, we would not have.

That was likely the sentiment of most customers, judging by the owners' response. Opening chef Phil Romano was let go, a new chef was brought on board, and a new, more upscale concept was initiated. By the end of March, Fracas 2.0 was launched.

"Anytime you open a new business, you learn a lot from customer feedback," owner Marci Carpenter candidly explains. "We have received quite a bit of it — some good, some bad — regarding the quality and consistency of the food, the general feel of the restaurant and staff. We are listening to what the public is saying."

Carpenter admits that neither she nor her business partners are "restaurant people." Rather, they are technology pros who live in the neighborhood and lament the fact that Coventry has no fine-dining options. Admittedly, Fracas did not turn out to be that place.

"We were looking for it to be more upscale," she says. "Not just another bar and grill."

To that end, Carpenter hired Dick Kanatzar, a chef whom she believes better shares her vision. Formerly of Vaccaro's Trattoria in Bath, Kanatzar says the smart approach is to differentiate the restaurant from its neighbors rather than attempt to best them at their own game.

"The previous chef tried to do the gastropub thing," says Kanatzar. "Coventry already has too many bars, and it's hard to compete with them." As new executive chef, he immediately jettisoned the sandwiches, the fries, and the focus on beer-friendly food. From this point forward, he says, the menu will be an ever-rotating assemblage of American-eclectic cuisine.

Utilizing mostly local, fresh, and organic products, Kanatzar is offering small plates like housemade meatballs in marinara and crab-and-crawfish quesadillas. Entrées like roasted rabbit loin are presented with colorful Chef's Garden carrots. Gourmet thin-crust pizzas are as close to pub-friendly as the grub gets. Meantime, prices have actually edged up, into the $20 to $30 range.

As for the "airplane hangar" vibe, Carpenter says the key is to introduce more activity into the room. Plans include showing black-and-white flicks on the outsized movie screen, hosting bands and performers, and even airing a live video feed from the kitchen.

Whatever it takes, Carpenter says that she and her partners are in it to win it. "We don't want to be a place that people don't want to go to."

Of course, the most effective mood changer will be a roomful of happy diners. By putting out consistently good food, value, and service, Fracas, like any other successful restaurant, should have no problem pulling in a crowd.

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