A winter-hating food writer bundles up for an alfresco meal on a February night

Photo of Leeanne Griffin
A view of Millwright's waterfall from the outdoor

A view of Millwright’s waterfall from the outdoor “bridge pod” seating.

Leeanne Griffin / Hearst Connecticut Media

My last full meal in a restaurant’s indoor dining room was on March 12, 2020. If I’d known then what I do now, I would’ve ordered dessert. And maybe a second cocktail.

Before COVID-19, my job as a food writer found me in multiple restaurants each week. But since March, like so many others in Connecticut, I have seen way too much of my own kitchen, dining room table and couch, as the majority of my meals have been at home.

For months, I was relegated to reporting by phone, and didn’t actually head back out into the field until outdoor dining resumed in May. Takeout, usually chosen out of convenience on weary Friday nights, became the highlight of the weekend, as we worked through a long list of favorites: pizza, sushi, Greek, Mexican, Indian, Szechuan, barbecue, Nashville hot chicken.

Even as dining rooms reopened in June, my husband and I have stayed out of restaurants’ indoor spaces, out of an abundance of caution. We chose our limited outdoor dining experiences carefully this summer: uncrowded eateries with plenty of distance between tables, with staff masked up and adhering to strict COVID protocols.

But I’m a summer baby, with a July birthday. The cold weather and I have never been friends. My idea of a winter sport is sitting wrapped in a blanket in front of a fireplace, willing April to arrive faster. So as the temperatures started dropping in the fall, I figured it was back to takeout until springtime.

Then in November, Tyler Anderson, chef-owner of Millwright’s in Simsbury, announced his plans to set up a village of outdoor “greenhouses” at the restaurant for the winter months. The individual structures, heated and ventilated, seat up to eight people (with only one party booked per night) with a special $75 four-course menu.

“I want to go!” my husband cheered when he heard about Anderson’s new venture. “We’ve got to do that this winter.”

A view of the bridge pod seating at Millwright's in Simsbury

A view of the bridge pod seating at Millwright’s in Simsbury

Leeanne Griffin / Hearst Connecticut Media

He, too, is a July baby. We had dined there for his birthday seven months earlier, reveling in a summer evening seated at a table along the footbridge that stretches over the stunning waterfall outside the restaurant. Anderson, especially cognizant of COVID-19 safety because his wife is immunocompromised, created “Outdoors at Millwright’s” in June, setting up a mobile kitchen for an all-alfresco experience with reduced contact between servers and guests.

Reservations for the restaurant’s winter dining have been filling up quickly, but I was able to score a 5 p.m. table on Super Bowl Sunday. Millwright’s was predictably quiet, and a fresh coating of snow frosted the trees overlooking the waterfall.

We were seated in a partially enclosed “pod” on the bridge, where most two-person parties are placed, with a direct view of the rushing water. Anderson designed them to look like luxury dining cars on trains, with wooden walls, Plexiglass windows and curtains providing a little privacy from diners in the adjacent pods.

An overhead heater beamed warmth down on the table, and our server brought in two portable heaters to rest on the ground. (Side note: The extra floor heater came in handy when my husband accidentally spilled half his water glass in his lap.)

Greenhouse structures outside Millwright's Restaurant in Simsbury

Greenhouse structures outside Millwright’s Restaurant in Simsbury

Leeanne Griffin / Hearst Connecticut Media

I’d bundled up in a sweater, jacket, scarf, hat and snow boots, but quickly shed the jacket and hat. The heating system can bring the “indoor” temperature up about 30 degrees from the outside, Anderson said, but it felt warmer.

The four-course menu featured an assortment of small plates to start: tuna tostadas with chili crisp; beets prepared with pastrami spices, Thousand Island dressing and rye croutons; Millwright’s signature biscuits with honey-sesame butter. Next came a fondue course, creamy Alpine cheese warmed atop a sterno flame with apples, croutons, pearl onions and pork belly cubes for dipping.

A choice of six entrees featured hearty, winter-friendly compositions: smoked mushroom farrotto with acorn squash, spaetzle-crusted pork schnitzel; scallops with lentils, apple and sweet potato. My pick, a Nashville hot chicken “roulade,” featured just a hint of spice through its thin, crisped crust, with a Belgian endive slaw to cut through the richness. My husband’s smoked shortrib was fork tender, with creamed spinach and crispy sweet and sour potatoes.

One of each dessert, a chocolate hazelnut cake with caramel mousse and vanilla bean creme brulee with quince jam, wrapped the meal.

Service can be either little or no contact, Millwright’s website notes. Servers can leave food and drinks outside the structure on a cart, and guests in the greenhouses can alert servers to any needs with the push of a remote.

In the bridge pod, we had more interaction with our two servers, who entered the seating area to deliver food and beverages. But we were comfortable with that level of contact, and we put our masks back on as they came in.

Warm and satiated, I wanted to stay there longer. In fact, people do, Anderson said. Since each party has the structure for the entire evening, they’re encouraged to relax and enjoy their time.

“People don't feel in any rush, people like to come and hang out, they bring board games and stuff like that,” he said. “It's just an opportunity obviously for people to get out of their house, and do something safely.”

It’s probably back to takeout and home cooking until the weather warms and we get vaccinated. (Hopefully more takeout than cooking. I am so sick of doing dishes.)

But the two-hour meal felt like a glimmer of normalcy.