While it may not be Cheers, there’s a good chance at least somebody at the Cardinal’s Nest knows your name. Since opening last year, the bar and restaurant has gone from a local dive to a campus mainstay, packed with both students and Middletown residents looking for a good meal or a stiff drink on a Wednesday night. Yet, despite its newfound reputation as student hotspot and neighborhood drinking hole, the recent success of the Cardinal’s Nest is the product of a year of trial and error coupled with flexible, open-minded management.
Opening last fall, the Cardinal’s Nest was initially envisioned as an “American Bistro,” but was slow to attract students in its first few months on Church Street.
“I came over here with the thought of trying to provide a good product to both the locals and the Wesleyan community,” said owner John Gecewicz. “I had seen the strong loyalties of the kids to their bars and restaurants on Main Street on their ‘bar night.’ After getting to know a lot of the students, kids started coming out, asking ‘Hey John, what can we do for you?’ That’s the real reason we’re the way we are today.”
Due to Connecticut law, without a liquor license the fledgling Cardinal’s Nest could not serve hard alcohol and focused mostly on food.
“For the first three quarters of last year we were only serving beer and wine, and getting a liquor license took us a while,” said Will Schragis ’12, who has tended the bar at the Cardinal’s Nest since last year. “We had a lot of positive reaction to the food, but not so much the drinks, and we ended up attracting more locals than students.”
After a relatively disappointing reception in its first few months, Gecewicz began to reevaluate the restaurant’s operation upon receiving a state liquor license. Towards the end of the spring semester, the Cardinal’s Nest looked to alter its menu to appeal directly to the nearby student community.
“We wanted to make it more economical,” Gecewicz said. “We started accepting Wescards and having people understand the value they could get for their dollar – cheap pizza, burgers, things off the grill. Its comfort food so the kids loved it and so did the locals. We started knocking down drink prices and it was a really positive change.”
Through trial and error, the Nest found an increase in student attention, which slowly began snowballing into a campus phenomenon.
“It was sort of inevitable, given that it was close,” Schragis said. “We just need to find the right price tags on everything and we eventually began to beat out Gatekeeper’s [Tavern] prices. People were having a great time and coming back. It’s the perfect mix of convenient and cheap.”
And yet, Gecewicz asserts there is more behind the Cardinal’s Nest than just cheap eats and affordable Budweiser.
“People are always looking for a bargain,” Gecewicz said. “It’s about reaching out and touching the people, getting to know the kids, finding out what they want, what their drink is, what they like to eat. There’s a personal touch to the madness.”
With its recent success, Gecewicz and the Cardinal’s Nest staff attest to the centrality of connecting with customers, both locals and students.
“One of our chefs, Nils Toledo, is a special chef, not just in the kitchen, but in that he’s all about the personal touch,” Gecewicz said. “He’ll come out to your table. If he sees you out the window he’ll go over and shake your hand. He’s here, I’m here all the time and we always want to hear what people want and what we can do to make it better.”
Students have similarly warmed to the personal touch of the Cardinal’s Nest, finding the friendly, communal atmosphere a far cry from the crowded Main Street haunts usually associated with bar night.
“It’s absolutely great there,” said Nest patron Dahlia Azran ’13. “You can always have conversations with people you find there – John and the bouncers and the staff, they’re all just really on your level. It’s so different than going to a bar in Middletown, one where you don’t know anybody and no one really cares about your experience.”
In just a few months, the Cardinal’s Nest has gone from an overlooked hole-in-the-wall to a campus fixture worthy of its name, thanks to loyal students, open minds, and the personal touch behind the good eats.
“We’re firing on all cylinders,” Gecewicz said. “In the last couple months with the assistance of the students and the locals, the place has really turned around. It’s my baby, and I love that we’ve really figured it out.”