Since I’m fortunate enough to have a car on campus this year, there are a few restaurants a bit farther off campus I’ve wanted to try like Chuck and Margs — or as it’s formally and long-windedly known, Chuck’s Steak House and Margarita Grill Mexican Cantina —, Hops 44 and Willimantic Brewing Company. I knocked out Chuck’s in September, and I have yet to try Hops, but I recently tried the latter with a few friends. Willibrew, as many call it, is located in downtown Willimantic — about 20 minutes from the University of Connecticut, but the restaurant and brewery still garners recognition in the community. Serving up pub-style food with a wide selection of local beers and craft cocktails, Willibrew is a characteristic, quality spot to grab a meal, drink or both with friends, family or even a casual date.
As we pulled up to the building, I realized I’ve driven by Willibrew multiple times and just haven’t realized that it’s a restaurant. That’s thanks to its historic facade, an old U.S. Postal Service office. The interior is cool and bustling with a diversity of diners, from families with young children to older couples to college students. The menu serves classic pub appetizers, like Bavarian pretzels ($11) with beer cheese sauce, jalapeño poppers ($9) with cream cheese filling, fried calamari ($12) with marinara sauce and plain or cajun onion rings ($8) served with “sassy sauce” (I don’t know exactly what it is, but my friend ordered the onion rings, and the sauce tasted horseradish-based). Willibrew also serves fried or grilled chicken wings with interesting flavors like everything spice parmesan and a spicy “oy vey.”
If you’ve been to or heard of Willibrew, you may know about their “first class” nachos ($15). I’m a big fan of nachos, but I don’t eat them as often because they’re pretty hard to eat just on your own, and the leftovers don’t compare to the fresh product. Before I visited, I’ve heard the Willibrew nachos especially are an intimidatingly large order. However, a group of seven hungry women was the perfect size to tackle the topping-laden appetizer, layered with cheese, tomatoes, jalapeños, scallions, a side of salsa and TWO sides of sour cream. A restaurant that is generous with its sour cream earns extra points with me, and Willibrew’s nachos’ name doesn’t lie: they truly are first-class, properly layering the toppings through the tall stack so there is an even distribution throughout.
I was torn between the vodka pasta ($16) and mac and cheese ($14), but decided to go with the latter because there’s something so compatible about ordering a cheese-based dish at a brewery, even if I didn’t necessarily order a beer. I ended up ordering a ginger lemon cocktail with ginger beer, vodka and ginger lemon hard seltzer, which was a refreshing accompaniment to my main dish. The mac and cheese, served as cavatappi pasta and topped with buttery breadcrumbs, was the perfect texture, with a creamy cheese sauce and the crunch from the breadcrumbs. However, the sauce itself was a bit lacking in flavor. I wish it had a hit of pepper, paprika or even cajun seasoning to spice it up. When I brought my leftovers home, I doctored it up with some of my own spices.
It’s not that the mac and cheese tasted bad, but I think I expected more. However, considering the delicious nachos, the quality of my friends’ food and our drinks and the ambiance, I would definitely be willing to return to Willibrew. I think I’ll try the vodka rose pasta next time!
Originally founded as Main Street Café in 1991 and operating out of the old Capitol Theatre building in town, the restaurant eventually moved to 877 Main Street. Willibrew eventually moved to its current location, a 1909 U.S. Post Office building abandoned in 1967. When it originally functioned, the dining room was the post office room, the pub was the customer lobby and the private dining room was the Postmaster’s office. Although they have renovated the building, Willibrew still preserves its historical architectural style and roots, further highlighted by the drinks and food it serves.