As soon as you enter the front room, you go into sensory overdrive. You hear the rowdy crowd, laughing and chatting noisily over the blasting music. Plastered on every wall, you see graffiti art and paraphernalia, ranging from vintage concert posters to old license plates and everything in between.
The tables are also a spectacle, hidden under sandbox-sized dishes of macaroni and cheese, heaps of nachos, inch-thick quesadillas, and plates of wings. Your sense of smell is overwhelmed by all these foods combining to create an exceptionally savory scent. We are grateful that our friend Carrie Carella, co-owner of NoRA Cupcake factory, was there to lead us to our table, as we stared wide-eyed at the spectacular establishment that is Eli Cannon’s Tap Room.
After squeezing through the maze of customers, waiters, and artwork, we arrived at a large booth in the corner, where Eli’s owner and founder Phil Ouellette stood awaiting our arrival. He handed us what he claimed to be menus but appeared more like novels filled with hand-drawn artwork and every type of comfort food/bar snack you could imagine.
“How about we just go with some of our specialty dishes?” Carella recommended. We nodded enthusiastically, and were led to go explore more of the restaurant.
After walking through more of the seating area, which continued to be decorated with art on every surface, we were led to the door that led to the Eli Cannon’s “beach”, an outdoor area complete with sand, beach chairs, and more art. We learned that this area was built to accommodate people waiting to sit down inside.
Because of the restaurant’s popularity, there is almost always a wait at Eli Cannon’s, and Ouellette wanted to provide a cool atmosphere for people to enjoy food and drinks while they wait rather than simply linger outside the building. In addition to this, he is in the process of building a VIP area outside to be used mainly by special parties booked in advance.
After leading us back to our table, Ouellette began to explain the history of the establishment. Prior to starting Eli’s, he used to bartend at Mother’s, which occupied Eli’s building before it went out of business. When Mother’s shut down, Ouellette knew he needed a job and decided that if he couldn’t find one elsewhere he would just have to make one for himself.
“It wasn’t like a business plan,” explained Ouellette. “I needed a job. I was really just trying to create a bartending job for myself because I lost my job when Mother’s closed.”
For 19 years, Eli’s has been a true Middletown staple, offering something for everyone. Whether it’s their renowned tap selection (famous throughout New England), the incredibly unique atmosphere, or the creative and delicious food, there are many draws to this restaurant, and it’s no wonder it always looks pretty busy. They claim to have a significant number of regulars who come here knowing exactly what they want.
“We find that there’s bar people and there’s restaurant people.” Ouellette remarked. “And then there’s booth people. There are people that will wait two hours for a booth because they want to sit in a booth.”
Ouellette also explained that, despite disappointing some of the regulars, they change their menu every year. They strongly believe in constantly improving their restaurant.
“It’s just been a work in progress, and we haven’t stopped,” Ouellette said.
When asked about the culinary style at Eli’s, Ouellette and Carella chuckled a bit and grinned at each other.
“We call it American trailer park fusion,” they said almost in unison. “It’s all the comforts of home with a little dash of honey boo boo,” added Ouellette.
Based on what we tried, this characterization seems very fitting—in the best way possible. Our meal included: macaroni and cheese filled with barbeque pulled pork, bourbon teriyaki wings, “2 in the pool” wings (buffalo & barbeque sauce), fried pickles and jalapeno peppers, nachos with chicken (and every other topping you could imagine), and a “Big E” quesadilla, which includes all the ingredients in a McDonald’s “Big Mac” stuffed inside a cheese-encrusted quesadilla.
Needless to say, the food was very satisfying, and we found ourselves unable to physically leave the booth after devouring multiple plates of it. Our favorites were the “Big E” and the fried pickles, but all of the food was really delicious. Plus, the prices were phenomenal. For just $12.50 a customer can purchase what appears to be a sandbox of macaroni and cheese. Once the four of us pushed our plates away, incredibly full, there was still more than half of it left.
Before experiencing it for ourselves, we were hesitant to go to Eli Cannon’s. We thought it was a typical bar located pretty far out onto Main Street in the North End. But in reality, it has so much more to offer. The wild atmosphere makes it unique, not only to Middletown, but as a restaurant in general. We strongly believe that, after designing both NoRA and Eli’s, Ouellette could definitely score a job becoming an interior designer.
In addition, the drink menu is known far and wide for its diversity and originality, and the food is perfect for a casual night out. To put it simply, Eli’s provides a down-to-earth experience that is a true reminder of everything that makes Middletown unique and special.
-Ari & Alex
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