Colony Grill packs them in: New restaurant celebrates Milford history

Harrison’s Hardware was a downtown staple for many years, but the new Colony Grill has quickly stepped in to fill a void created when the hardware store closed and the building started to fall into disrepair.

Colony Grill, a pizza restaurant and bar, opened May 20 to customers, but held its official ribbon-cutting ceremony just last week.

The outside of the 8,000-square-foot restaurant is polished and new. While some say the new restaurant appears larger than the hardware store before it, the eatery takes up the same building footprint. There is a main dining room with a sprawling bar, rear bar and eating area, and an outdoor patio.

Inside is a mix of old and new: The “hardware” of the Harrison’s Hardware sign hangs in the main dining room, and the “H” from Harrison’s hangs elsewhere. The mural that decorated the outside of the building did not survive renovations, but a new mural, created by local artist Colleen Reiley Rees, decorates the main dining room.

Paige Miglio, fire arts director, said the mural was created as the third in a series of mural projects in Milford. The Colony Grill art depicts the old Walnut Beach Amusement Park.

There are also numerous photos of Milford people and Milford places throughout the restaurant, and there is an entire hallway of area residents who served in the military. Much of the work was donated by residents in Milford and West Haven who heeded Colony’s call for photographs reminiscent of the area. There’s even a photo of the “cop in the bucket” downtown: Years ago, there was a bucket-shaped police stand, from which a Milford officer would direct traffic.

Officials, residents and local business owners who gathered for the ribbon-cutting said the new eatery is a great addition to downtown, and one more restaurant to help make downtown a destination dining place.

“This is a special building, a special place in Milford,” Mayor Ben Blake said. “Colony has stepped up to make sure it’s a building we can be proud of, and it’s a great addition to downtown Milford.”

The new restaurant joins a host of downtown eateries, from SBC to Stonebridge and the Seven Seas and Rainbow Gardens to smaller delis and eating venues. “I think Colony is an added enhancement to the already successful businesses we have here,” said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kathy Alagno.

Colony, she said, fills a gap because it appeals to young adults and young families.

It also fills an architectural void, she added.

That appeared to be the consensus. Even people who considered themselves regulars at the downtown hardware store said they are pleased that the deteriorating hardware building is now spruced up, done over and improving the downtown look.

Nancy Bennett, owner of Milford Board Works, said she’s happy to see what was a rundown building now a new and attractive building.

“Now we have a beautiful building,” Bennett said.

Harrison’s Hardware closed in 2006 after a fire. It had been a part of downtown about 100 years.

Over the past few years, it had become an eyesore, some residents said.

Elinor Gregory said that’s one of the reasons she’s thrilled with the new place and not lamenting the loss of Harrison’s. She’s also pleased to see another option added to the list of downtown restaurants.

“We used to go to New Haven to eat and to find different restaurants,” Gregory said. “Now, we can just come to downtown Milford.”

Her husband, Community Development Director Robert Gregory, agreed.

“I think it’s another attraction downtown,” he said. “It brings in another clientele, and the more the merrier. I think it’s a great addition to what we already have and will make downtown stronger.”

There also are the jobs the new eatery brings to downtown.

Owner Ken Martin said Colony employs about 43 people.

Martin co-owns the restaurant with Paul Coniglio, Cody Lee and Chris Drury.

The owners put “a lot of money” into the renovation, Martin said. He wasn’t specific, but he said it was “a seven-figure project.”

The restaurant seats about 130 in its main dining room and 80 on the back patio.

This is the fourth Colony Grill in Connecticut; other existing sites are in Stamford, Avon and Fairfield.

The Colony Grill concept began in 1935 in an Irish neighborhood in post-Prohibition south Stamford, restaurant owners said. Since then, the “Colony” has become famous for what is now its only menu offering: a one-of-a-kind, one-size, thin-crust pizza — with or without its signature hot oil.

Colony Grill has been featured in such publications as Gourmet magazine, Connecticut magazine, and Roadfood: The Coast-to-Coast Guide to America's Best Local Eateries.

Chris Drury, co-owner and a former longtime National Hockey League standout, said when the company announced plans to open here that the site was perfect.

“My partners and I love the history of the space and its proximity to a wide range of other great restaurants and retailers, public transportation, and the beautiful Milford harbor,” he said last year. “We are hopeful Colony Grill can become a strong community partner not only in the vibrant downtown area but, by extension, throughout the entire City of Milford for many years to come.”

Martin said his hope is that Colony Grill in Milford will become, like the other locations, a meeting place for people.