It wasn’t supposed to be this way, the pickle thing. It happened by chance. Or, as Stephanie Fesko puts it, “not by accident, but not really on purpose.”
You can trace it back to a challenge issued by some of the regulars. Fesko remembers them being a bit intimidating when she and co-owner Jeff Keck took over the Rustic Café, in southeastern Connecticut, 13 years ago.
The East Lyme institution opened in 1947 as the Rustic Inn: a bar, restaurant, dance hall, and burlesque and music venue that, in its heyday, was the biggest party on Route 1. “It was a total destination place,” and triple the size of the current location, Fesko says. “There are stories that have gone around, though I haven’t found any pictures yet, that Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack used to come in from the city on vacation.”
When the original Rustic burned down in a fluke fire after 20 raucous years, founders Vicky and Frannie Ferencz couldn’t afford to rebuild at quite as grand a scale. In 1969, it reopened as the more compact, freshly renamed Rustic Café—“café,” Fesko explains, is Connecticut parlance for “bar”—and the Ferenczes ran the ship for the rest of their lives, keeping the original hand-painted sign that still swings over the door. In the years after their deaths, the business changed hands a few times (including one attempt to rebrand it as a wine bar, which didn’t last), but sat empty between tenants. Then Fesko and Keck saw the listing and decided to stop in.
“There were maybe six people in there, and it was kind of dirty,” Fesko says, but in a good way. “Not gross, but old-school. The vibes were just so good.” Still today, even first-time visitors to the cozy, carpeted pub will find it feels, somehow, like an old friend; the service is equal parts sweet and salty, the walls and raftered ceilings fully paneled with warm varnished pine and hung with Christmas lights year-round.
Visitors will also find, on the menu, 88 variations of picklebacks.
When Fesko and Keck first took over, the bar had a simple menu, and the clientele was mostly working people coming in for lunch or friends of the original owners. But Fesko remembers one night, early on, that would mark the beginning of a new era. Some patrons sitting at the bar, “a handful of guys, old dudes,” wanted to order a round of shots. They gave her a test: “You have to give us something we don’t know.”
Fesko went down her list, swinging and missing. She figured the pickleback was a long shot—many trace its origins to the tri-state area, specifically Brooklyn’s Bushwick Country Club, a few years earlier—but the whiskey-and-brine doubleheader was new to East Lyme, so she grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and some pickles from the back. Everyone loved it. “And then, you know, it just kind of snowballed,” Fesko explains. “And we became the pickle place.”
The Pickletini entered the conversation not long after, more than a decade before the drink started taking over the internet. “It was very early on,” Fesko says. “We were just making them for people because I’m a huge Martini fan, in general. The Rustic is not a foofy place, but it doesn’t mean we can’t drink really good drinks.” At first, the briny cocktails were available only by word of mouth (or via a loose-lipped bartender). If you knew, you knew. Fesko and team developed a secret, proprietary pickle juice—“we take a basic brine and we do things to it that I can’t tell you”—which is now available for purchase on site, by the bottle. Eventually, years later, they decided to actually put the drink on the menu.
The Pickletini at the Rustic Café is a beautiful, almost radioactive shade of green, served in a proper Martini glass that’s filled to the brim, with a giant pickle spear lounging inside like a showgirl in her giant coupe. It’s mostly vodka—the vermouth quotient is limited to a “blip,” which Fesko defines as “more than 2 drops, less than a splash”—and the house pickle juice adds a savory depth of flavor, making the cocktail much greater than the sum of its parts. It’s as sublime as it is simple; it’s easy to understand why it became a signature.
These days, there’s also a Spicy Pickletini, the drink’s Tabasco-soaked cousin. (The bar’s Martini list, for its part, includes 25 variations, but you can probably guess which one gets top billing.) Today’s Rustic has also developed some fiercely devoted regulars of its own. You’ll find the place buzzing most nights, with people spilling out into the glassed-in extension and patio, a COVID-spurred addition that’s also become a space for live music. Orders roll in for stuffed clams, Connecticut-style hot lobster rolls or perhaps a Big Dirty Flaming Pickle in the Rye: a shot of Jack Daniel’s rye, and then another of pickle juice and Tabasco with a queen green olive. You’ll probably see a few Pickletinis, too—they’re hard to miss.
Has the Rustic seen an uptick in orders in light of the recent, much-think-pieced Martini resurgence? “I haven’t,” says Fesko. “But I think it’s because we always just sell so many.”