Guilty Kitchen, a new court-themed soul food restaurant in Hartford

Destanie Chappell is guilty of the charges. Chappell, owner of Hartford’s new restaurant, Guilty Kitchen and Lounge, says she’s guilty of creating delicious, soulful food and an inviting atmosphere. And its bar manager, Matt Timmons, is guilty of creating fun cocktails that play on the restaurant’s legal theme.

Chappell doesn’t call herself the landlady. She is a judge and her kitchen is the judge’s room. The DJ is the usher. The menu is divided into Pre-Trial (starters), Recess and Verdict (main courses), Small Claims (sides) and Juvenile (kids meals).

“It was my father who came up with the name. Why does guilt have to be something negative you do? You can be guilty of doing something positive,” Chappell said. “I am guilty of serving good food. I’m guilty of serving good drinks. I am guilty of creating good vibrations and a happy environment.

Guilty Kitchen is in the South Green area on Congress Street, an entire city block listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The road has cobbled sidewalks and Italianate, Queen Anne, and Victorian red brick houses dating from the mid to late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The restaurant inside 7 Congress St. has a very 21st century feel to it. The 3,600-square-foot space features polished wood paneling, a DJ booth, a sleek Italian marble bar topped with three TVs, online ordering for takeout, contactless card transactions, artwork by black artists, and a young black woman in charge of everything.

Chappell’s menu combines classic soul food — macaroni and cheese, cornbread, collard greens, candied yams, grits, fish, shrimp — and a few elegant additions, including Chappell’s favorite food, lamb chops.

“They’re the everyday house specialty,” she said.

Also on the menu are salmon, steak, calamari rings, snapper, chicken, salad and pies.

Chappell is proud of her Love Rolls, her own take on spring rolls. “I make steak and cheese, teriyaki chicken, mac and cheese and yams, buffalo chicken, veggies, peach cobbler, and breakfast with a fried egg, corned hash- beef and sausages,” she said.

These fit Chappell’s definition of food for the soul. “Soul food is whatever makes your soul happy,” she said.

Guilty has brunch on Sundays and Fridays, a happy hour DJ with Trinidadian food added to the menu.

Timmons mixes up a lot of specialty drinks with names reminiscent of courthouses or prisons. Prison Punch is Southern Comfort, Crown Royal, lemonade, pineapple juice and grenadine. The Shank is made with Ketel One vodka, orange and pineapple juice, peach schnapps and grenadine. Blood-colored Killer Kool Aid is cranberry juice, Amaretto di Saronno and Crown Royal.

The most surprising thing that ends up in a cocktail glass, however, is the “shrimp and oatmeal martini.” It’s not a martini, just an eye-catching way to serve the traditional breakfast.

Babysitting in the kitchen

Chappell grew up in Hartford, then attended South Carolina State University, majoring in early childhood education. After a few babysitting jobs, she decided to focus on her first love: feeding people.

She tested the waters with her friends and family. “I know a lot of people who work in health care, in the third quarter. The workers had no choice at midnight. After work, there’s nowhere to eat but McDonald’s,” she said.

Chappell launched Trapkitchen in the North End, a take-out place. Then she moved on to Guilty, which serves dishes similar to those she sold in Trap, but made to order and on the spot. Guilty also does catering.

She always uses her family when experimenting with new dishes. “I approach them and say ‘test the kitchen!’ They are very honest. If it’s good, they tell me. If it’s bad, they tell me,” she said.

Guilty Kitchen had a soft opening in May and developed a devoted fanbase among those who heard about the restaurant by word of mouth: friends, family, workers at nearby law firms and Hartford Hospital .

Chappell is waiting to hire enough workers before she officially opens, she hopes by mid-August. Until then, she and Timmons will do their best to serve anyone who wants to order. “If you come in and you’re hungry, I’ll feed you,” she said. “If you want to order a drink, you can have one.”

Guilty Kitchen and Lounge serves meals Monday through Thursday from 12 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 12 p.m. to midnight or 1 a.m. “depending on flow,” with the bar open until 1:30 a.m., and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. Congress Street, so a nearby lot at 19-21 Wethersfield Ave. is available.

Susan Dunne can be contacted at [email protected].

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