A Taste for Adventure
The Flying Monkey’s menu and vibe draws a growing clientele
By Cara McDonough / Photography by Todd Fairchild
They’ve got a saying at The Flying Monkey. “Let your monkey fly,” recites Junior Baez, owner of the Newington restaurant. “Just be yourself. Here, we are big believers in everyone being treated the same. We have a very diverse clientele, and we all get along.”
At this American fusion restaurant, the vibe includes treating regular customers like family and treating every visitor to the innovative, fresh, and simply fun dishes that The Flying Monkey Grill & Bar does best.
“We take traditional dishes and we recreate them,” says Baez. The Flying Monkey first opened at 2016 at the Hartford-Brainard Airport – which is why its name and many dishes are aviation-themed – and moved to its current location on the Berlin Turnpike in Newington last fall, where it’s now open with special seating, increased outdoor space, and other precautions due to the pandemic.
Baez’s love of food and cooking began early. His father worked at a produce market and he remembers learning the ropes as a child by watching his dad. He was so into the scene, in fact, that he opened his own fruit and vegetable stand in his hometown of Hartford when he was only 16 years old.
“I loved the fast pace of it,” he remembers. “I’ve always had a passion for food.”
He’s always had a passion for the Hartford area, too. After going to college for nursing, and then studying business, he ended up in the industry he’d always liked best. Baez’s 20 years working in fine dining establishments before eventually opening his own place included stints at The Hawthorne Inn, Carmen Anthony, and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, never veering far from his Hartford roots.
His education in the fine dining industry is what helped him craft the fare at The Flying Monkey, which he calls “casual with upscale touches.” That refers to both the food served and the service provided.
The move to Newington was a result of the institution’s growing popularity. The Flying Monkey now seats nearly double the amount it did at the airport, says Baez, and with a building nearly five times the size of its original location, there is plenty of room to keep growing. That means many years of taking care of and increasing its lively, diverse and loyal customer base.
“Some people say I take it all too personally, but a lot of my customers have become family,” says Baez. “They followed us all the way from Hartford to Newington.”
And that “let your monkey fly” attitude extends to the menu, as well, which is innovative and enticing.
The restaurant is perhaps known best for its wide variety of wings served with an unusual, irresistible roster of sauces. The lineup includes traditional BBQ and buffalo, honey soy ginger, Thai peanut sauce, garlic parmesan and its most popular sauce: the “spicy monkey,” made with a sweet chili base and a touch of honey.
Other highlights include Chairman’s Reserve steaks, wild-caught fish, and chicken dishes, as well as vegan offerings. Its signature eggrolls feature combinations you won’t find anywhere else, including its Bacon Cheeseburger, Buffalo Mac and Cheese, and Steak and Cheese. Of course, you can’t go wrong with crowd pleasers like the Lobster BLT or the classic charcuterie board, either. And Sunday brunch is sure to please everyone, with everything from Bananas Foster Waffles to Butter Poached Lobster Bennies. All ingredients, says Baez, are brought in fresh, never frozen.
With wittily named offerings like The Classic Lindberg Burger, The Charter Chicken, and the Pineapple Pushback (one of many house-crafted cocktails, this one a mix of vanilla vodka, Cointreau and pineapple) the restaurant pays homage to its airport-inspired roots at its new location.
It’s been a journey, both literal, from Hartford to Newington, and figuratively. Baez says his personal journey – learning the ropes starting at such a young age, and staying loyal to his hometown roots – as well as his identity as a gay man, has affected the way he runs his restaurant. He makes sure that their atmosphere is open and accepting to every single customer who walks through the doors, meaning the customer base at any given seating represents a range of backgrounds. This isn’t a restaurant known for a certain “type” of crowd; it’s a hangout where every single customer feels they belong.
“My journey is to try to make a comfortable space for all, no matter financial status, political views, religion, race, or sexuality,” he says. “I strive to make our restaurant environment as comfortable as possible.”
His passion for doing what’s right over what’s easy became even clearer at the outset of the pandemic. As Connecticut shut down in March facing the threat of coronavirus, The Flying Monkey kept its doors open for takeout, committed to providing customers their favorite dishes during a turbulent time, even if they couldn’t serve them in-house as usual.
“We thought we needed to be here for the community, plus some of my staff didn’t want to stop working,” Baez says. Taking adequate precautions, including that all staff wear masks during their shift and wear gloves when handling food and drink, he was able to take care of his customer base with meals to lift their spirits, and take care of staff with regular paychecks.
But Baez went even further. He offered all of his team members gift certificates to the Public Market of Newington, a local grocery store, to help them through the tough time, and started a GoFundMe page for staff to ensure those who weren’t making regular wages had a little extra from well-wishers. He made sure that staff members who were suffering under even greater financial strain were fed and taken care of, taking funds from his own pocket when needed.
“It was tough times,” he says. “Our staff looks after each other. I’m grateful. If it wasn’t for our staff, we wouldn’t have the kind of place we have.”
He was thankful, too, for the loyal customers who would call to simply check in on the restaurant during those early weeks and has been happy to see them return over the past few months.
As the state began a slow re-opening this summer – backed by the town of Newington, which was a big proponent of helping local businesses get back on their feet – Baez and his team prepared to open in the new normal forced by the ongoing pandemic.
They expanded seating outside on their patio, with room for 98 people outside, and another 98 inside. They added partitions at the bar and four “sanitation stations.” Staff moved furniture to help with distancing and attended an hours-long course on how to properly clean, serve food, and deal with guests in the safest manner possible. In addition to the masks, gloves, and other gear already in use, the additional measures ensured The Flying Monkey team was ready to safely welcome guests back their establishment.
Beyond safety measures, says Baez, the restaurant was able to welcome back live music. Jazz and blues bands play outdoors two or three times a week, a much-loved tradition at this upbeat, laid-back eatery.
As for Baez, he can’t deny it’s been an unusually busy, unpredictable few years, with a major move, a pandemic, and new guidelines.
But he’s in it for one reason above all, and that keeps him going through the tough times and the happy ones, and will keep him going through whatever comes next.
“It’s all about the customers,” he says. “It makes me happy when someone leaves happy.”