“If you can’t be a rock star, might as well drink like one,” reads the sign over the menu at New Haven’s C.O. Jones Mexican Restaurant and Tequila Bar, which, according to the October issue of Playboy magazine, is one of the top 10 tequila bars in America.
Sandwiched between a real estate agency and a cigar shop, C.O. Jones has been a State Street institution since 1999 and carries more than 130 types of tequila. Moreover, it has thrived in a state that “is better known for sweater vests than shots,” as Playboy put it.
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Ethnic masks, posters of different kinds of tequila and a giant bull’s skull sculpture replete with horns adorn the dimly lit interior. Owner and founder Bob Potter said Jones’ most popular sipping tequila is the $8 glass of Don Julio Anejo, but added that his personal favorite is a “grand-platinum tequila.” He explained that whereas most tequilas have a distinctive tequila “bite,” a grand-platinum tequila is triple-distilled and therefore much smoother.
And what would a tequila joint be without margaritas? At C.O. Jones, patrons can choose from a dozen specialty margaritas, one of which is the aptly-titled “Love Potion #9,” which contains Sauza tequila, Triple Sec and Rose’s lime juice.
“It’s exciting,” Potter said of making Playboy’s list. “We have a popular happy hour. We get a lot of [Yale] students.”
The Connecticut native explained that he developed his fondness for tequila developed while living in San Diego. When he returned to the Northeast, he said he found there were few Mexican or even Tex-Mex options for Connecticut diners. To remedy the situation, he founded C.O. Jones, which he said remains successful at a time when the Tex-Mex franchise industry is burgeoning because it is both a sit-down restaurant and a bar.
Indeed, C.O. Jones has more to offer than top-shelf tequila. It also serves what Potter called “Cal-Mex cuisine.” Currently on its menu, which changes seasonally, are a $7.95 sweet potato quesadillas, a $8.95 chipotle-shrimp burrito and $6.00 corn encrusted chili.
C.O. Jones’ clientele varies widely, two employees said, explaining that during Friday Happy Hour, which lasts from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., the bar tends to be filled with an older crowd. But as the night goes on, they explained, younger diners and Yale students begin to trickle in right on time for the late-night “burrito and beer special.”
At 5:30 p.m. last Thursday, the atmosphere at C.O. Jones was lively. Between six and seven diners in their mid-twenties crowded around the bar, enjoying their drinks and watching the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim take on the Boston Red Sox.
Server Cecilia Shea said the place gets particularly busy during Happy Hour on Friday, laughing as she said one “can actually see the volume of the place go up as the margaritas start coming out.”
Shea, whose personal favorite drink is a fruit-infusion tequila, said she loves her work.
“On a Friday or Saturday night, it’s fast-paced, quick everything, dancing, partying,” she said. “It’s a very cool place to work.”
In addition to half-priced house margaritas, C.O. Jones also offers a free burrito bar during the Friday Happy Hour that has a loyal following, said regular patron Ryan Johnson, an engineer who lives in North Haven.
Johnson’s friend and co-worker, Akshay Sridhar, who introduced Johnson to the bar, agreed and said that while the food is “phenomenal,” he enjoys the ambiance and watching the Red Sox at the bar.
Johnson said he, Sridhar and their fellow co-worker Mike Kesum, a New Haven resident, go to C.O. Jones every Wednesday after work.
It’s our Wednesday night happy hour,” Johnson laughed. “What keeps me coming back? Karl’s a great bartender … and the margaritas, of course!”
He added that his favorite drink is a simple lime on the rocks and Sridhar’s is a little more personal. Bartender and general manager Karl Evans created a large-rocks margarita with a floater of Jose Cuerva especially for Sridhar, who has been coming to the bar for three years and called it “The Akshay.”
Shea, who, like the bar’s other employees, was just informed about the Playboy list Thursday, said she was excited to hear the news.
“It was out of nowhere — you can’t imagine that in Connecticut they’d find a tequila bar,” she said from her post behind the bar.
C.O. Jones is located at 969 State St. and is open Monday through Friday from 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday from 12 p.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.