Photos Modified: istockphoto.com
Connecticut may not be the first state that comes to mind when folks start talking about matters gastronomical, but it actually has a lot going for it when it comes to food. Just for starters, it's one of the only states with a food-related nickname: Along with being the Constitution State, it's the Nutmeg State — a sobriquet possibly bestowed because its seaports were important in the Colonial spice trade. But that's just the beginning of its relationship to good things to eat, and to celebrate its culinary riches, we’ve rounded up 18 of Connecticut's tastiest comestibles and most essential eating and drinking places as part of our first-annual guide to the best food and drink in every state.
Facebook/The Griswold Inn
Connecticut’s best bar is as old as the nation itself. The Griswold Inn opened its doors in 1776, promising “First Class Accommodations, Fine Food and Spirits.” Some 240 years and six family owners later, the inn, its wine bar, and its Tap Room at The Gris (which opened in 1801) still lives up to that promise. Popular with yachters, locals, and celebrities alike (Katherine Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Billy Joel, and many others have had drinks here), the hotel and Tap Room are filled with maritime art, brass bells, and binnacles. There is live music every night, from Dixieland and swing to sea shanties. The Tap Room has an elegant domed ceiling that evokes a time gone by, part of what New York magazine once called “the best looking drinking room anywhere in America.” Additionally, a Christmas tree sits year-round on top of a potbelly stove in the center of the room, and there’s an antique popcorn machine that continuously pops popcorn. There are several beers on tap, including the bar’s own Revolutionary Ale. Cocktails change seasonally, but perennially popular ones are the Connecticut Mule and Liberty Lemonade in the summer, hot buttered rum in the winter, and the Bloody Mary all year round. Tavern food is served from 2:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily, and includes award-winning New England clam chowder.
New England Brewing Company
Brewed with Citra hops, New England Brewing Co.’s Fuzzy Baby Ducks pours with a hazy orange color and tastes like big, juicy citrus fruits. Think of mango, orange, and pineapple. But just because it’s hazy doesn’t mean it’s bitter; the flavor is wonderfully restrained.
A conversation about Louis’ Lunch is never simple. Is it the birthplace of the hamburger? Supposedly, one day in 1900, a gentleman hurriedly told proprietor Louis Lassen "he was in a rush and wanted something he could eat on the run," resulting in a blend of ground steak trimmings between two slices of toast, with which the gentleman was sent on his way. But was this a "burger," or was it a "sandwich" — because it wasn't a ground-beef patty on some form of yeast bun? Sandwich, hamburger, whatever. So what do you get at Louis' today? A flame-broiled burger made in a vertical hinged-steel wire gridiron that cooks the burgers on both sides at the same time; a hamburger sandwich supposedly made from a blend of five cuts of ground steak. If you want condiments, you’ll have to ask. Otherwise, all you’ll get is cheese, tomato, and onion. No mustard, ketchup, or mayo. But do you really need all that? You can practically taste the nostalgia. And that never disappoints.
Photo by Annie W. via Yelp
The best Chinese food in Connecticut can be found at three humble food carts in New Haven run by a husband-and-wife duo. Since 1998, they’ve been dishing up classics like roast pork noodle soup from cart one, stir-fried noodles at cart two, and Taiwanese-style Chinese dishes like rice with meat sauce and stewed egg from cart three. This is the real deal, and if you live in or near New Haven, set aside your next three (or 20) lunch hours to sample the offerings.
Yelp/ Mary M.
Sugar is a mother-daughter team who have combined their knowledge of baking and passion for decadent dessert to create delicious cupcakes like their signature cannoli — vanilla cupcake, chocolate chip cannoli cream filling, vanilla buttercream, and mini morsels. Other flavors include wedding cake, apple pie, and trick or treat!
The Spigot in Hartford is surrounded by shiny, new bars, which makes this dive all the more charming. Their beer on tap ranges from your classic Miller Lite to regional offerings such as DuClaw. This bar comes with all the dive classics, like TVs on the wall, well-worn dart boards, and a jukebox.
This retro diner draws people for its world-class chicken pot pie and its wonderful doughnuts. The selection is concise, but no huge range is needed when they’re all made so perfectly. Try a cinnamon-sugar doughnut, which will probably still be warm from the fryer, cakey on the inside, and crunchy and sugary on the outside, just as it should be.
Caseus was already extremely popular as a cheese shop and bistro, so the next logical step was to take the show on the road. Enter The Cheese Truck, which capitalizes on Caseus’ delectable dairy by serving the classic American meal of grilled cheese and tomato soup. Only $5 will get you the standard sandwich, which is anything but ordinary. It contains a blend of provolone, Swiss, Comté, Gruyère, Gouda, and sharp Cheddar — and this is before you get to the add-ons like guacamole, hot cherry peppers, Berkshire pulled pork, and bacon. Want soup with your meal? That’ll run you $7 — for both the soup and the sandwich! Eat 10 sandwiches with the add-on of your choice in under 60 minutes and they’ll name it after you, give you a T-shirt, and put your picture on the menu board.
Facebook/ Stew Leonard's
Dan R. via Yelp
What started as a humble hot dog truck is now a full-blown Fairfield institution, with good reason: These are some insanely delicious hot dogs. “Super Doop” owner Gary Zemola makes all the chili and condiments from scratch, and they go atop a hot dog that’s split before it hits the griddle, allowing maximum flat-top exposure. Dogs are modeled after Zemola’s interpretations of regional styles, including the Chicagoan, the Californian, the Cincinnatian, and the New Yorker, but the true standout is the New Englander, an ode to the classic regional dog topped with sauerkraut, bacon, mustard, sweet relish, and raw onion. It’s indeed super duper.
This community in the famously posh town of Greenwich may be the last place you’d expect to find real Mexican takeout food. But at El Charrito, Carlos and Alex Terrón, who also run a popular food truck in neighboring (and more Hispanic) Stamford, have brought southwestern Connecticut a standard of Mexican cooking usually found only in urban Texas or California. The wide variety of taco fillings ranges from chicken, shrimp, and spicy pork adobada to pig’s ear, tripe, and cow’s tongue. The carnitas tacos are typical: a couple of flavorful steamed corn tortillas with a scattering of sweet, crispy pork bits, minced onions, cilantro, and lime segments on the side to squeeze over everything.
This old-school Italian joint has been a New Haven legend since it opened nearly 80 years ago, and it’s still going strong on Wooster Street today. All the red sauce staples are represented here, but it’s the lasagna that the locals swear by. Pasta sheets, ground beef, ricotta cheese, and tomato sauce are layered, and it’s all baked with a melty topping of mozzarella. It’s lasagna perfection.
Facebook/ Frank Pepe's of New Haven
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana is a checklist destination, one you’ll have to make a pilgrimage to if you want to discuss the topic of America's best pizza with any authority. The New Haven icon opened in Wooster Square in 1925, offering classic Napoletana-style pizza made by an Italian-American immigrant. After arriving in the United States in 1909 at the age of 16, Frank Pepe (watch him at work in this video) took odd jobs before opening his original restaurant (the location, now called "The Spot," is now an adjunct to the main Pepe's location).
There are now eight locations around Connecticut, one in New York State, and one in Boston, operated by Pepe’s 10 great-grandchildren (all of whom use the original recipe to make their coal-fired pizza), with another pizzeria scheduled to open in Waterbury any day now.
Two words you should know at Frank Pepe: clam pie. This is a Northeastern pizza genre unto its own, and Pepe's is the best of all — freshly shucked, briny littleneck clams, an intense dose of garlic, olive oil, oregano, and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano atop a charcoal-colored crust. The advanced move? Clam pie with bacon. Of course, Pepe’s summer special, their seasonal “fresh tomato pie” made with locally grown tomatoes, is worth its own trip (and the addition of shrimp to a tomato pie is an under-hyped gem of a combination).
No matter what you’re thinking of ordering, expect to wait in line if you get there after 11:30 a.m. on a weekend.
As the name suggests, this small, coastal New England restaurant and bar is famous for its oysters. They’re shucked at the tiny raw bar, and the day’s offerings are scrawled on a driftwood chalkboard. With six draft beers, 200 wines by the bottle and 16 by the glass, a range of spirits focused on whiskey, and eight signature cocktails, The Oyster Club offers a tipple to suit all tastes. Chef James Wayman is plugged in to all the best producers in eastern Connecticut, and his handwritten, daily-changing, farm- and-sea-to-table menu offers everything from 100-day dry-aged beef to pan-fried local smelts to the popular Beriah Lewis Farm beef burger (seared on cast iron and served with Grafton Cheddar, smoky bacon, black pepper aïoli, house pickles, and a Farm to Hearth Bakery brioche bun with house-cut fries.) There's a nose-to-tail aspect to the cooking, too; recent offerings have included smoky pork liver mousse with pickled garlic and roasted pork and kidney sausage with burnt-bread aïoli and creamed dehydrated beets. Simpler fare, much of it wood-grilled, is served in summer months in an open-air Treehouse upstairs.
Yelp/ Clemens W.
This legendary BYOB counter-service restaurant on the Mystic River has been steaming lobsters since 1947 in cast-iron low-pressure steam ovens, and it’s only open during the summer months. Their lobster rolls come in a few varieties: First, there’s the lobster salad roll, cold lobster tossed with celery and a mayo-based dressing in a toasted split top bun. Then there’s the piece de resistance: their Famous hot Lobster Roll, a full quarter-pound of lobster meat (a little more than what you'd get out of one whole small lobster), drenched in butter and heaped on a toasted, sesame seed-topped hamburger bun. Want more lobster? Get the OMG Hot Lobster Roll, which packs in almost half a pound, or the LOL Hot Lobster Roll, which contains a full pound of lobster meat.
The state’s best seafood shack is also home to the state’s best sandwich. Abbot’s Lobster in the Rough maintains a digital countdown clock on their website of the amount of time remaining until they serve their last lobster of the season — a very convenient reminder, because you do not want to miss out on this. Abbott’s has been in business for more than a half-century, and they put a spin on lobster rolls by low steaming them and serving them hot with melted-on butter — not that it makes them scrimp on buttering the roll. Local oysters are on offer, too.
Yelp/ Brigit C.
This seasonal roadside seafood shack is about as legit as it gets, and has been a shoreline destination for more than 60 years. Their lobster rolls and fried clams are second to none, but it’s their clam chowder that sets this joint apart from the pack. Available in both Rhode Island and creamy New England styles, both chowders are equally delicious; the Rhode Island version won 2016’s Chowdafest.
David Burke Prime via Yelp
The best steakhouse in Connecticut is tucked away inside the gleaming and expansive Foxwoods Resort Casino. Executive chef Pedro Avila dry-ages his steaks on site in a salt-brick aging room, and the overall experience can compete with any of the best steakhouses in New York. Steaks age from 28 to up to 45 days, and the 55-day dry-aged ribeye for two is an absolute masterpiece. The menu is rounded out by live lobsters, massive shellfish towers, prime rib, and playful appetizers including surf and turf dumplings and candied bacon. For more states, check out our ultimate guide to the best food and drink in every state for 2018.